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Gen Y in the Workplace: It's Complicated

There are two dominant veins of thought about Generation Y that have garnered a lot of media interest in the past several months. PayScale's data reveals that these two perspectives don't necessarily have to be mutually exclusive and that, sometimes, data-driven stories are just as complicated as the humans they're based on.

two roads 

(Photo Credit: swimparallel/Flickr)

One perspective portrays Gen Y workers as entitled yuppies that think they're special snowflakes. According to this perspective, Gen Y has overinflated expectations about their jobs and quality of life, and even higher expectations about just how they should achieve those things. Cognitive dissonance resulting from an economic recession and constant self-comparison through social media has created a generation of unhappy workers.

The second perspective posits that Gen Y is trapped under a landfill of debt and underemployment, and has already tempered their expectations to the point that now they just feel hopeless. This view paints a darker, less optimistic picture, focusing on the socio-economic norms surrounding our culture and the role the American Dream plays in forming the expectations we have for our lives and livelihood.

Both of these perspectives agree that Gen Y has been told since the cradle that they could do anything, and that this upbringing clashes with the fact that they are entering the workforce while the economy still suffers from the economic collapse created by previous generations. But which one is the "right" story for Gen Y? Can there be more than one?

According to PayScale's Generations at Work Package, there is no single right story, but rather a whole lot of shades of gray. And not the romance novel kind, either.

Of all the generations, Gen Y (66.4 percent) is the least likely to say they're extremely or fairly satisfied with their current job (Gen X: 72 percent, Baby Boomers: 77.7 percent). But is that because their white-collar desk job isn't the job of their dreams, or because they spent four years getting a degree only to end up working at McDonald's?

Gen Y is also more likely (55.6 percent) to work for smaller companies than their older counterparts (Gen X: 48.1 percent, Baby Boomers: 49.6 percent), increasing their chances of getting more one-on-one time with mentors and hands-on experience. Depending on the lens through which this statistic is examined, it can be interpreted as an over-entitled younger generation stealing attention, resources, and even jobs away from seasoned workers, or as a growing hunger to get in on the ground floor of something awesome and dirty their hands.

Gen Y workers are more likely to have moved back home in the past due to financial hardship (11.6 percent), than Gen X (7.5 percent) or Baby Boomers (2.9 percent), making it difficult for them to succeed right out the gate. An even greater percentage live there right now (Gen Y: 16.3 percent, Gen X: 3.9 percent, Baby Boomers: 1.7 percent). Yet they're also far more likely to have a bachelor's degree (62.8 percent) than their parents (Gen X: 48.2 percent, Baby Boomers: 43.5 percent), giving them cutting-edge skills that older generations may not have, and making Gen Y more competitive for the same jobs at a younger age. Can education make up for lack of experience, or does Gen Y simply think that's the case, causing them to come off as entitled?

The world isn't a black and white place, and sometimes neither is data. Occasionally the stories we try to tell with data aren't simple or straightforward. Gen Y isn't made up entirely of entitled, ambitious, fancy coffee-drinking brats. Likewise, they aren't all starving in their parents' basements, either.

Sometimes, it's just complicated.

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