‘Era of Mutual Respect’: motivating Gen Y

A greater understanding of what drives the Generation Y can help employers address employee disengagement and create more positive synergies in the workplace, business leaders heard at a recent conference.

At the Australian Chambers Business Congress in Melbourne (15–17 August), workplace relations and HR expert Avril Henry advised delegates that Australian employees are significantly disengaged at work: approximately three in five workers are disengaged (‘they do their job, but don’t put in any discretionary effort’), while a further one in five workers are ‘actively disengaged’ at work. This scenario is costing Australia $31 billion each year.

In order to boost engagement levels, Henry said that employers must improve their understanding of what drives the different workforce generations; namely, ‘Veterans’ (born before 1946), ‘Baby Boomers’ (b. 1946–64), ‘Generation X’ (b. 1965–79) and ‘Generation Y’ (b. 1980–95). The following article emphasises her views on workers belonging to Generation Y.


Gen Y workers account for 10% of the Australian workforce, but will constitute 30% by 2020.

They are known as ‘digital natives’ and, for them, digital technology has served primarily as tool for social communication. Because they have ‘never known a world without digital technology’, they are far more proficient in its use, and knowledgeable about its potential applications, than their managers — the ‘digital dinosaurs’ (ie Boomers and Veterans). In particular, Veterans see technology as ‘a means to an end, but sometimes an uncomfortable means to an end’.

Prior to the GFC (2008), they were the ‘beneficiaries of 16 years of unprecedented economic prosperity and wealth’. They have also been ‘indulged’ by their ‘helicopter parents’ who told them ‘you can do or be anything, the sky is the limit’. For these reasons, the older generations often believe they ‘haven’t served their time’.


According to Henry, Gen Y workers have been dubbed ‘Generation Why?’ because ‘why’ is their ‘favourite word at home and at work’. In the workplace, they ask:

  • ‘Why do we do it that way?’
  • ‘Why do we do it in that time frame?’
  • ‘Why do we do this at all?
  • ‘Does it actually add value?’

This inquisitiveness stems from the need to understand that they are making a meaningful and valuable contribution to their team, clients and organisation. However, it is often misinterpreted as insubordination by older managers who feel they are being challenged and, as a result, don’t listen to their ideas. According to Henry, this area of workplace conflict must be overcome.

‘Generation Y have a much better understanding of technology and its uses than their managers,’ she said.

‘If organisations want to be smart about utilising the strengths of each generation, older managers should listen a lot more to the younger generation. Listening to Gen Y would make them feel valued and would also make them feel part of the solution, not just this problem generation as they are often seen.’


Henry advised businesses that we now live in the ‘Era of Mutual Respect’ where Gen Y workers are motivated by leaders who inspire them, respect them, lead by example, demonstrate authenticity and integrity, mentor them and include them in decision making. They are also motivated by positive work environments, flexibility and the ability to work ‘smarter, not harder’.

Henry predicted that there will be more ‘positive synergies’ between Gen X managers and workers from Generations Y and Z (b. 1996–2010) than there have been between Veterans and Baby Boomers serving as managers and their younger subordinates. Henry explained that Gen X managers are ‘very motivated to be better managers than the managers they’ve worked for’, and they are more willing to work closely with the younger generations and to invest in their management and leadership skills, even if it means paying for this themselves.

Henry also said there is an ‘enormous opportunity’ for Baby Boomers, who occupy around 70–80% of senior manager roles, to act as coaches and mentors for Generation Y, due to their vast understanding of what has and hasn’t worked for their organisations in the past.

‘I often say that young people want to be mentored by cool, older people that like and respect them,’ she said.

‘If a Boomer is willing to mentor and coach Gen Y and in turn learn from them, it will be a hugely beneficial situation for both parties and the organisation.’

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