How To Engage And Understand Gen Y

Apr 10, 2013 1 Min Read


Photo Source: Jocelyn


Gen Ys are eager to perform!

There are three distinct generational groups in the workforce today – the Baby Boomers, the Generation Xs and Gen Ys. Many senior leaders have often wondered, “What is with these Gen Ys? Why are they so different from us? Why is it so hard to get the Gen Ys to work like us?” In trying to understand and retain the Gen Ys, it is a fallacy to think that they are similar to generations past.

Let’s face it; Gen Ys have been brought up in an entirely different era; one with the boom of technology, the must-have smart phone, a Facebook account, and the real-time information sharing on anything and everything.

What about globalisation? The airline industry contributes too. Today, flying is no more a novelty. Giving everyone an opportunity to fly has created a sense of adventure for every young 20-something.

Many Gen Xs have already started families and had kids, thus have bigger responsibilities like family life and financial stability. What do these mean to the HR manager?

Well, it means the needs and wants of Gen Ys and what’s within their reach are so different from generations past. They are just enjoying their independence and being tied down to a job or family is not a commitment they are ready to make. They thrive on new experiences.

The consolation? All is not lost on the Gen Ys and their individuality. Their uniqueness and identity come with a strong sense of purpose, believing in their community and surroundings, and a need to make things better. They aren’t afraid to ask why, and they are ambitious. The question for every senior leader today is, “How do I get the best out of the Gen Ys, whether to retain the best talent for succession, or to bring innovation and fresh ideas into the organisation?”


High expectations

Gen Ys have been groomed to be competitive, and are expected to go the distance. As recruitment leaders, have you caught yourself asking, “Oh! You have a degree? Great! What else have you done?” These higher expectations have been part and parcel of the Gen Ys’ era. In giving their best, they expect the best in return. These now translate to the employers, job roles and the workplace. Expectation from team leaders and higher management for clear and sound direction and opportunity to interact with senior management are things Gen Ys appreciate. Such practices show the organisation values its staff and appreciates their views.


Gen Ys are hungry to perform. In an era of rapid information and technology change coupled with them being observant, they are absorbing this change daily. Gen Ys are constantly seeking opportunities to learn new things and to contribute to move forward. Clear advancement paths coupled with delivered performance allow Gen Ys to feel their talents and skills are being capitalised, while knowing they are growing on a personal front. Gen Ys are constantly looking for the “what’s next”, whether it is a new project, or job rotation. Today organisations are imbued with the challenge to feed that hunger.

Team players

According to an article in Time, an organisation once hired an entire athletic team because it was fun to be able to work with friends. Friendship and team spirit motivate Gen Ys. Creating an environment which is fun and engaging is a thriving ground for Gen Ys. Team-based work and having a dynamic work environment keep Gen Ys coming back for more. It’s the perception that work and the work place are tied to more than just delivering day to day responsibilities.

A keen sense of questioning

Tradition isn’t lost on Gen Ys; however, they need to understand the reasons for its existence. They are constantly finding new ways to innovate and improve, and do away with old unnecessary ways. Leaders need to be wary of statements like “We’ve always done it this way”. Gen Ys will not be afraid to question the effectiveness of a certain methodology, and seek environments which support these improvements. The recent “Listen” phenomena is an example of the courage Gen Ys would display if they are not confident about facts, figures, or policies.

A need to find purpose, a need to make things better

A sense of purpose attracts Gen Ys. Tying an organisation’s mission to something bigger and a sense of doing good allow Gen Ys to feel like they are part of a bigger cause. Today, Gen Ys are at the crossroad of knowing “the world could do with a little fixing” and are prioritising personal and professional development. This sense of purpose can also be tied with the growth of social enterprises, NGOs and more readily available real-time information on what’s going on in the world today.

Consider how many organisations out there drive leadership and social missions as their agenda and are at the forefront of making a difference. Many of these organisations are being led by Gen Ys or influenced by issues Gen Ys are passionate about. Being able to find a purposeful cause in the workplace while growing as a person professionally helps manage that inner conflict.

Work-life balance

Mention work-life balance, and some leaders will say it’s a myth. Some associate it with shorter hours, therefore getting lesser done. To the different generations, work-life balance takes on different shapes and forms. For Gen Ys, it’s not about cutting hours, but about spending time in a meaningful and useful way. This extends to the concept of working remotely or having flexible working hours.

Gen Ys fail to understand why anyone would want to spend three hours travelling through traffic for a job which can be done from the comfort of home. Visible presence in the office isn’t the determinant as to whether a job will be completed. Employers are being challenged to now think creatively to support this work-life balance.


Surely many HR managers are gearing up to bust the myth of Gen Ys being loyal. Loyalty to Gen Ys however comes in different ways and forms. I’m constantly surrounded by young people who tell me how much they loved their previous employers and how they have had great experiences there. The reason they left was because the opportunity to grow and develop was limited.

The constant search for new challenges meant that they needed to find new opportunities. Today, Gen Ys define loyalty very differently from their employers. Gone are the days when an average employee dedicated 15 to 20 years to one organisation. Gen Ys are looking for both breadth and depth. Knowing it may be the key to retaining the young workers.


Reconsider the bigger picture. Are we expecting Gen Ys to just fit in? Instead, can organisations create room for them to thrive?

Here are some areas to consider:

1 Structure: Get your organisation ready as the employer of choice. Today, to stay ahead, organisations need to be innovative and flexible in what they do, how they do it, and why they do it. Gen Ys are shopping for organisations that can offer the best deal for their needs under one roof.

For organisations: Does your organisation offer challenging job roles while at the same time offer diversity in them? Is mobility within your organisation an option? What about job rotations? What talent development options are available to develop employee capabilities? Are career path options clear?

2 Personal growth: Gen Ys want to grow. That hunger is brought to the organisation and because organisations are rigid in growth and development, many are forced to find opportunities elsewhere.

For organisations: As a Gen Y, do I have access to a mentor, not only for on-the-job learning, but someone dedicated in developing my leadership capacity? What platforms exist for me to be able to lead and make changes? Would I have a choice of benefits, healthcare, commuting, community days and flexibility in working environments if I am able to show my commitment and performance to the organisation?


3 Culture: To build some sort of organisational citizenship behaviour, there needs to be a sense of commitment by employees. This is only possible if the culture is wholesome from a professional development perspective and also on a personal level.

For organisations: How does the organisation recognise performance of its employees? Is there a sense of celebrated achievement for teams that perform? As a Gen Y, do my opinions on improvement matter? Can I be proud of the work I am doing or I am able to do because the organisation allows it? Does the organisation encourage community involvement beyond monetary contributions through corporate social responsibility or does the organisation have community contribution as part of its values?

4 Innovation and the future: As Gen Ys keep entering the workforce over the next decade, organisations need to redefine what their future workplace is going to be. Embracing technology, team based environments, change and innovation, are some key ingredients in the gamut for a collaborative workforce of the future.

For organisations: What contingencies do you have in place to allow a smoother transition for new technology application? What is the design for future team work? How are you preparing to collaborate globally, intra and inter organisations? Working with Gen Ys requires a re-analysis on how we engage with employees. As Gen Ys are figuring out their identity in the workplace, leaders and managers can journey with them in building the best workplace by reflecting on their needs and wants. Once they find their place in the organisation, contribution, growth and success will not be far behind.

Geraldine Sebastian is a talent manager with Leaderonomics, designing and executing talent and leadership development programmes. She is passionate about helping young people discover their potential for a better tomorrow. To find out more about the programmes she is involved in, email her at


A survey comparing graduates from the UK, China, the Middle East and Malaysia found that:

Malaysia has the most loyal graduate employees with 87% intending to remain for two years and 30% thinking they will stay with the same employer up to 10 years.

Top three rankings on what Malaysian graduates want for themselves include work-life balance, salary and a career.

Malaysian graduates picked technical and professional knowledge (38%), leadership and management skills (33%), followed by communication skills (22%) as skills they are missing.

Over 70% of Malaysan graduates want their managers to also act as a coach or mentor.

87% of Malaysians are proud to work for their organisation but only 64% will recommend it.

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This article is published by the editors of with the consent of the guest author. 

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