Bruce Tulgan published his first book about young people in the workplace when he was 27 and arguing on behalf of his own generation. After fifteen years of working with business leaders in companies ranging from Aetna to Wal-Mart, he felt this was the right time to present business leaders, managers, and other grown-ups with a reality check about "Generation Y" employees (those born 1978 and later). And so, at 42, he has assessed the new generation of young workers.
I have rarely resisted a book more. Not because of the book, which is lively and wise and provocative, but because of the attitudes that Tulgan attributes to this generation. I loathed these kids, even though I felt like some descendant of Spiro Agnew ranting against hippies. Bruce knew all about that position --- and why I had it. So when we got together to discuss his book, he not only had a smart answer for every question, he had a trenchant analysis of his interrogator. And, perhaps, you as well.
Jesse Kornbluth: Reading this book now, with unemployment rising and rising, I kept thinking: Bruce wrote this book in a different world. The book is an artifact of a time forever past. For example, you write, "You're not the only one selecting. The employee is selecting you too." That's so 2007 to me.
Bruce Tulgan: Sorry, but it's still true. Ask anyone in health care --- the demand for skilled talent still outpaces supply in certain industries. There will be many casualties ahead, many young kids can't get hired, but competition for the best people will always be fierce. Remember, the title of my book is 'Not Everyone Gets a Trophy' --- not" `cater to the young upstarts.' My message is about giving a wake-up call to the young upstarts. The terrible economy may be just the opportunity managers need in order to make it stick.
JK: You write about the kid who says, "Surfing is really important to me. If the waves are big, I might not come in." Isn't the right response: "Great. Here's the rest of your life to go surfing. See ya..."
BT: If this young person is the best person for the job -- besides being really annoying -- then the right thing for the hiring manager to do is to use the surfing as a quid pro quo. GenYers are very transactional in their thinking. Their parents have been negotiating with them since they were very young with small incremental rewards. Use that to your advantage. Trade the surfing with this young person in exchange for getting tons of work done very well, very fast all day long when he's not surfing.
JK: Yes, but. In 2009 reality, if I didn't have a job, I wouldn't feel that choosy. Why do these kids think they're so valuable?
BT: Well, they may find out they can't be so choosy in this economy. Still, there's a paradox here --- in an environment of uncertainty and rapid change, the playing field is leveled. Long-term payoff no longer is the game. And these kids are smart in a new way. They have more information at their fingertips than any generation in history. They've never been in an environment in which they couldn't find the answer fast. And they are willing to do tons of grunt work very well very fast --- as long as they know somebody is keeping track.
JK: Still, there's a protocol in organizations, and it starts with an appreciation for the hierarchy and the elders. Who told these kids that the rules didn't apply?
BT: Throughout the '60s, '70s and '80s, there was a lot of research about childhood self-esteem. And then came a shift from parents being groovy to kids being over-parented. In the '90s, every kid was a winner at something --- every kid got a trophy just for showing up.
JK: This also makes me want to puke. But you say it like it's a neutral fact.
BT: I'm not in the "good news, bad news" business. I'm just describing the way it is. My personal view: The self-esteem experts are wrong in many respects. They argue that because this generation of kids has been raised this way, we must continue to praise them and find things for them to do that they like. I argue the exact opposite in my book. I believe that most of the experts have it all wrong. And that's the reason companies hire me: I come in and say, `The way to deal with unrealistic expectations is to help show the young upstarts what expectations are realistic. Make the quid pro quo explicit every step of the way.'
JK: Do you say this when kids are in the room?
BT: Yes. And they love it.
JK: Why? Aren't you saying: The party's over?
BT: No. I say: drive a hard bargain. Make expectations clear. Set them up for success. Help them earn more of what they need and want. But hold them accountable every step of the way. Don't tell them they are winners when they are not. But help them win, for real. I'm telling their bosses to say, "You don't want to work on Thursday? Then here's what I need by midnight on Wednesday."
JK: If you made these deals, I'm betting that the manager's inbox will be empty at midnight on Wednesday.
BT: Then hold that person accountable. If you take the time to try to teach them how to succeed, acknowledging the transactional relationship, and then shine the bright light of scrutiny on their performance, it is much easier to hold that person accountable when he fails to perform. After the first empty inbox, maybe you take away the surfing. After your inbox is empty a second time, you might have a difficult conversation. After the third time, maybe it's time to take away the paycheck. But first you have to put in the time up front to try to really try to teach that person how to meet expectations. You have to put in the time to teach that person how to succeed.
JK: That goes against the grain for me. You write about the kid who says, "Surfing is really important to me. If the waves are big, I might not come in." And I think the right response is: "Great. Here's the rest of your life to go surfing. See ya..."
BT: You have to hire someone to do the work. If you send the surfer off to surf, then you'll probably just get another high maintenance young applicant in his place. But remember many young people in this labor market still have plenty of negotiating power. The more schooling you need to do a job, the more leverage the kid has with the employer.
JK: This is a first for me --- I'm taking the side of Management.
BT: You're not. You're taking the side of grownups. But I also say: If you do the transactional math, it may be better to let a high performing upstart take Thursday off and bring his dog to work if that means you get better work out of him. You have to negotiate every step of the way.
JK: But what about: If you give a mouse a cookie...?
BT: It does seem poor taste that Gen Y-ers think of employment relationships as so short-term and transactional, but I teach managers to use that attitude to get more and better work out of every person.
JK: As a boomer, I find this hard to swallow. I feel I should call their parents.
BT: But their parents are likely to be calling you! In our interviews, I hear stories every day about parents calling the boss. At a public safety conference a fire chief told me this story about a young man who became a fireman. After a few weeks his mother called to say he had been working the night shift and he had a hard time sleeping during the day and so he was exhausted all the time. The fire chief snapped, "Ma'am, your son is a fireman" --- and hung up.
JK: If you had to choose between hiring/firing a 23-year-old Gen Y-er who thought he/she was the greatest thing since sliced bread and a 45-year-old who has a family to support and is infinitely grateful for the job, who would you choose?
BT: You need more information to do the business math. All things being equal, maybe you hire the grown-up. But you need more information to know who you really want to hire. I remind employers: Gen Y-ers walk around with a flashing neon sign on their forehead saying "I'm a special case."
JK: And I, of course, think that sign should be on their back: "Kick me hard."
BT: Baby boomers had this attitude too. But they kept it to themselves when they were young. They kept their heads down and mouths shut. But they tell me every day in our interviews, "Hey I want flexibility too. I want a lot of the things that these kids are demanding... and I've been here for thirty years!" Everyone's a special case. It's just that some people are better at hiding it than others. Today's young workers are just really unaware that they seem like such squeaky wheels.