Dear friends, I don’t know your names, backgrounds, nor much else about you. But you and I, we have at least one thing in common. We are people belonging to what they call Generation Y (“Gen-Y”), those born between 1980 and the mid-1990s.
Like all generations before us, we have been shaped by the world we grew up in. Technology was a normal part of growing up, and as a result, connectivity and content availability, quantity and variety have never been an issue. Growing up with Friendster, Xanga, blogspot, MySpace and more, we are used to platforms where we “have a voice”.
Especially for middle-class Gen-Y in Malaysia like myself, many have also had the privilege of living off the fruit of our parents’ labour. Though we still have battles of our own with affordability of transportation and housing, the struggle for survival has eased for those with parents who have worked hard to provide.
Naturally, this upbringing has unconsciously informed our expectations and behaviours in the working world. It’s no surprise then that many will comment that Gen-Y in urban Malaysia are driven more by “purpose” and “passion” rather than “survival”.
We are drawn to environments where a variety of views is encouraged, and where we have room to express ourselves. In the Deloitte Millennial (Generation Y) Survey 2014, more than 25% of the Millennial respondents from 28 countries asked “for a chance” to show their leadership skills.
And being used to a faster pace, we crave progression. Seventy-five per cent believe companies could do more to develop future leaders.
Our perceived strengths seem to revolve around the areas of optimism and technology. In an EY survey conducted in 2013 with Baby Boomer, Generation X (“Gen-X”) and Gen-Y respondents, we scored highly for being “enthusiastic”, “tech savvy” and social media opportunists.
We were ranked higher than Baby Boomers in the areas of “collaboration”, “adaptability”, being “entrepreneurial”, and were perceived to be slightly better than both Gen-X and Boomers in building diverse teams and not discriminating on attributes like race, gender and age.
But along with our strengths, are attributes that we have been criticised for. I am sure, that like me, you too have heard groans about Gen-Y being “entitled”, “demanding” and having no “staying power”.
Results of the 2013 EY survey, though conducted with respondents in the United States, don’t stray far from comments on the local grapevine.
Our generation scored the lowest compared to Gen-X and Baby Boomers in the perception of being a “team player” (45%), “hardworking” (39%) and “a productive part of my organisation” (58%).
We also scored the highest in negative traits like being “difficult to work with” (36%), “entitled” (68%) and “lacking relevant experience” (59%).
I stress again that these conclusions are based on perceptions of an entire generation. Like any other generalisation, they certainly don’t apply to each and every Gen-Yer.
But perceptions don’t come from thin air, and my hope for our generation is for us to seriously acknowledge the criticisms levelled against us and ask ourselves how we, as a whole, could do better.
To help guide my thoughts, I consulted the opinion of Paul Chan, who serves as director of several boards, including that of Prudential Assurance Malaysia Berhad. An executive council member of the Malaysian Institute of Accountants (MIA), Chan is also a founding member of the Malaysian Alliance of Corporate Directors, and an executive committee member of the Global Network of Director Institutes.
It was appropriately after a panel discussion on diversity at this year’s MIA Conference that I had the privilege of meeting Chan. Being a Baby Boomer, and having the bird’s eye view in multiple companies, I sought his thoughts on Gen-Y in the workplace, and his advice on what we could do to improve.
So as 2014 draws to an end, and a tough 2014 it has been for our country and the world, and we set aspirations for ourselves, our families and our organisations, here are my three generational aspirations for Gen-Y. I hope that you join me in fulfilling them:
1. That we will be humble and have a healthy sense of dependence on the right people
“Humility” was what Chan mentioned when I asked for his thoughts on what Gen-Y could work on. Though not a great pill to swallow, I see where he is coming from.
Perhaps because technology has allowed us to see the world from the comfort of our desktop and mobile devices, we can tend to carry a sense of having experienced many things even in our shorter life spans.
As we continue to mature and grow in our experiences and skills, I hope that we balance our achievements and knowledge with the understanding that we still have a lot to learn, especially from those older than us.
“Gen-Y is very capable, but do remember that Baby Boomers and Gen-X have taken years to understand businesses. A little humility will get you a long way,” Chan advises.
So in 2015, may we approach work and learning with humility, and find willing teachers along the way.
2. That we will build resilience for the mountains worth climbing
I concurred with Chan on his observation that older generations in Malaysia, in general, are more resilient because of economic circumstances during upbringing.
It’s not a rarity for example to meet Baby Boomers who have spent the majority of their careers deep diving and weathering multiple seasons in one company. It’s similarly not uncommon to meet a Gen-Y who is feeling dissatisfied about their current place of work and is planning to leave as a result.
I do often ask myself why this is the case. Is it that we run from challenges? Perhaps we have a wrong view of pain and struggle? Or are we just more honest about what we want?
Whatever the case may be for you and me, my hope is that Gen-Y will have resilience to face challenges that come our way (because they will), and be able to discern the battles that are worth fighting.
3. That we build authentic relationships and make our presence “positively felt”
In the EY survey, Gen-Y was ranked highest in the trait of being “difficult to work with”.
“In general, Gen-Y aren’t perceived to be as good at relating to others. The more Gen-Y learns about others, the better,” advises Chan. “Then with this knowledge and your skills, make your presence positively felt.”
As our workplaces become increasingly diverse, and with Generation Z soon coming into the picture, my hope is for Gen-Y to continue to develop our ability to build bonds with others and consistently seek ways to add value to our workplaces.
So in 2015, may we invest time and effort into understanding, empathising and building relationships with members of different generations, and make a positive contribution both in skill and attitude.
To a successful 2015 and greater days ahead, fellow Gen-Yers. Let’s journey on.
Lily Cheah leads the Engagement team at Leaderonomics. As a Gen-Y herself, she aspires to always find a balance between having the confidence to contribute and a humility to learn, since extremes, as she has learned the hard way, are unhelpful. She expresses gratitude again to Paul Chan for sharing his wisdom. To share your thoughts with her, send your comments in the comment box provided.
Published in English daily The Star, Malaysia, 3 January 2015