Are All Gen Y Cut From the Same Cloth?

October 2, 2014

By Oana Amaria

As an intercultural learning and development consultant at Language & Culture Worldwide (LCW), I work with global leaders to offer cross-cultural training solutions that help organizations develop global acumen and engage team members all over the world. I recently found myself routinely spending a significant amount of time debunking stereotypes about Gen-Y that would arise during my training sessions. It turns out that not only are generational stereotypes widely publicized, but the majority of the insights out there are mainly based on U.S. millennials, or at the very least, shared through the company’s U.S. cultural lens.

Many of the top global consulting firms have conducted robust, worldwide studies on this generation. Yet their findings provide little to no insight on the nuances of each region or cultural group. Why do employees in Asia value a strong benefits package, while their millennial counterparts in Latin America are more interested in cross-functional opportunities? Little to no data exists to inform us as to what motivates, empowers, or inspires global millennials across borders. It’s not really possible that all of Gen-Y are the same around the world, simply because the world is now a global marketplace where we use smart phones and have social media, is it?

LCW recently conducted a study on global millennials to answer that exact question. The research goes beyond the hyper-focus on millennials and technology to provide meaningful country-specific information on to how to engage, develop, and manage the youngest members of the workforce across cultures. LCW asked over 100 millennials around the world to share their insights on what makes them different from other generations; what matters most to them in the workplace; and how they compare to their peers around the world. The responses were then organized into general themes and ranked based on the number of participants in that region that shared those same insights, concerns or values. The responses came from Europe, the Middle East and Northern Africa (MENA), Asia Pacific, Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, and U.S. Latinos as a representation of just one of the many subcultures/sub-groups here in the U.S. Here is what we learned:

1. What’s in a Name?

What we call the youngest generation, born in or after 1981, varies depending on who you ask. The term ‘Generation Y’ is widely used internationally, while ‘Millennials’ is a more popular term in the United States. To add another layer of complexity, in other countries the youngest generation is called something completely different. In China, Gen-Y is referred to as the ‘Post 80’s Generation’—a reference to those born after the implementation of the One-Child Policy. Many European countries (such as Russia, and much of Eastern Europe) refer to Gen-Y as the ‘Lost Generation’, reflecting the current economic challenges the young are facing in the region. In South Africa, Gen-Y are called the ‘Born-Free Generation’, as the first generation with no memory of apartheid.

2. Influences on Culture

Each region of the world has specific influences and experiences that serve as the cultural context for how an individual in that culture forms their view of the world. Technology, education, family, language, or government are only a few examples of the many institutions that shape a culture’s core values and motivations. In Europe for example, the fall of communism not only liberated much of Eastern Europe, but it also changed the face of Europe as a whole. The youngest generation knows a Europe without borders. As a result, Gen-Y from all over Europe now live and work outside of their passport country, migrating from home to other areas in Europe (or abroad) in search of economic opportunities. The youngest generation in Europe has learned to stay flexible, open-minded and willing to move. Millennials in the MENA region face completely different challenges. Their younger generation has to live with the aftermath of 9/11, and the vilified image of Islam in the western world. The ‘Arab Spring’ demonstrated that this generation is revolutionary, showing the rest of the world it knows how to mobilize, voice their opinion, and advocate for social change. As only children, Chinese millennials are raised by their parents and grandparents. Given the importance of family hierarchy, these children carry the hopes and dreams of six adults and two generations. Few other millennials in the world have been the center of their family’s universe. China’s youngest generation want to be recognized and rewarded in the workplace not only to show their family members they are doing well, but to show them they are also capable of providing for them.

3. Are all Gen-Y cut from the same cloth?

Our findings showed that although common themes came up for millennials around the world, each region prioritized those values and characteristics differently. For example, when asked what was most important for them in the workplace, Asian respondents shared that although money is important, the type of work is even more important for achieving growth. In Africa, equal rights (an end to discriminatory practices across races and genders) in the workplace was valued over meaningful work. Reflecting back on the cultural context for each region, salary being strongly prioritized in Asia could be an example of how the societal and family pressure of taking care of older family members have shaped the priorities of Asian Gen-Y in the workplace. Chinese and Singaporean governments have passed laws making it a legal obligation to take care of your elders. The prioritization of equal rights for African millennials demonstrates that the region’s history with the slave trade, colonialism, and race inequality still has a very real and strong impact in the region. It doesn’t seem so recent, but South Africa held its first multi-racial democratic elections, won by Nelson Mandela, just 20 short years ago.

4. How are they different from all the other generations?

Many, if not all, of the insights shared in the global Gen-Y survey are values and characteristics important to every generation. Marion White’s research on rethinking generation gaps shows that many millennials want a lot of the same things from their employers as Generation X and Baby Boomers. Although all generations may agree on the importance of challenging, meaningful work or flexibility in the workplace, the behavioral interpretations—how we live out these values—can vary widely among different cultures, and sometimes between individuals. A collaborative working environment for your boomer employee may mean having a face-to-face meeting with the whole team to brainstorm on a problem, while for your millennial employee it could mean having unrestricted access to information. LCW’s global millennial survey findings show that providing challenging, meaningful work, communicating and helping employees see their contribution are all key for improving employee engagement. I would challenge organizations, managers, and individuals to take it one step further and find ways to incorporate these engagement strategies in concrete actions and behaviors that resonate in the appropriate cultural context. Visit the LCW website for further insights on the global millennial survey.