By Ian Shapira
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 9, 2009; C01
High atop the august Tower Club in Fairfax County, overlooking the glass-and-steel edge city of Tysons Corner, business coach Anne Loehr is teaching 20 executives, mainly baby boomers, how to crack one of society's most vexing workplace problems -- how to deal with their youngest employees or clients.
Loehr, 44 (Generation X/self-identified boomer), asks the class: "What is it like to speak to Gen Y?"
In her seminar, "Get Wise With Gen Ys: How to Effectively Sell to Each Generation in Today's Workplace," Loehr zeroes in on people born in the late 1970s or early 1980s, a demographic cohort so mystifying to its elders that she hands out cheat-sheet wallet cards enumerating traits that supposedly define this exotic generation.
This is, she explains, the first time in American history when four generations -- people born from the 1930s all the way to the 1980s -- are jammed together in the workplace, jostling for hegemony. What we've got here, as a movie character beloved by one of those older generations put it, is a failure to communicate.
Her class -- executives from financial services, government contracting and tourism companies who have paid $25 apiece to get some help -- looks stumped. As plates of scrambled eggs with bacon strips are passed around, the guru elaborates: "Reality TV . . . Gen X had MTV, Gen Y has reality TV. People say to me, 'Why do they talk like that?' Because they grew up on reality TV. Okay? It's not good, it's not bad. That's what they grew up on. They think it's okay to talk like that."
Talk like what, exactly? Loehr doesn't say, but ridiculous-sounding reality TV dialogue is a trait both of today's youth and its elders: "I was, just like, 'Whatever.' ("NYC Prep" on Bravo.) Or: "Before I like you, I don't like you." ("The Real Housewives of New Jersey," also on Bravo.)
Some of Loehr's students feel the need to make a critique.
Jacqui Higgins, 49 (boomer), an interior designer: "They see fame and fortune coming so easy. They have lost a bit of perspective on the hard work it takes to get there."
Bob Urso, 53 (boomer), president and chief executive of a government contracting firm: "Well, they grew up where they had a soccer match and everyone won a trophy, whether they lost or won."
Sensing the room of elders getting feisty, Loehr quickly adds a caveat that seems like a politically correct disclaimer: "It's not good or bad. It's just what they grew up with."
Later, Gretchen Eisenhower, 24, a Tower Club member relations coordinator who participated in the seminar, says she appreciated Loehr's take but couldn't help feeling a tad uncomfortable with how her generation was reduced to a catalogue of stereotypes. "It's a little awkward," Eisenhower says. "I feel like Gen Y is perceived negatively. It makes you defensive."
* * *
The collective fretting over Generation Y -- also known as the millennials -- has turned into an industry for entrepreneurs such as Loehr: The former Kenyan hotel executive, based in Reston, is a "leadership coach" and generational guru, one of several who market themselves to corporations, the military, and federal and local governments as anthropologists interpreting today's 70 million to 80 million 20-somethings or early 30-somethings -- those who came of age with the kiddie dinosaur show "Barney," high-speed wireless Internet and Barack Obama.
Cultural markers such as these have become a useful shorthand that Loehr and her colleagues use to explain assumptions about this emerging generation -- their lefty politics, their belief in gaining consensus before taking action, their sense of self-entitlement, their short attention spans. For older bosses feeling resentment and a sense of superiority, such categorizations can be a balm.
With a Web site and blog, one book published and another in the works, an e-mail newsletter, a graduate student helping her with research, corporate seminars and one-on-one sessions that go for $500 to $2,500, Loehr is quite specific about her ambition: "I want to touch 500,000 lives this year. I am going to touch 500,000 lives this year. I do have spreadsheets that mark how many people I am touching."
* * *
Back at the Tower Club, the "Get Wise with Gen Ys" session is heating up. Many executives came to the event because they don't understand their younger employees. Rob Graveline, 38 (Gen X), who owns a gym, thinks his younger staffers don't have the same work ethic as his generation. He admits he treats his youngest workers differently.
Loehr spells out her theories on what distinguishes this generation from the previous one. "They saw 9/11," she says. "Connection is vital, they want to be connected all the time. People say, 'Why are they on Facebook all the time? Why are they texting?' They really want balance, too. They saw their parents go crazy in Generation X. They are not having that lifestyle. They are going to do it their way. They're going to go to yoga at 4, and the Red Sox game at 7, and do their work at midnight. It might be a good idea to let them go to yoga at 4!"
Someone mentions Gen Y's involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. Loehr agrees there is a serious, socially conscious side to the generation: "They really value making a difference. If you can say you are 'green,' or politically correct or socially correct, whatever, that goes a long way with them. Nike, no way. Gen Y will not buy Nike -- that big, ugly globalized company. This generation is very well-educated -- both parents probably have MBAs."
The class nods. Charlene Perry, 55 (boomer), assistant vice president at an M&T Bank in Vienna, wonders earnestly: "Did they spend a lot of time outside as children? Sitting at a computer?"
Loehr has a spiel at the ready: "Or being shuttled to soccer at 9, and the play at 12. You know, the nanny took them. This is actually a very disciplined generation. They can actually get a lot done. They can be very loyal to a company as long as that company is politically correct."
Xiaoyuan "Wennie" Hanson, 29 (Gen X/millennial), a financial adviser at Morgan Stanley, looks puzzled. She came to the seminar because many of her clients are "trust-fund babies who are Generation Y," she says, and she is slowly beginning to use words like "cool" and "sucks" to make better inroads with them. Now, she has a question about the young generation's role in recent current events.
"So, who's at fault for last fall's economic fall?" Hanson asks.
Loehr resists placing blame: "In my rule, there's no fault."
"Who's riskier?" Hanson persists.
"X is much riskier than Y. Y is riskier in the sense that they travel," Loehr says. ". . . But X is risky with their money."
* * *
Loehr, raised in Ithaca, N.Y., spent the 1990s in Africa running safari and hotel operations with her Kenyan husband, whom she met at Cornell's hospitality graduate school. In 2002, the couple sold their businesses and moved to Washington, where she got hooked on leadership training, drawing on her experience training Africans to run big hotels.
She and her booking agent, Jodi Scholes, 41 (Gen X), are ever on the prowl for new clients. One day at the Tower Club, which doubles as Loehr's office, the two discuss how a triathlon that Scholes recently completed might lead to new business.
"Did you meet [D.C. Mayor] Fenty at the race?" Loehr asks.
"I know Adrian pretty well," Scholes says. "He has my number. I have his number."
Loehr: "Have you talked to him about us getting into the D.C. public school system and teaching this to all their employees?"
Scholes: "Their procurement person is someone I know well. There's not a ton of money there. I keep getting feedback from people who work in D.C. that's it's dysfunctional."
Loehr: "Great! It's a perfect place for us to be. Think of all lives we could change."
* * *
Near the end of the seminar, Loehr instructs one group to devise an ad campaign for a trip to France geared to Generation Yers. As the allotted time ticks down, Perry, the banker, stands up and rattles off buzzword after buzzword.
"We're going to fly in the Airbus . . . which is advertising green accommodations . . . and recycled seats . . . while being connected to the Internet . . . and because we are somewhat risky, we are going to [bungee] jump off the Eiffel Tower," she says. "Text us at organic.com for a 20 percent discount."
Everyone laughs and claps, but Loehr stands up to evaluate. "That was great. A couple comments. . . . Gen Y do not like to fly because of the carbon [emissions]. . . . Also, you started off by saying, 'We work hard to play hard.' . . . That's an X thing. That kind of threw me off. And the last thing, you said something about bungee-jumping off the Eiffel Tower? . . . That's an X thing.
"Y's maybe working in the local schools, teaching French to the poor elementary school kids. Okay? That kind of thing."
Loehr's students, grateful for the insights, nod. Some reach for the handy cheat sheets she had passed out earlier. It is all laid out for them, quick and easy.