Millennials at Work: Gen Ys and Ambition

The infamous traits of the Millennial generation have been studied, discussed and debated far and wide: they’re always connected, they’re ambitious, they’re approval-oriented and more. In this series of blog posts, “Millennials at Work,” I’m diving into each of these stereotypes and discussing how they impact this generation and those of us who work with them.

Millennials (those born approximately 1982 – 2000, a.k.a. Generation Y) have been told they can be “anything they want to be” and lived in a world where “everyone gets a trophy.”  They’ve been said to be “deluded narcissists” and to have “uberdrive.”  A recent survey of U.S. college students revealed that the number of students who rate themselves as “exceptional” is growing.  What is it about Gen Y, self-regard and ambition?

Gen Ys had helicopter parents.

The “Me Me Me Generation” grew up with parents, the equally “me me me” Baby Boomers, who encouraged them to pursue their dreams, coached their soccer teams (awarding every kid a trophy for participation) and told them they’d be incredibly successful.  I’m stereotyping, of course, but there was an undeniable movement in the 1980s and ’90s toward “peer-enting,” the idea of being friends with your kids. The benefit of this parenting style is a generation with great self-esteem and confidence. The downside is that many Millennials have become ambitious but not self-sufficient, allowing their parents to run their lives into adulthood. I’ve heard dozens of stories of parents attending job fairs with their children, calling potential employers to negotiate their twenty-something children’s salaries and even helping with day-to-day professional tasks, like proofreading reports. Needless to say, if you are an ambitious Millennial, you need to go it alone.

Gen Ys are eager to rise in the ranks.

In a survey cited by Time, 40% of Gen Y respondents indicated they expect a promotion every two years, regardless of performance at work.  This is a generation that grew up in primarily affluent, fast-paced times and therefore likes to see change, growth and reward.  To managers of Millennials this may feel difficult to manage, as promotions can’t always happen on an accelerated timeline or just because an employee expects it.

To keep a Gen Y engaged when a new position is not in the cards, there are other ways to simulate leadership in an organization.  Reverse mentoring (sometimes known as cross-mentoring) is one idea I like that could help accomplish this goal.  The concept involves pairing up a Gen Y employee with a seasoned employee in a leadership position and encouraging the pair to mentor each other.  Gen Ys could teach the leaders about technology and trends while the leaders could speak with Gen Ys about the lessons learned through their more extensive work experience.  These conversations could not only help a young employee feel empowered, but also may also provide time for reflection on the path to success.

I also like the tips in this ERE post for effectively communicating with Gen Ys when they feel ready to advance but leaders don’t agree.  Just keep this in mind: Gen Ys are like everybody else; they want to be heard and they appreciate honesty.

Gen Ys embrace the YOLO mentality.

These days you can find the term “YOLO” on hats, shirts and merchandise across the country.  It’s short for “you only live once,” and Gen Ys bring that mentality into their careers, some going so far as to quit jobs in order to get ahead.

Before resorting to leaving a job (because, “YOLO!”), Gen Ys might benefit from employing strategies for working with a boss they dislike and ideas to reignite a passion for their work.  One tip I suggest is in-house networking.  I was recently speaking with a Gen Y who was interested in transitioning to event planning and was working for a hotel chain in guest relations.  Instead of advising her to abandon ship, I talked her through the people she knew at her employer and realized she was one introduction away from an individual who planned the hotel’s meetings, conferences and special events.  Having a conversation with this person could provide this young woman valuable insight at the least and perhaps even lead to a shadowing or project-based opportunity.  Turning her ambition to an in-house target allowed her the opportunity to keep a paycheck, make a new connection and advance her career toward her ultimate goals.

What are your tips for Gen Y and communication with Gen Y about the ambition in them that’s got everybody talking?

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Lindsey is a globally recognized career and workplace expert and the leading voice on generational diversity. She has spoken for more than 300 audiences including Google, Goldman Sachs, Estee Lauder, Stanford and Wharton. Lindsey is the author of four career and workplace advice books, and her insights have appeared in media outlets including The TODAY Show, CNBC, NPR, the Harvard Business Review and the Wall Street Journal.


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