Tap the idealism of Generation Y, says columnist Sankar R.
Leaders must stop using industry forums for narrow gain, but give their collective voice to policies and actions that are in the nation's larger interests
Young people like to work for managers who allow them the freedom to question and to speak their mind, who listen well and inspire them through the power of example
It has become commonplace to speak about Gen Y. Just as the boards of every multinational company want their chief executive officers to have a BRICs strategy, so does every HR head talk about a Gen Y strategy. The implication is that the new generation is so markedly different from its predecessor that managers, who often belong to an earlier generation, must be taught new skills to engage, motivate and deal with them. This has led to the popularity of reverse mentoring, a process whereby the older employee learns new tricks from his younger subordinate.
When asked about the ways in which the new generation differs from the old, answers invariably point to the way younger people dress and talk, the extent and manner in which they are networked and their dexterity with social media and communication devices. While these are important differences, they do not constitute a generational gulf that is bigger than those between any two generations heretofore. Except perhaps in pre-historic times, man’s incessant and unceasing efforts to master the forces of nature with a view to creating for himself a better life has meant that each generation is born into a world that will in many respects be different from that of its progenitors. Inter-generational differences in ways and mores have always marked the history of man’s progress, even if the pace of change is higher today than ever before.
Furthermore, it has always been recognised that certain skills decline and certain others improve with age. And that therefore the young will be better equipped to carry out certain tasks than the old, in addition, of course, to bringing higher levels of energy and a fresh way of viewing things.
Does this mean that we are over playing Gen Y and that it is all idle chatter or a fad?
In the discourse on inter-generational differences, too much attention is focused on the externalities – dress and deportment and technological adeptness – and too little on the abiding characteristic of the young: their sense of possibility, starry-eyed idealism and sense of purpose. The young believe they can change the world for the better. They dare to dream. They are unafraid of questioning hallowed traditions and long-held and cherished beliefs. They are willing to risk all for the causes they hold dear until age blunts the edge of idealism and experience (or as some would say, wisdom) pushes them into the folds of cynical respectability. It is not a coincidence that the young have been at the forefront of societal change. The Vietnam protests, the Arab Spring, India against Corruption and the Delhi protests against the gruesome incident of gang rape have been led or sustained by youth.
What does this portend for employers and enterprise? We are a young nation, not nearly 70 years independent and with as much as 50 per cent of our population below 25 years of age. We would be wasting an opportunity if we did not tap into the potentially limitless reservoir of idealism and sense of purpose and self-belief that resides in the millions of young people in our country.
Increasingly, young people seek credible and authentic leadership, imbued with a sense of purpose. They are also attracted to organisations which use fair business practices and are socially responsible. They like to work for managers who allow them the freedom to question and to speak their mind, who listen well and can inspire them through the power of example. At a time when capitalism and private enterprise have had their sheen dulled by avarice and irresponsibility in the West and cronyism in our country, it behoves business leaders and managers, by example and precept, to show young employees that profit is not a dirty word and that good business and a good society are not strange bedfellows.
By putting people over profits, by forsaking the dodgy for the straight and narrow and providing principle-centred leadership, business leaders can delay the onset of cynicism in the young and instil in them the belief that business can play a transformative role in society.
Going further, business leaders must make bold to speak up against the wrongs they see in society. It won’t do for them to say “it is none of our business”. Just as importantly, they must stop using industry forums for narrow gain, but give their collective voice to policies and actions that are in the nation’s larger interests.
Above all, they must imbue their business with purpose – an overarching aim that defines who they are and why they exist – that transcends the immediate and that inspires people to give their creative best. This does not mean crafting high-sounding purpose statements or straining to find altruistic intent where none exists. Rather, it is the consistent, simple and honest espousal of the value the business generates for all those it affects and comes in contact with and the principles that govern its operations. Most importantly, it is the living of the principles, especially when, as often happens, they come into conflict with short-term considerations.
Through such means, business leaders can yoke a sense of purpose to the economic weal. It is through such a twinning that businesses can truly become a force for change. And it is by striving to become agents of change that businesses can tap into the wellspring of idealism that animates the young and truly distinguishes them from the old.
So, can we stop viewing Gen Y through the lens of the ephemeral, the superficial and the transitory and start viewing them through the prism of the abiding and the important?
(R. Sankar is an Executive Director with PwC India and the leader of the firm’s People and Change Consulting. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)