Guest Column - May/June 2008

Generation Gap

Can Baby Boomers Deal with Boomers' Babies?

By Spencer Toomey

s technology changes and people come into and go out of the workforce, one thing remains constant: the importance of retaining good employees. It is the "how" that is changing, and it is about to get worse. The baby boomers, also known as "helicopter parents," have to deal with their own creations—their own kids—Generation Y.

So how did this happen? Well, does this sound like you? You were very obsessed with your children and knew they could never fail. You planned their lives from the delivery room; you had their schools lined up, along with the sports they were going to play, the instruments they were going to learn, the clubs they would join, and, if you could help it, they would never fail.

It starts off innocently enough. You coached the Little League team or, at the very least, shuttled them to practice and games, signed them up for music lessons, art classes, etc. You then became involved in school activities, volunteering for everything starting at preschool and right through high school.

You inflate their egos. No one ever loses in a game; everyone gets a trophy. (Participation trophies are the most common.) You give them parties for everything—end of season, graduation—from preschool through high school.

Now the college search starts, and it is the "helicopter parents" who call the schools, make the appointments, go on the interviews, write their children's essays, and as they approach graduation, write their resumes and call the college career counselors asking why their child didn't get the job.

Then there is the job search. This is where the "helicopter parents" kick it into high gear. This is what they have been working toward since the delivery room—getting their child the best job. Now, helping your children is a good thing—to a point. Sharing your experience and understanding of the job market is very helpful. Offering to contact people you know to help with networking is also good. But going on the job interview or calling back the company to negotiate a better salary or benefits crosses the line.

And now Generation Y, including the so-called echo boomers (the children born between 1989 and 1993 when, for the first time since 1964, live births in the United States exceeded 4 million), who were over-managed and pressured and treated by their parents as pieces of fragile crystal or something that could somehow shatter at any point, are entering the marketplace and are going to work for you.

Who are these Generation Y employees anyway? Well, it is confession time: I am a modified helicopter parent. I haven't gone over the top, but on the "copter check list," I will admit to checking off a lot of boxes. So here is what I see as a parent of three college-age children and as an employer conducting interviews with employee candidates from Generation Y.

They hate e-mail. It's too slow, too much work, too "old school." Scary, isn't it? They will talk to you or their friends on the phone—as a last resort. They much prefer "texting." Probably because cell-phone conversations are banned during class, they found text messages a way to stay in touch when they were not supposed to be "in touch." They are OK with instant messaging, but that takes into account another process, so they prefer texting unless they have multiple conversations going on at once. Of course, if you try to converse with them by instant message, you'd better know the code or you will be lost, and your Webster Dictionary will probably not help you. If they do happen to send you an e-mail, it is grammar-optional.

This is a true story: I was interviewing for a sales administrator position. A very bright Gen Y person came in to interview. The first thing that I noticed was that at 24 years old, she already had six jobs on her resume. When I asked her about this, she had no problem telling me how she "tried out" these jobs—kind of like the Whitman Sampler approach, take a bite of the many different flavors and if you don't like it, move on to the next one. My next question to her, since her background was marketing and we were a sales division, was, why was she applying for a sales position when she had a background in marketing? Without blinking an eye, she told me that she knew that, but she wanted to work for the company, and she was going to use my division as a stepping-stone to get into marketing. No, I didn't hire her, but whether it was her honesty or lack of understanding of the business or the result of a 'helicopter" upbringing, she had no idea that she was saying anything wrong.