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CU Times Op-Ed: Three Gen Y Stereotypes Debunked

The CU Times awesomely asked me to write an op-ed piece on Gen Y misconceptions I've run into while working in the credit union industry. Here's what I said (click here to view the slightly edited version at the CUTimes.com) -

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Sometimes being a young person in credit unions feels like being a monkey in a cage, or a leprechaun, or a unicorn that sneezes rainbows. A novelty to be poked and studied and questioned and dissected. For better or worse, our generation is no more mysterious than the previous and no more elusive than the next. But after working in the movement for a few years, I’ve noticed certain misconceptions continue to bubble up. Let’s talk stereotypes. One, two, three, ready, set, go:

Stereotype #1: If you’re young you love technology and social media

I wish I could tell you how many of my friends have looked me in the eyes and said, “Twitter is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard of.” I wish you could hear them talk about how it represents the decline of society, narcissism en masse, the end of focus and attention as we know it. These friends are in their twenties. It doesn’t stop there. I could go on and tell you about twenty-somethings in Dallas who are too content with their “real” friends to bother with Facebook or young adults in Brooklyn who don’t own a computer. By the same token, some young people lose their mind when Twitter goes down for an hour. But that’s not because they’re young. It’s because they have a borderline personality disorder. Don’t get me wrong, the internet is a cultural force responsible for significant (cross-generational) changes, but it’s not a blanket.

Stereotype #2: We don’t respect older generations

I spent my time at CUNA’s Governmental Affairs Conference this year with a group of under-30 credit union professionals. We called ourselves the “Crashers” after deciding that regardless of cost or logistical barriers, we were going to find a way to “crash,” to be a part of, the conference. We ended up staying in a DC hostel, which is another story altogether. One of the most amazing things about our week at the GAC was spending time with pioneers of the industry. Tossing around trendy buzzwords like “social marketing” is one thing, but after hearing Larry Blanchard discuss mobilizing 2.4 million people to get HR 1151 passed, a law that might have kept our movement afloat, we realized we knew diddly-squat about what “going viral” really means. We have so much to learn from those who have been here before us. There’s a lot of room for mentorships in this industry. Please don’t mistake our ambition for recklessness or disregard. We just want go deep, work hard, and learn from older generations as soon as we can.

Stereotype #3: Our passions revolve around “What Works With Gen Y”

Some colleagues and I recently noticed that when you put “seasoned” credit union professionals in a room with younger credit union people, it’s only a matter of time before the exchange turns back to “How to Reach Gen Y.” We’d love to get past that and dig into meatier issues. For example: Robbie Wright is 27 and runs the product development consultancy CU Innovators. He is passionate about credit union collaboration, emerging payment methods, and the implications of an open source core processor. For example: Mackenzie Snyder is 22, another “Crasher,” and the Latino Market Research Specialist from Consumers Credit Union. She loves Latin culture and is fascinated by the work WOCCU is doing in developing countries. She wants to learn how to make American credit unions better for hispanic immigrants. For example: I’m 27, and spend way too much time thinking about how design and storytelling affect the way people feel and behave. I could go on and on.

Research & Relationships

How do you kill a stereotype? You interact. You mix your world up with theirs. Being shy myself, I understand that a conversation with someone you don’t quite know or understand can be scary or uncomfortable. So it makes sense that in trying to learn what makes Gen Y tick, many older credit union employees would rather learn through research reports, business books, and conference breakout sessions than through directly reaching out to young people. While I’m not discounting the importance of research (after all, I work for a research organization), it’s important to understand that this information is like a set of blueprints. A blueprint can show you that a house has three bedrooms, twelve windows, a den and a kitchen. Now you’ve begun to see the house. But until you’ve spent time in the house, you won’t learn that the best spot for hide-n-seek is behind the stairs, the guest bedroom fills with sunlight every day at noon, and the smell of sizzling bacon wafts down the hall in less than a minute. The best way to get inside of the heads of young members, young employees, or anyone for that matter, is to step through the door and build a relationship.

Changes & Constants

“The children now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise.” You know who said that? A cantankerous old Plato. Cultural specifics, the window dressing, change over time - Elvis Presley becomes Michael Jackson becomes Lady Gaga and a flapper’s bob becomes a headbanger’s mop becomes punk’s mohawk. But the roots and sentiments behind these changes are constant. The idealism and optimism of youth outlives each generation. There’s a lot to do in our movement. The sooner our collective generations start learning about and from each other, the sooner we can take it on together.

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Thanks so much to Lindsey Siegriest and the rest of the CU Times staff for the opportunity.

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