By Susan Fee

Meet your summer staff: they are most likely Internet savvy, optimistic, goal oriented, and respectful of their parents. They can also be blunt, contradictory, and confident to a fault. They are members of Generation Y (although they despise labeling), children of baby boomers, and the upbeat younger siblings to Generation X.

Demographers have been unable to agree on the exact parameters of when X ends and Y starts, but in general these are kids born in the late seventies to early nineties. As with any generation, significant, shared historical factors help shape who they will become as adults and eventually, as a workforce. In order to motivate today’s college age employees, it’s helpful to understand who they are and why. Consider these factors:

  • Family-centered youth. Gen-Y experienced a renewed dedication to child-rearing. The importance of self-esteem was pushed like never before with the resulting message to this generation being, “You are special.”

  • High parent involvement. Parents became active and hands-on in every aspect of their children’s lives, often interceding on their behalf. Experiencing more success and less failure also reduced opportunities to learn decision making and conflict resolution skills.

  • Schedules and Structure. Parents wanting to give their child every advantage began booking every minute of free time with enrichment activities. The result: goal-focused, multitasking kids used to following instructions but not skilled in personal time management.

  • Technology. This generation has never been without computers and when it comes to technology, they know more than you do. They are tuned in, plugged in, and wired 24/7. They expect their information to be fast and entertaining.

So, what kind of employees do these factors produce? In general, they are confident, hopeful, goal-oriented, civic minded, and value teamwork. They also need guidance in key areas and given the right conditions they will thrive. Here’s what you can do to help motivate your college age employees:

  • Lead. Waiting for direction is not a sign of laziness but childhood conditioning. They are looking for you to direct them and help them become leaders. They respond well to inspiring role models who will teach in a collaborative spirit.

  • Challenge. They want to learn new things and have their work mean something. Provide the why behind your ideas, rotate menial tasks, and offer opportunities to take part in new projects.

  • Peers. Working in a positive environment where teamwork is encouraged is highly valued. Train in teams, use peer mentoring, and offer time to wind down and debrief in groups. Mix in fun and humor to help them de-stress and bond.

  • Respect. They are full of enthusiastic ideas and want to be heard. What they don’t want to hear is any suggestion that they are young and have not earned the right to have an opinion; they bristle at being treated as interns rather than colleagues. Get to know them personally, provide lots of feedback early and often, and don’t be afraid to let them teach you a few things. Demonstrate a willingness to work beside them by balancing your role between boss and team player. Finally, ask what motivates them! Showing that you care enough to ask and follow through is the ultimate sign of respect.

  • Susan Fee is a licensed counselor, author, trainer, and college adjunct faculty. She is the author of the college survival guide, My Roommate is Driving Me Crazy! (Adams Media) and Positive First Impressions: 83 Ways to Establish Confidence, Competence, and Trust available through her Web site at This article is based on Ms. Fee’s 2005 presentation at Tri-State Camping Conference.
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