A less-stressed work force – managing Generation X employees

Roberta Maynard

They don’t climb corporate ladders. The treadmill is not for them–except during a workout. Seeking excitement and overall fulfillment, they’ll walk away from too much work or too much stress if it threatens to rule their lives. They are the members of Generation X–young adults born after 1964. And though many so-called Xers are now workplace veterans, managers are still struggling to find effective ways to supervise them.

Greg Matusky, 35, says he often has to suppress notions associated with his own baby-boom generation when managing his firm’s seven employees–five of them under 30. President of Gregory Communications, his public-relations firm in Ardmore, Pa., Matusky just barely qualifies as a baby boomer. But he sees himself as having stereotypical boomer work traits: He’s a go-getter with a formal approach to management.

Matusky says the strategies that motivated him in the early 1980s, when he was employed by a major corporation, simply don’t work now. “The times I’ve tried to create competitive situations [among Generation X workers], it’s failed,” he says. “But when I’ve said, `I need your help,’ they’ve responded…. They’ll give you their all if you make them part of the mission.”

“People who are in their 20s today aren’t as driven” as boomers, says Claire Raines, a Denver management consultant specializing in Generation X. She also is co-author, with Lawrence J. Bradford, of Twenty-Something: Managing and Motivating Today’s New Work Force (Master-Media Ltd., $12.95). “They view their parents as workaholics,” says Raines, “and they saw the price their parents paid. They want more balance.”

Matusky says that at his firm, “working evenings and weekends is off-limits.” Whether it’s because of the fragility of job security or other concerns, he says, many younger employees have decided “to treat a job as only a piece of their lives.”

Bridgit Smith has worked for Matusky for two years. She’s 24, has a bachelor’s degree in marketing, and plans to get a master’s degree. But when she has a family, she says, she won’t want to sacrifice it for the job; she wants to enjoy both. In fact, though single, she already wants a more flexible work schedule so she can pursue other interests, which include cooking and biking.

Such workplace issues raised by the attitudes of many Xers are difficult, and consultants are doing a brisk business helping companies sort them out. The Wendy’s fast-food chain, based in Dublin, Ohio, asked Raines’ advice on attracting and retaining Generation X workers.

In the company-owned restaurants–one-third of the 4,800 Wendy’s nationwide–about 73 percent of the workers are Xers.

Raines worked with Wendy’s on a training program for managers. Implemented last year, the program focuses on matters that, according to research, are important to Generation Xers, such as whether there’s a sense of fun in the workplace, recognition for good work cross-training and self-development, and provisions for flexible scheduling.

Small companies are also seeking help on such workplace concerns, says Generation Xer Bruce Tulgan, who quit his job as a Wall Street lawyer to teach businesses about Generation X workers. Tulgan is the author of Managing Generation X (Merritt Publishing, $19.95) and is CEO of Rainmaker, Inc., a New Haven, Conn., consulting firm that helps companies improve their connections with their Generation X workers. Here are some of his suggestions:

* Focus on results, not processes.

* Set clear deadlines for tangible results.

* Treat Xers’ questions as opportunities to teach.

* Give them freedom to manage their own time end work; avoid micromanaging.

* Provide opportunities to interact with others; Xers work well in teams.

* Expect Xers to thrive in corporate cultures that value the individual.

* Support the quest to learn and improve skills. They see their resume–not the system–as their ticket to job security.

* Provide constant feedback that is specific and accurate.

* Celebrate successes.

Generation Xers want to make a meaningful contribution. “I like having responsibility and being in charge of my own destiny” says Smith of Gregory Communications. “I don’t know if I’d dike lots of bureaucracy and politics. By working for a small company, you have more opportunity to prove yourself.”

Her boss, Matusky, gives his young employees direct client contact and ways to expand their knowledge. “I think they’re looking for ways to develop themselves,” he says. “As an employer, you’ve got to feed that need.” Managers who insist on having Gen Xers pay their dues with busywork risk losing them.

Xers’ nondeferential attitude toward authority particularly confounds old-school managers, says consultant Raines. Gen Xers continue to challenge managers about why they should do a certain task–even after they’ve been given a reason–if they don’t see the sense of it, she says. “I have managers constantly complaining to me that there isn’t the fear [of bosses]. That’s what my work is all about–talking to frustrated managers.”

But Gen Xers aren’t carefree about their future. “There’s a lot of fear among Xers because the old [workplace] paradigms are gone,” says Leslie Evans, vice president of Goodrich & Sherwood Associates, a human-resources consulting firm in New York City. “Boomers still had a paradigm of models. They were the transition generation. They started breaking down structures; they paved the way for Generation Xers, who are building from the ground up. Xers will have to make it up as they go along.”

In fact, as work becomes more oriented to technology and information, there are segments of the generation that may not farewell, says Evans. “For those who aren’t as creative, who aren’t self-sustaining, the security of the system is gone. The change will be great for people who can embrace it and difficult for those who can’t.”

What Do You Think?

Do you have insights on managing Generation X employees? Fax us your comments at (202) 463-3102. We will consider them for a possible follow-up article on the subject.

COPYRIGHT 1996 U.S. Chamber of Commerce

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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