· Features

Mind the generation gap: how managers can engage with Gen Y

Just as you can’t choose your family, so you can’t always choose your colleagues – and the generation gap can cause problems in both cases. Recent research carried out by career management company, Fairplace, indicates that the disconnect between Generation Y staff and their Generation X managers could mean that businesses are missing the chance to harness the enthusiasm and potential of Gen Y by failing to help them plan their careers.

As the concept of a 'job for life' wanes and working lives lengthen, more people are opting to work in varied roles in different sectors or try their hand at a new career. Planning and goal setting is crucial in this more flexible career market, where choice can overwhelm as well as excite, and leave people feeling directionless and confused. Employees who have set themselves achievable career goals will feel more engaged at work, progress faster and make a more significant contribution to their company as they embrace opportunities to learn and develop.

However, Fairplace's recent survey of UK employees indicates a worrying trend whereby young UK employees start out on their career with a long-term plan and clear goals, but lose sight of these goals as they get older. When we asked respondents about their career plans, only 8% of 18-24 year olds said they did not have a long-term career plan, but among 34-44 year olds this figure tripled to 24%. Employees begin their careers with ambition and ideas about what they want to achieve – yet if they can't see how to realise these goals and aren't supported in developing an achievable career plan, then this vision fades, and their motivation, productivity, and fidelity to the organisation are also likely to decline.

The challenge for employers is reluctance among managers and staff about having career conversations. Overall, a quarter of our respondents said they would not want to talk to their manager about their longer term career development – however, among the youngest generation of workers (18-24 year olds), this increased to 41%. Meanwhile, our research also suggested that Gen Y employees are dissatisfied with their managers' advice. Over half (53%) of those 18 - 24 year old employees who have talked to their manager about their long-term career development said that the conversation was 'not very helpful' (compared to just 30% across all age groups).

There are a number of reasons why Gen Y may not want to open up. First, articulating ambitions and plans takes practice – while younger employees may have a general idea of what they want career-wise, they may not have much experience in describing it. Second, Gen Y tends to be more aware of its 'personal brand', and may prefer to play their cards close to their chest as they see regular moves between organisations as the 'norm' and the best way to progress. Equally, having graduated in a recession, other Gen Y employees will feel acutely relieved to have a job at all and this can lead to them being unnecessarily cautious about being seen to 'throw their weight around'.

Despite these hurdles, managers who fail to put sufficient time and effort into engaging with Gen Y employees are taking a risk – companies that invest a lot in their graduates but fail to engage with them will lose out on their investment.

There are simple steps that managers can take to adapt their approach towards Gen Y employees. Leaving plenty of time for one-to-ones is a no-brainer; these should not be a rushed formality, but should have scope for open questions. Asking employees where they want to be in 10 years, then discussing how the company can put one-, three- or five-year stepping stones in place to work towards that goal will foster a sense of cooperation and trust in the organisation and make employees feel appreciated and valued.

While younger staff are limited in the responsibilities they can be expected to shoulder, Gen Y thrives on challenge – although 11% of our respondents said they needed a new challenge once a week to stay motivated in their job, this rose to 21% amongst 18-24 year olds. It's important to give meaningful tasks that build up responsibility and demonstrate how hard work will bring exciting new opportunities. Giving Gen Y the chance to shadow senior staff will give them a chance for hands-on learning, with supervision and support. Pairing Gen Y with mentors within the organisation also gives them an opportunity to think about career development by talking with their role model about how they got to their current position.

Finally, it's crucial that managers are genuine and reliable. The economic climate they have grown up in makes Gen Y especially suspicious of empty promises and they are therefore quick to become disengaged when their aspirations don't come to fruition. It's important to act on career conversations by quickly setting into motion some of the initiatives discussed, while also setting realistic expectations about the speed of their progression. Showing Gen Y employees that you are listening and reacting will encourage them to speak up again in future, and managers who take this empathetic, cooperative and positive approach will benefit from high retention levels among their brightest and best.

Penny de Valk (pictured) is chief executive of career management consultancy Fairplace.