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The New Diversity Issue Created by Gen Y at Work

September 20th, 2011

As you read this, Millennial (aka Gen Y) Professionals are being actively recruited prior to, and upon, college graduation. Many are already busy navigating the waters of their first (or second) professional job since graduating.

And as I write this, well-known companies are hiring me to conduct seminars to educate their HR executives and internal recruiters about attracting and recruiting Millennial Professionals, as well as conduct seminars to educate their Gen X and Boomer employees about managing, motivating and retaining them. So, this isn’t just me saying they are a big deal to the future of our professional workforce; companies all over the U.S. and abroad are starting to see it, too.

But before I get into why they are creating a new dimension to diversity, let me give you a snapshot of why this new generation of young professionals has become such a hot commodity in the media and the business world. One key factor is the looming reality of the Boomer Brain Drain that companies across the country are going to feel over the next decade. Here’s one simple statistic, out of many, from the Office of Employment Projections that will quickly put this into perspective: The average large company in the U.S. will lose 30-40% of its workforce due to retirement over the next 5-10 years. Ouch.

And we have as many Gen Xers on the planet as there are going to be, so the replacements for this massive Boomer exodus are the Millennial Professionals. That is why M.B.A. students were being offered amazing employment packages a few years ago, and impressive signing bonuses were being offered. And, due to demand for talent, that trend will pick-up again as the economy recovers. Basically, out of head count necessity, recruiting and retaining them has turned into a big, competitive business.

Through the research for my books, I also realized many Gen X and Boomer professionals in today’s business world rarely have a clue about this new generation entering their domain. This research also led me to understand that the Millennial Professionals have their fair share of complaints about their older work colleagues, and one of their biggest complaints may surprise you.

Aside from companies clamoring to implement, or improve, their rewards and recognition programs, and scrambling to find unique ways to recruit and retain Millennials, they are also dealing with a new dimension to diversity this generation creates. Here is the big complaint I alluded to that may surprise you: Many Millennial employees are claiming to be victims of reverse age discrimination.

We all know age discrimination has typically referred to older employees feeling bumped out by younger co-workers. And this is still an on-going issue as reflected in high profile lawsuits that involve older employees suing companies like FedEx and The Tropicana Casino. In both cases, older employees claim they were laid-off so that the companies could replace them with younger employees who they could be paid less.

But I recently moderated a panel made-up of 5 Millennial women, between 22-26, and they each came from different companies whose names you’d know. All the women had Master’s degrees and each panelist came from a different ethnic background.

When I asked them if they felt they had the same opportunities as their male colleagues, they all quickly said that they felt that gender discrimination was a non-issue (from what they had experienced thus far). And they said that their race was not an issue at work. But they ALL said they face age discrimination on a regular basis and that it was very frustrating.

The 100+ audience members (mainly women in leadership positions ranging in age from 30-60) found this to be so interesting. Most Boomer and Gen X women in business have been battling gender discrimination for years. And, on top of that, many Boomer and Gen X women of color have had to also deal with race discrimination in the workplace. So it was a surprise to the audience that these Millennial women felt neither of those things affected them (at this point in their careers). To them, it was all about not getting respect from older employees because of their age.

Several of the panelists went on to say that they were thankful they were entering the business world at a time when so much correspondence is done online, and relationships are forged virtually, because it gives them the opportunity to establish their credibility with colleagues before having to meet them in-person. Each of the women did look young and they felt that was a liability. I was quick to say they wouldn’t feel that way when they were older…they’d be praying to look young again! But all joking aside, I understood what they were saying and respected their frustration.

On a positive side note in terms of diversity, we have a strong generation of young women coming up and a generation where gender and race lines are becoming blurred. A majority of Millennial women were raised to believe they could do anything boys could do and they were just as important and as smart as boys. This is also the first generation where boys and girls hangout together as platonic “buddies” starting from a young age through college. This is also a generation where over 80% answered “Yes” when asked if they were okay with marrying, dating, or having a life partner outside of their race (2007 California Dreamers Survey conducted by New America Media).

After moderating that panel, and speaking to many more Millennials about their experiences with age discrimination, I now really emphasize the importance of respecting them as “people” when I talk to Boomer and Gen X executives in my popular Get A Grip On Gen Y Seminar. I let them know this generation expects to be respected from Day One, regardless of their age or experience, and that a key strategy for retaining them is respecting their ideas and encouraging them to offer opinions. This may seem like common sense to you, but I talk to many Millennials whose bosses disregard their ideas and/or rarely ask their opinion about anything. Unlike some Boomer and Gen X employees who may tolerate this from their bosses, Millennials will quickly quit.

It is critical for employers to recognize that aside from race, gender and lifestyle diversity, age diversity is now something to be aware of. Younger employees probably won’t sue you based on age discrimination like older ones might, but they can still wreak havoc on your company’s stability. It’s impossible to grow and groom your next generation of leaders if they don’t stay!

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