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Avoiding Intergenerational Misunderstandings

Career Center Study Delved Into ‘Gen Y’ Workplace Perceptions

December 9, 2008

By Debra Cano Ramos

Jim Case

Young employees born between 1978 and 1995 — those know as “Generation Y” — agree with their older counterparts that they want instant gratification in the workplace, feel entitled to job benefits they haven't earned, are technologically savvy and their preference of casual behavior and dress is not in conflict with office professionalism.

But they don't believe — as their older peers do — that they lack willingness to pay their dues and aren't particularly skilled at multitasking, self-directed learning and working in team environments, according to a recent study conducted by Cal State Fullerton's Career Center and presented Monday, Dec. 8.

The new study points out some surprising agreements and disagreements about perceptions on the strengths and weaknesses of young professionals in the workplace and their older peers and managers.

“The Gen Y Perceptions Study focuses on perceptions from multiple angles — how the three major workplace generations all perceive Gen Y, an important, growing segment of the workplace population,” said Jim Case, director of the Career Center.

The other two generations included in the study are baby boomers (born between 1946 and 1963) and Generation X (born between 1964 and 1978).

“By focusing on perceptions across generations, we analyze the gaps and alignments of how these generations perceive Gen Y, as well as how Gen Y perceive themselves,” Case explained.

“We wanted to address the Gen Y issue from a comparative standpoint because an understanding of intergenerational perceptions can ultimately help reduce conflict in the workplace and lead to collaboration. This research will help to illuminate and triangulate where each generation stands on many workplace views.”

The study also confirmed there are intergenerational issues in the workplace, and often, perceptions can lead to miscommunication and misunderstandings. Miscommunication and misunderstandings can result in motivation, productivity and employee turnover issues, which impact the bottom line of a company, Case noted.

The study was conducted by the Career Center's Center for Research on Employment and the Workforce in partnership with Spectrum Knowledge, a Southern California-based research and training firm that works with corporations on workforce issues. Vu Pham, a partner at Spectrum Knowledge, was the principle investigator for the study.

The campus center was established to help Cal State Fullerton graduates and organizations — including corporations and government and nonprofit agencies — better understand, and respond to, generational differences, diversity and other related issues in the workplace.

Young Emerging Professionals Initiative logo

As part of CREW, the “Young Emerging Professionals Initiative” was launched and includes several projects, including the “Gen Y Perceptions Study.” Executives and young high-potential professionals from major organizations in accounting, aerospace, business services, communications, consumer products, entertainment, financial services, healthcare, law, publishing, public service and technology sectors are partners in effort, Case said.

Under the study, more than 700 professionals from the three generations responded to a survey and gave their opinions regarding 22 commonly heard perceptions about Generation Y employees.

“We studied whether or not these perceptions are widespread, as well as which generations agreed and/or disagreed with these perceptions,” Case said.

Some of the highlights of the “Gen Y Perceptions Study” include:

• Instant Gratification? Managers and employers often complain that Gen Y “wants instant gratification” and it seems like Gen Y itself recognizes this too. Results show that 89 percent of Gen X and boomers agreed that Gen Y “wants instant gratification,” while 73 percent of Gen Y agreed with the statement.

• Casual and Professional Co-Exist? Though almost three-quarters of all survey respondents agreed that Gen Y dresses and behaves casually, they also concurred that professionalism may not necessarily be a “casualty of casual.” Out of all 22 perceptions regarding Gen Y provided in the survey, Gen X and boomer respondents most disagreed with the statement that Gen Y “lacks professionalism.” This may not mean that Gen Y is viewed as professional, but the majority disagrees with the view that they are unprofessional, said Case.

• Gen Y Feel Entitled? Two-thirds of Gen X and Boomer respondents agreed that Gen Y feels entitled to job benefits “they’ve not yet earned.” Surprisingly, however, almost half of Gen Y respondents also agreed that their generation “feels entitled.”

• Willing to Pay Their Dues? The study found that almost twice as many Gen X and boomers agreed with the statement that “Gen Y lacks willingness to pay their dues” compared to how Gen Y participants rated their own generation. In fact, Gen Y was 17 times as likely to strongly disagree with the statement that the generation lacks willingness to pay their dues.

• Masters of Multitasking or Misperception? Often, anecdotally, there is a perception that Gen Y is great at multitasking, working in team environments and self-directed learning. Though Gen Y agree that these are some of their strengths, their Gen X and boomer managers and supervisors don’t agree that they excel at these working styles.

The center will continue its research on Gen Y issues, and one area of focus will be to take the study one step further and assess the judgments that are associated with each perception addressed in the current study, Case said. Results of this phase will be released in the spring.

“By conducting a quantitative and qualitative analysis of how each generation judges each of the perceptions, we will have an even better understanding of how these perceptions impact workplace interactions,” he said.

As a baby boomer and a manager involved with the study, Case admitted that he knows firsthand the perceptions in the workplace about younger workers. “Sometimes it has my head spinning about how to best reconcile the differing perceptions of senior managers and young professionals. Nonetheless, we are convinced that organizations can create a strategic advantage for themselves by responding creatively to these challenges.”

Download a copy of the current results at

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