Q&A: Bruce Tulgan on Managing Gen Y

Bruce Tulgan
February 16, 2009

Bruce Tulgan

Founder of RainmakerThinking, Inc. and Top Expert on Leadership Development and Generational Issues in the Workplace

Bruce Tulgan is an expert on managing young people and the author of the bestsellers It’s Okay To Be The Boss and Managing Generation X. He recently spoke with Premiere about the challenges and opportunities when managing the youngest generation of workers, Generation Y.


The title of your new book is Not Everyone Gets A Trophy: How To Manage Generation Y. What is the title trying to get across? What is the basic message of your book?

The title is a reference to the fact that Generation Y is the generation of kids where every kid did get a trophy, just for participating. So many so-called “experts” have jumped onto the bandwagon of this topic, but our research shows that most of these so-called “experts” have got it all wrong. In many recent books and articles, many of these “experts” argue that, since Gen Yers have always gotten a trophy just for showing up, maybe the best way to manage them is to give them lots of praise and, basically, give them a trophy just for showing up. These “experts” tell managers to create “thank-you” programs, “praise” programs, and “reward” programs. They recommend turning recruiting into one long sales pitch; transforming the workplace into a veritable playground; rearranging training so it revolves around interactive computer gaming; encouraging young workers to find a “best friend” at work; and teaching managers to soft-pedal their authority. In my view, this approach is out of touch with reality, especially in today’s environment.

My message is simple: The high-maintenance Generation Y workforce calls for strong leadership, not weak. This is a good time for managers and leaders to be giving GenYers a wake-up call about realistic expectations. Managers should never undermine their authority; should never pretend that the job is going to be more fun than it is; never suggest that a task is within the discretion of a Gen Yer if it isn’t; never gloss over details; never let problems slide; and should never offer praise and rewards for performance that is not worthy of them. Instead, managers should spell out the rules of their workplace in vivid detail so Gen Yers can play that job like a video game: if you want A, you have to do B. If you want C, you have do D, and so on.

Your new book is based on more than a decade of research. Tell us about your research?

I’ve been conducting in-depth interviews with young people in the workplace steadily since 1993. That was shortly before the oldest Gen Yers—those on the cusp of Generation X—started arriving in the workplace as teenagers. Since then, we’ve followed Gen Yers as they have become the new young workforce and have been developing a comprehensive picture of who they are, how they became that way, and what motivates them.

This book is about Generation Y. Exactly who or what is Generation Y?

Although demographers often differ about the exact parameters of each generation, there is a general consensus that the generation preceding Generation Y, i.e. Generation X, ends with the birth year 1977. Based on that, some suggest anyone born between 1978 and 2000 belongs in the Millennial Generation. Given the accelerating pace of change, I think this group is too large. I prefer to break the so-called Millennials into two cohorts: Generation Y (people born between 1978 and 1990) and, for now, Generation Z (anyone born between 1991 and 2000). The oldest among Generation Y are reaching their thirties, but this book is really about the heart of Generation Y, those born during the Reagan years, who grew up mostly in the 1990s, came of age in the 2000s, and are filling up the youth bubble in today’s workforce.  Here’s the short story with Generation Y. If you liked Generation X, you are going to love Generation Y. Generation Y is like Generation X on-fast-forward-with-self-esteem-on-steroids.

Is this really about generational difference or is it just about being young? Is one generation really so different from another? What makes Generation Y unique?

Part of it is certainly about the natural life stages, or developmental stages, that all young people go through. At the early adulthood--early career stage--of life, young people are just learning to break away from the care of others and taking steps toward self-sufficiency and responsibility. Some do it more slowly than others. As they move into the adult world with the energy and enthusiasm--and lack of experience--that is natural at that stage, they are bound to clash with more mature generations. What makes each generation different are the accidents of history that shape the larger world in which human beings move through their developmental life stages.

So then, what are the accidents of history that have shaped Generation Y?

The same major historical forces that shaped Generation X are also shaping Generation Y: Globalization and technology, institutions in a state of constant flux, the information tidal wave, and the growing immediacy of everything. But those forces have picked up so much velocity in just one generation that I would argue there is a profound difference in the life experience of Generation Y—a true generational shift. Gen Yers have never known the world any other way. Uncertainty is their natural habitat.

Why are Gen Yers so confident and self-possessed, even in the face of all this uncertainty?

One reason is surely that they grew up in the Decade of the Child. Generation Y was the great over-supervised generation. Making children feel great about themselves and building up their self-esteem became the dominant theme in parenting, teaching, and counseling.  In fact, as children, most Gen Yers simply showed up and participated—and actually did get a trophy.  Every step of the way, Gen Yers’ parents have guided, directed, supported, coached, and protected them. Gen Yers have been respected, nurtured, scheduled, measured, discussed, diagnosed, medicated, programmed, accommodated, included, awarded, and rewarded as long as they can remember. Their parents, determined to create a generation of superchildren, perhaps accelerated their childhood. On one hand, kids grow up so fast today (I often say that twelve is the new nineteen); on the other, they seem to stay tightly moored to their parents throughout their twenties. Their early precociousness, in fact, turns into a long-lasting sophomorism. Many psychologists have observed that Gen Yers act like highly precocious late adolescents well into adulthood. (I often say that thirty is the new twenty.)

Is it true that Generation Y is the most diverse generation in history?

Yes. Generation Y is the most diverse in terms of ethnic heritage, geographical origins, ability and disability, age, language, lifestyle preference, sexual orientation, color, size and every other way of categorizing people. And they take the concept of diversity to a whole new level. (I call it infinite or total diversity.) To Gen Yers, every single person, with his or her own combination of background, traits and characteristics, is his or her own unique diversity story. For Generation Y, difference is cool. Uniqueness is the centerpiece of identity.

For information on how to book an event with Bruce Tulgan, visit www.premierespeakers.com/bruce_tulgan.

Not Everyone Gets A Trophy

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