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The #1 Myth about Generation Y

Here’s something interesting we’ve learned in our research. One of the questions we ask people every single day is this: “Are you loyal to your employer?”

If you ask the oldest, most experienced people, “Are you loyal to your employer?” they begin waxing philosophical. They say, “Well, loyalty is my core value. I’ve based my whole life and career on loyalty. But, gee, nowadays it’s hard to know what to do because it seems like loyalty is dead.”

If you ask Baby Boomers and older Generation Xers, “Are you loyal to your employer?” they usually say this: “Yes. No. Yes and no. It depends on what you mean by loyal.”

However, younger  persons are more more likely to say “Yes.” Now we were very surprised by that. We say in our interviews, “Are you loyal to your employer?” And they say, “Yes.”

I’ll ask, “Are you sure? Because I thought you were going to say ‘no.’” And they insist, “I'm very loyal!” And then I might say to them, “Well, where do you think you'll be in six or 12 months?” And they say, “Oh, well, that depends on my best offer.”

We call this “just-in-time loyalty.” It's not the kind of loyalty you get in a kingdom, where people follow rites of passage, where they have blind fealty to a hierarchy. It’s the kind of loyalty you get in a free market. What do you get in a free market? Whatever you can negotiate

The way Gen Yers think about employment relationships is short-term and transactional. But that doesn’t mean they’re disloyal. Gen Yers are loyal, but they’re loyal to you as if you were a customer. It’s the same kind of loyalty you have to your customers and clients. If they stop paying, well, you’ll probably stop delivering services and products. No hard feelings; that’s just the deal.

Gen Y loyalty isn’t the old-fashioned, long-term, pay-your-dues and climb the ladder kind of loyalty. If you try to get Gen Yers to make lots of short-term sacrifices now in exchange for vague promises about long-term rewards that may or may not happen in the deep, distant future, it’s just not going to work.

Here’s what several young people we interviewed had to say:

“They asked me to bend over backwards and jump through hoops today. When I asked them what I get, they told me, ‘Well in five years you get this, in 10 years you get this, in 15 years you get this.’ I felt like they were—what’s that expression?— trying to sell me a bridge.”

Another said, “I know they think they are the masters of the universe, but gee, the Soviet Union disappeared overnight. So, no hard feelings, but I’d like to know what you have for me today, tomorrow, and next week.”

Another young person said, “My boss keeps telling me, ‘Stick with me kid and this is where you’ll be in five years.’ I'm dying to turn around and say to this guy, ‘I hate to tell you, pal, but you don't know where you’re going to be in five years.’”

What I love about that is: Who’s right?

To tell the truth, the old-fashioned, long-term, pay-your-dues, climb-the-ladder kind of loyalty doesn’t make a lot of sense in today’s highly uncertain world. It may make a lot more sense to think short-term and transactional. And remember: Generation Yers have never known it any other way.

About the Author(s)

Bruce Tulgan is the founder of RainmakerThinking, Inc. (www.rainmakerthinking.com), a management training firm. He is the author of Managing Generation X as well as the best-seller It’s Okay to be the Boss, and other books, including Not Everyone Gets a Trophy: How to Manage Generation Y.