04/21/2011 11:58 am ET Updated Jun 21, 2011

Last Year's Slacker Is This Year's Slow Starter

The tide is changing. Rhetoric on the 80 million strong Generation Y is softening. Last year, Gen Y was labeled lazy slackers with unrealistic work expectations. This year, they are simply slow starters who have been humbled by the current economic environment.

I'm encouraged that Gen Y is getting a better shake, but I keep wondering if Gen Y is changing or if our perceptions of Gen Y are changing? It could be both; I'm just throwing it out there. Take the discussion of Gen Y living at home longer with their parents. While it's easy to pass judgment and write them off as not having their act together, new studies indicate that parental assistance in early adulthood isn't such a bad thing. In fact, it can be a good thing -- leading to autonomy and resiliency.

The more we explore the beliefs and attitudes of this generation, the more we can understand and can appreciate their decisions and priorities. This year, BPW Foundation critically engaged Gen Y stereotypes through a series of employer-based focus groups which resulted in a newly released report -- Gen Y Women in the Workplace: Focus Group Summary Report.

Based on our observations, I'd like to suggest a few other areas for changing how we talk about Gen Y in the workplace.

  • Pursuing Life not Work/Life. Practically everyone who writes about Gen Y also covers work/life balance. Keeping in step with the literature our participants also talked about the importance of the two dimensions of their life. However, we found that participants were tired of the "live to work/work to live" debate. They have one life and work is an integral part of that life. They want to have a successful and meaningful career without forfeiting other areas of life (e.g. family, friends, hobbies, spirituality, etc.). Is it any wonder then that they are dissatisfied with current work-life balance programs? They aren't looking for a stellar concierge program or a "fun" work environment; they are looking for an overhaul of the workplace structure. As one Gen Yer stated, "We [Gen Y] are much more productive when we have the freedom and flexibility to get work done when and how we want to get it done. Society isn't 9am-5pm. Why should work be?"
  • Unaccustomed not Disrespectful. Throughout the focus groups, we often heard comments from managers of Gen Y like, "Gen Y doesn't acknowledge or respect the experiences of older colleagues." At the same time, we heard Gen Y say, "I appreciate the wealth of knowledge and experience older colleagues bring to the workplace." Gen Y women said that they often feel doubly judged by older colleagues. They already feel that their actions and decisions are scrutinized because of their age and then gender adds a compounding effect. Our participants were not familiar with how to draw out information from older colleagues in a way that capitalized on the benefits of a multi-generational workforce and communicated appreciation for their older colleagues. I truly sensed that these women were simply unaccustomed to adapting to different generational cultures and not deliberately disrespectful.
  • Cautiously Optimistic. Gen Y women are often portrayed as optimistic about their workplace prospects and more likely than any other generational cohort to believe that deliberate discrimination is declining. Yet, there is a disconnect between workplace expectations and workplace experiences. While participants in our study did not believe that gender hinders their access to positions, they did acknowledge that their experiences within positions differ from that of their male counterparts. From pressure to be a "rockstar" to anticipation of the maternal wall, Gen Y women recognize that the workplace is still not gender neutral. As one Gen Yer stated, "We've been welcomed into the workplace, but the structure hasn't changed. The rules haven't changed."

BPW Foundation's effort to understand Gen Y women's workplace continues. We are launching a national survey of Gen Y women to corroborate and build upon our findings. To learn more, please e-mail