Generation Y: A Case Study

Salary is less important [to Generation Y] than meaningful work where they’re recognized for the difference they make. They are motivated by a management style that mentors and develops them professionally.  Inspiring leadership can unleash tremendous productivity. Joni Mar

If you aren’t a member of Generation Y, you won’t have to go far to find a Gen Y colleague,  friend or family member. Typically Generation Y is defined as people who were born between the end of the 1970s and the beginning of the 1990s. Some people will even extend the age range to the early 2000s.  This is a generation that was raised by attentive parents who started the era of “helicopter parenting” (or hyper parenting). If you’ve heard a colleague talk about the new young crop of employees and have seen some eyes roll, you will know that there are mixed reviews about this generation.  Turn on a documentary about helicopter parenting and you will understand that many people from older generations have serious reservations about how Generation Y were parented. Some older colleagues believe that this generation was micro-managed, over-programmed (in terms of extra-curricular activities) and question their commitment to their careers and their jobs.  At the same time people from older generations still hold young women to the increasingly superficial standards supported in the media, where looks matter more than substance.

Julia Coates ( Generational Learning Styles)  lists the following as characteristics of Generation Y:

* Closer relationship with parents.

* Admiration for their parents.

* A closer sphere of influence.

* More polite and considerate than their predecessors.

* Attentive and respectful.

* Programmed and team oriented.

* Accustomed to having a lot of adult supervision.

* Pressured to succeed. The Boomer parents  transferred pressure to their children.

* Involved. This is a generation of activists.

* Egalitarian. This cohort often prefers to work in teams or groups. They  do not prefer hierarchy.

* Open and eager.

* Demanding of themselves and others.

* Stressed. Pressure to succeed is one reason identified.

* Multi-taskers.

* Socially conscious.

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Is it possible that others are not appreciating the new goals and values of this current generation? To illustrate the point here is an example of a Generation Y woman who happens to be related to a friend of a friend’s relative.   Her story can also be seen in the context of the increased focus on trends that are being noticed about Gen Y and the way that young women are viewed in society.

Elizabeth’s life story and experiences so far include many of the  typical characteristics of Generation Y.  She was given all the educational and extra curricular opportunities her parents could access.  She and her family members are close and her parents have stayed close to her as she has navigated the challenges of the early adult years. She was a high achiever in her school days, has traveled extensively, does volunteer work at home and overseas and has chosen jobs that allow her to maintain the work-life balance she prefers.  Recently she even committed specifically to helping people who are suffering.  If you remember the blue-suited business school graduate of the 1980s who aspired to be President of the EU – and then went on to career greatness – she would not resemble this person in the slightest.  This is not to say that she doesn’t have goals or that Generation Y are not keen to achieve.  However they are also, by all accounts, keen to find a balance between their professional and personal undertakings – unlike the overworked and overstressed generations that preceded them.

Early Years

Elizabeth was born in the early 1980s to working class parents.   Her parents were able to secure better employment prospects and are currently successful entrepreneurs. She has siblings and grew up in what appears to be a loving and happy family. She was considered by childhood friends to be a friendly, well liked and serious minded student.  She attended good quality elementary schools and then attended an exclusive, co-educational private school.  While she is not from British Columbia, you could compare her background to that of a student living in West Vancouver or on Vancouver’s west side who attended a private school.  Elizabeth was given the best possible education that her parents could afford because they also used special family funds to pay for private schools.  The best possible education, in the right circles, would open doors for Elizabeth and her siblings.

It is also interesting to note that Elizabeth and her family spent a few years living as expatriates overseas.  Anyone who has spent time living in another country will know that international experience has a deep impact on the life experiences of a family.  This experience can influence the attitudes and lifestyles of the family members and encourage children to be more accepting of new people and people from other countries or cultural backgrounds.

While Elizabeth completed her education, she was heavily involved in sports and ultimately became an accomplished sportswoman in an impressive number of sports including track and field, netball, basketball, badminton, field hockey, swimming and tennis.  She also added rowing, yoga and skiing to her fitness and athletic talents.  She continues to show a dedication to daily fitness, exercise and healthy eating. She enjoys hiking in the hills and valleys near her family home, has studied the piano and photography and appeared in at least one school play in a lead role.  She finished her high school year with advanced university preparation courses.

In addition to her academic programme, she achieved the Gold Medal in the Duke of Edinburgh Awards programme.  This programme is well known to be an extremely well rounded and challenging experience.  The decision to complete the programme at a gold level is not undertaken lightly.

Prior to starting university,  Elizabeth took a year off to travel overseas and take part in a youth and sustainable development charity that helps to improve communities and protect the environment. Over the course of ten weeks she took part in a wilderness trek, carrying food and supplies in a backpack.  This was followed by a marine survey which involved travelling in a rigid inflatable boat and assisting scientists as they analyzed marine life.  Towards the end of her stay she helped fit windows and roof claddings in a  new fire station.  Following her year off, she went on to study in a small, exclusive university – chosen on the advice of her father – and achieved final grades just outside of the top 10% of the graduating student body.  She graduated with a Master of Arts degree.  With these results Elizabeth would be highly sought after not only for her academic achievements but also because of her well-rounded skills in other areas.

Like many in her Gen Y cohort, Elizabeth was supported throughout her childhood by parents who ensured that she had every opportunity possible to develop educational, artistic, extra-curricular and community-minded skills. While some people will claim that the current batch of young adults have been hovered over by their parents – over catered to and micro-managed – all indications are that Elizabeth is very close to her parents and has flourished under their care.

Early Adult Years

Following her graduation from university, Elizabeth worked at two different jobs.  Initially she had hoped to start her own company but couldn’t find investors.  Her main goal to work in the arts, full time or in some capacity, has also not been realized. Her first job was with a major company in the city.  In less than two years she decided to relocate to a job in a smaller firm of less than 50 employees a little over an hour’s drive outside of a major urban center.  Here she could have an influence on technological and creative projects.  She started a new division, organized an important philanthropic programme in the company and  contributed to branding and product advertising efforts. She worked for this company until earlier this year, when she took a position with a much larger firm located in a major urban center.  It remains uncertain whether or not she will be able to develop her artistic talents while working for this new company.

Stop most young women in your office today and you will find that, like Elizabeth, they come from a similar background of personal and academic achievements, accomplished with the close support of their parents.  You might not hear this type of detailed account of their early lives, but investigate further and you will find that they have also been very busy working hard in their personal and academic lives, and chosen professions.

Putting a Spin on It

These young women’s stories start to be become interesting when you see how older colleagues and contemporaries make sense of who these women are.

While at university Elizabeth made friends who are well-connected and was, therefore, able to attend many interesting social functions.  She also met and started dating a popular student who introduced her to many of his friends and contacts.   Together they chose to travel to places that are more off-the-beaten track.  Elizabeth’s personal life, with her boyfriend and his circle, landed her in the society pages.  Here’s what others noticed about Elizabeth.  The information people chose to highlight does not reflect the breadth and depth of Elizabeth’s personal history and accomplishments.

– she is a beautiful woman who is always well presented, well coiffed and well dressed

– she has an impeccable fashion sense

– her boyfriend is handsome – a real catch

– she was very strategic about securing her relationship with her boyfriend

– she is pleasant, albeit a bit aloof and shy

– her career post university has been under-whelming

– she hasn’t had a career

– her parents have supported her lifestyle, right into her professional life and have carried her along

– “It took her well over a year to find a job. When she finally did, it was a part time job. But that was far too much for this lazy lass, and after only a few months, unable to bear 3 days of work a week, she quit and has since then dedicated her entire time to clubbing, shopping, self-grooming, and relaxing on holiday.”

The most  daming criticism has centred on Elizabeth’s career aspirations, suggesting that she is not an example of a modern woman living in the modern world.  “She hasn’t led a truly independent life full of ambition.  She hasn’t pursued a career in the five years since she finished school.  She hasn’t lived a life that is useful and engaged and connected to her generation.   She would be much more interesting and relevant to her generation if she had become a doctor or even an art restorer.  She has failed to establish herself and depends entirely on her social contacts.  Her biggest achievement will be her marriage, until the talk of children starts.”

Like many in her generation, Elizabeth has been described as well educated and technologically savvy.  Many have commented that she is not high achieving and appears to be very dedicated to her personal life outside of work.  Some say she is has been very dependent on her parents for support – including financial support and support for employment.  Many think that she lacked drive in her career choices and floundered.   Couple these types of observations with obsessions that we can foster about young women in the public eye.  She is admired for being beautiful, well dressed, well coiffed and living an It Girl lifestyle.  She is considered by her critics to be pleasant, but not outstanding in her personal characteristics.  Other young women greatly admire Elizabeth for her physical attributes, her social connections and her private lifestyle.  Older men and women have caught on to these attributes as well and comment about her clothing, accessories and hair.  A few months ago she got engaged and there was a sizable buzz about the upcoming wedding.  It would be the party of the year, to be sure, people said.

If you’re still not sure why Elizabeth’s story is relevant and worthy of close scrutiny,  thank you for reading thus far.  Parents of young girls might be asking themselves if Elizabeth’s story describes the destiny of well educated young women everywhere.  Does a woman’s physical appearance and society connections matter more than her personal efforts and accomplishments?  Elizabeth, for example, became an accomplished sportswomen, developed talents in the arts, made it a priority to travel overseas and do volunteer work, completed her education with strong results and chose jobs well suited to her personal lifestyle and circumstances.  Why did people who barely knew Elizabeth, if at all, assume that she has been lazing about waiting for her prince to come – as the saying goes? Why did descriptions of Elizabeth rarely move beyond superficial details about her looks and social opportunities? Do we assume that all woman will opt for the easy life if given the chance?  Do we judge beautiful, well presented women solely by the most superficial of details?  Do we have set expectations about what women should be achieving by the time they turn 30?  (Elizabeth turns 30 next year and is widely expected to be a mother by then. May she be blessed with no fertility issues!)

Elizabeth’s position is unique because her life has taken a public turn.  Due to her society connections, the details of her life are more publicly known.  Her story is not likely to be the story of other people’s daughters.  What matters is that women like Elizabeth are held up as an example for girls to follow.  When we only discuss a woman in terms of her looks, fashion, and social connections, we give a strong message to young girls everywhere.  Apparently it does not matter if you work hard at school and take on significant personal and academic challenges.  It does not matter if you choose careers where you can use your artistic capabilities.  It does not matter if you choose a job that works well with your personal life. If you are not fast tracking to an impressive, senior position by the time you are 30, apparently your career choices do not matter either.  If you do delay marriage until 30 and beyond, it is also expected that you will start a family right away.

While you may think this story does not merit close scrutiny, you might think about Elizabeth’s story the next time an older employee, relative or friend starts to talk about young people today and what’s wrong with them.  They might try to make sense of them according to their own life experiences or what they think matters.  They might get caught up in the surface details of that person’s life and miss out on the deeper goals and meaning that young adults apply to their professional and personal goals.

If you would like to meet Elizabeth yourself, she might be coming to a Canadian city near you this summer.  You might have heard of Elizabeth, but not for the reasons detailed above.  You will know what she looks like, will have heard about her romantic life and may know a few details about her personal history – not that they were discussed much during the extensive coverage that took place when she got married in April of this year.   Her name is HRH The Princess William, Duchess of Cambridge, Countess of Strathearn, Baroness Carrickfergus.  Elizabeth is her middle name.


Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge competes in a dragon boat race against her husband  and paddles a canoe (video)

Royal Wedding – Does Kate Middleton Know What She’s Doing?

Think you know baby pressure?  Kate knows baby pressure.

Hyper parents (AKA Helicopter Parenting) – started in the 1980s (watch documentary online. If outside Canada, use via Hotspotshield.)

Generation Y Breeds a New Type of Woman (Blog post)

I hate to stereotype but Generation Y seem arrogant and self absorbed.

What Generation Y Really Wants (Time Magazine)

Dear Graduates: Hilary Clinton Has Got You All Wrong (Time Magazine)

How to manage generational differences (Entrepreneur Magazine)

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