Anxiety: The Epidemic Sweeping Through Generation Y

Young people today have more choices than previous generations and the result seems to be an increase in anxiety levels.

Key quote: “So, what’s going on? The rise of technology, overly-protective parenting and “exam-factory” schooling are among the reasons psychologists suggest for our generational angst. Another, brought up on multiple occasions by my peers and by psychologists I spoke to, is the luxury (as ungrateful as it sounds) of too much choice.”

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Globalism and Generation Y


During a morning tea break at a training seminar I was running a young man from Generation Y asked me if the coffee provided was “fair trade”. I told him I was unsure to which he replied he’d rather skip the coffee just in case. An isolated incident? In my work with Generation Y I’ve seen many of them get passionate about global issues affecting consumer products, environmentalism and justice for the poor and oppressed.

True, Generation Y are not entirely unique in this trait. The inherent idealism of youth has long seen them at the forefront of many opposition movements to social and political injustices, although the difference with this generation is that they see the world as a much smaller, interconnected place. Through the internet and social media they can be informed of what is occurring in real time and can immediately express their views online through a blog or something as simple as a facebook “like”. In short they have a belief that they can make a difference regardless of how far geographically they may be removed from the issue.

This global awareness and responsibility is accentuated by the concern for a future that appears increasingly uncertain amidst environmental, economic and political issues that are played out before them daily.

However, importantly for businesses, globalism is affecting Generation Y beyond the boundaries of the issues themselves.  They have a distrust of institutions and a dislike of political game playing. They would rather mediate than polarise, and will stand for any issue that promotes tolerance and equality for all.

When it comes to employment, a company’s ethos, values and culture are important to them. They want to work for businesses that are socially and environmentally responsible—ones in which profit is not the only bottom line.  They want to do work that is meaningful and has purpose—even work that makes a difference in people’s lives. They also prefer to work in places where hierarchies do not exclude people or make them feel second class. They want access to decision makers in order to present their views.

When it comes to networking and the exchange of ideas, they are not limited by traditional geographical and cultural boundaries. Through the internet they can access boundless ideas and personal contacts and will use these in developing their own suggestions for improving productivity and effectiveness. In short, they are likely to see your business in a global context more easily than you and will help you to capitalise on this context if given the opportunity to do so.


Consumerism and Generation Y


I vaguely recall the day my parents bought our first TV.  It was delivered and set up, ready to go. The odd thing was we never thought to ask, “Where’s the remote control?” Why? Because there was only one  channel! Years later a second channel was added but even then it never occurred to us to desire a remote. We’d simply stand up, walk over to the television and turn the knob. Nowadays when I want to change channels I can search for ages to find my remote, even though I still only need to “turn the knob”! And when I find it I can channel surf, “clicking” every time I want to watch a different channel or when the advertisements begin.

This is consumerism: I don’t like this anymore—I’ll try something else… “click”. We see it not only in our TV watching habits, but every time we visit the store: aisles and aisles of products that are the same yet different. We see it in the mp3 players that replace a radio station’s choice of music for us and allow us to create our own playlists which we skip through at will.

But consumerism is about more than the choices alone. It’s about the status conferred on us by others when we have the latest and best, and customising what we have in order to make it unique and still desirable. At it’s heart consumerism is about the belief that more choices lead to more happiness.

Generation Y have grown up in a world of choices, and with it has been the ability to make those choices quickly and painlessly. All it takes is a “click” and their world is just as they want it to be again. By the time they reach the workforce they are trained to expect choices and to know what they like and don’t like. The ability to choose hours of work, location of work and other benefits are high on their list of expectations, and even if such choices appear impractical in the minds of their employers, they will nonetheless push for them or look for them elsewhere in another job, an action which is, in and of itself, consumerism.

To understand this mindset we must realise that they take on a job asking themselves, not how they might contribute to make our business a successful business, but how the business might make them a successful employee. We can fight this or see it as an opportunity to get what we want — an employee who is motivated to work hard albeit for a different end than ours.

Finally consumerism has led Generation Y to be highly suspicious of anything that looks like a “sell”. What they value highly in any company is transparency, genuineness and vulnerability, and will look for it not only in their boss but in the company ethos and practice as a whole.


Education and Generation Y

If there was one thing that was made clear to my generation at school it was that the teacher was in charge.  Not only did they remind us of that when it came to discipline, but the whole structure of the learning experience was designed to reinforce that fact. They were the “experts”. Our role was to sit, listen and learn. The ability to understand, memorise and apply was all that was required to succeed.

Fast forward forty years and school is a very different place. In most cases a more relaxed, relational feel exists between teacher and student. There is not the same fear of authority among young people and respect accorded the teacher must be earned rather than expected by right as a result of position.

But a greater change has occurred that goes far beyond relationship. It is a change in the process of learning. With society changing so quickly our education system is no longer one that simply teaches young people all they need to know in life.  Yes, there are still core subjects to be learnt, but these aside the focus is increasingly on teaching young people how to learn. This occurs not only because most information needed can be quickly Googled, but because learning is something that continues on throughout their whole lives as knowledge continues to grow.

This need to teach young people how to learn has been changing the role of the teacher. Instead of being the conduit of knowledge dissemination they are increasingly the facilitator of knowledge gathering. This changes education from being “teacher centred” to “student centred” where the young people interact and collaborate in the process of discovering truth for themselves whilst being guided by the teacher.

These changes in education affect the mindset of the Generation Y as they enter the workforce. A manager who simply tells them what to do and then expects blind obedience soon becomes frustrated because they have a suspicion of dogma and a more subjective view of what is “best practice”. Rather than listen and apply they have a tendency to want to question and challenge while seeking to discover better answers . Furthermore they expect the work environment to be something like their best classroom: one in which there is interaction, collaboration and even fun!

This new mindset presents a challenge, yet at the same time it also presents a wonderful opportunity. Managers who are able to create such an environment will attract and create employees who are eager to keep discovering, excel at contributing original ideas and enjoy the dynamics of being part of a team.

The Media and Generation Y

In one sense the media is not something new just to Generation Y. When I was their age I had TV, radio, and music to watch and listen to along with magazines and books to read. Today they have that and more.

The first difference is portability. I recall as a teenager getting my own transistor radio and being able to listen to my music in my own bedroom, away from the rest of the family. Soon after followed the use of a personal cassette player and then my own stereo. Apart from television, my access to the media had moved out of the family living room and into my bedroom and my exposure to it had increased. Yet now that’s nothing! Now I view media anywhere through the screen of my portable tablet: newspapers, magazines, books, TV, radio, and my music collection are all in one place, not to mention video games and computer puzzles. A result of this portability is isolation. With the aid of headphones and my own screen I can entertain myself quite happily alone.

The second noticeable difference is saturation. With multiple TV channels to view, thousands of songs in their pockets, a host of games to play on their laptops, and almost unlimited print material to download in seconds, Generation Y have multiple choices to at all times watch, read or listen to whatever they want.

The third difference is the level of visual stimulation they experience. A small black and white TV has been replaced by a crisp, bright flat screen TV, while movies are in 3D with surround sound and the images and content on both are more violent and provocative than anything available when I was their age.

So how does this affect Generation Y in the workforce? Firstly they have an expectation that work, like the rest of their lives should be entertaining and even fun—and not just the work itself, the people too.

Secondly is the tendency to become bored very easily. Their brains are used to constant stimulation to the point that sitting in an office alone for any length of time and doing work with no external stimulation is just too hard for many.

Thirdly, and more positively, is an ability to multitask or, more accurately, to switch quickly between tasks and regain concentration. You may wonder how they can remain focussed with music playing, texts coming in and facebook feeds updating, and while we might debate the extent to which they actually can, they are certainly able to manage this more efficiently than an older worker and such stimuli can keep them at their task for longer without boredom setting in.


Technology, the Internet and Generation Y


Some time ago I casually mentioned to my Generation Y daughter that I first started using the internet in the year 2000. She looked at me in disbelief. “That’s after I was born!”, she exclaimed. It shocked her to realise that something that had become such an integral part of her life was in fact so “new”.

Technology in general, and the Internet in particular is having a considerable effect on Generation Y, who have grown up with a computer in the house and had internet access in their teens or even younger.  While I am an immigrant to the digital world, these young people are digital natives and were born into it. While I have managed to stay ahead of my own daughters in this technology I know I am in the minority in relation to other parents. For the first time in history perhaps we have a younger generation teaching adults how to use what have become essential tools for life. They are the experts, not just in the family but also in the workplace where they have come to expect the latest technology and software to be available for their use.

At the cutting edge of most technological advancement is speed. We have gone from dialup to broadband and now ultrafast broadband within a matter of a few years, and CPU speeds in computers and tablets are getting faster and faster.

This “need for speed” feeds an expectation that things must happen quickly and that answers are just a click away. Generation Y become impatient with business processes and personal advancement that seem to take a long time. They hate having to wait.

But technology and the internet is not just making them more impatient. There is good evidence to show that it has impacted the way their brains are “wired”.  Not only are they a visual generation growing up in front of various screens, but they are an interactive generation, used to not just looking at content on a screen like their parents did, but interacting with it.  The sheer volume of information and entertainment at their fingertips means they learn to multitask (though not always well), switching incessantly from one stimuli or one web page to another. They become bored quickly, finding linear thought processes dull as they learn to gather information quickly and utilise it creatively without always having developed the capability or patience to synthesise it accurately.

The ability to network quickly and globally leads to a willingness to collaborate in finding answers, as they draw unashamedly on other’s expertise whilst enhancing their own. Managed correctly they can add great insights to the business that employs them.

Relationships and Generation Y


I remember attending a week long national conference for young people when I was about twenty. I had spent all my life living in one city, associating mainly with friends from school whilst developing a few other friends through sport and church – friends I would only communicate with at sport and at church. I recall coming home from that conference and being struck by the fact that I now, for the first time in my life, had friends, not just in my home town, but all over New Zealand. My world had suddenly grown!

Of course a “first” experience such as this at twenty seems foreign to Generation Y. Their world is already big – far bigger than mine was at twenty. While their parents may have had a pen pal, they are the first generation to have a large number of “friends”, many of whom they have never met and may never meet, and with whom they can communicate with 24/7.

This networked world they live in influences their priorities. Relationships are hugely important to them. Significantly, they tend to work to live, rather than live to work and when they are at work, workplace relationships with both colleagues and their supervisor are key factors in job satisfaction and the decision of whether or not to stay with a company or to look for employment elsewhere.

The importance of relationships to them and the opportunity presented by technology to be continually networked to their friends, creates tensions in the workplace. While we might expect them to be fully present in the “real” world and leave the “virtual” world until later, their distinction between these two worlds is not nearly as clear as it is for those who have not grown up with mobile phones, texting and social media. Telling them to ignore the stream of messages is a little like telling someone from my generation to sit in a room with their friends and not talk to them.

While they major on relationships, Generation Y are not always as adept in communicating in the “real” world as in the virtual world—although it must be added, they are not quick to differentiate between the two. For ease, they prefer quick communication via texting or social/digital media than calling on the phone or talking face to face.

However, it must be added that their experience in a 24/7 relational world has some advantages for the employer. By being constantly informed via social media of what their friends are doing, thinking and liking, Generation Y can be an asset to a business in suggesting how to brand and market itself to their generation.



Parenting and Generation Y


I never doubted my parents loved me, although I don’t remember them ever telling me. It was a generation where emotions and affection were not as openly expressed between parent and child. Yet while I received loving care from my parents, I was left in no doubt that I was expected to show respect and obey the direction given me or face the consequences that came with their discipline.

Fast forward a generation and parenting has changed. Respect, direction and discipline, while still important have largely taken a backseat to an emphasis on  nurture, encouragement and friendship. While not all change is bad, different emphases in parenting produces different results and so young people currently entering the workforce do so with assumptions and expectations that can take their employer by surprise.

The first thing to note is their sense of self-belief. They have been bought up in a world where no one loses, everyone gets a prize and they are able to achieve whatever they set their mind to. Consequently they enter the workforce with the expectation that they have a contribution to make and that their ideas will be listened to and appreciated, leading to a promotion that is deservedly just around the corner.

Secondly, Generation Y have come into the workforce with a need to feel valued. They want to know that their manager appreciates them, believes in them, and is committed to helping them achieve. As such they expect regular feedback and will thrive when it is good while struggling to accept even mild constructive criticism

Thirdly, a more casual relationship with parents, friends of parents and teachers sees them enter the workforce without the same sense of respect (fear?) of their boss which previous generations may have had. They are less afraid to challenge authority, express their opinions and disagree openly. If they are dissatisfied with their supervisor they are more likely to appeal their case to their supervisor’s boss. In their mind respect is something to be earned, not something accorded through hierarchy or position.

Finally they enter the workforce with a more ego-centric mindset. In previous generations it was understood that the worker was there to make the company successful. Gen Y has flipped this on its head and expects the company to make them successful! As such they have a tendency consider employment issues from a “what’s best for me and my life” perspective.