Gen Y here and now

The youngest working generation knows what it wants

By Lynnette Hoffman

Peter Sheahan is an expert on Gen Y. Here he explains what the youngest workers want.

Gen Y: wanting it all and getting it too. They want it all, they want it now. Whether fresh out of uni or even younger, they’re looking for top paying, challenging jobs from "go!". They want flexibility, creativity, and most importantly, opportunity.

Forget about old-school work-your-way-up-through-the-corporate-ladder ideologies. These folks are heli-careering straight to the top. And they’re keeping their relaxed lifestyles high on the list of priorities. They’re Generation Y. They know what they want and they’re willing to take some risks to make it happen.

That’s the characterisation, anyway.

Employers, marketers, researchers and labour economists don’t all agree on the precise description of this generation, born between 1978 and 1994, but they do agree the young people entering the workforce today are indeed different from those entering a decade or two ago.

"There’s so much opportunity out there and this generation has the confidence to demand it. They want control over their career, and respect, and validation — these are things we all want, but this generation has the confidence to demand it and they’re saying it loud and talking with their feet," says Peter Sheahan, a consultant and author of Generation Y: Thriving (and Surviving) with Generation Y at Work, and himself a member of Gen Y.

Dun and Bradstreet Australasia CEO Christine Christian knew something was wrong when staff turnover at the credit reporting, market information and debt recovery company increased by 30 per cent between December 1999 and July 2000. Not surprisingly, the high turnover was affecting the bottom line.

Christian hired global human resources consultancy Mercer Human Resources to look deeper. What they found was that expectations weren’t being met all around. "We had a new class of graduates come into the workforce that had a significantly different approach to work compared to the Generation Xers in the management positions," Christian says.

Young employees said management seemed "detached," and the quota-driven work environment was just too stressful. For their part, the managers deemed the new breed of employees too idealistic and naive — they wanted too much too soon — and needed too much attention.

Gen X managers defined the new employees as a "self-absorbed generation of spoilt brats," Christian says. The young graduates had their own demands: they wanted to sharpen their skills. They wanted further training and places to grow in their careers. And they wanted to work for a company that was making a difference.

Many complained that the job had been hyped up and wasn’t what they thought it would be. So Dun and Bradstreet put in place a whole new set of strategies, from "talking down the role during the interview process" to creating mentoring programs, to increasing base salaries and starting a "workplace giving program."

The strategies worked and the turnover rate shrank. "Generation Y vote with their feet," Christian says. "(They) don’t tolerate mediocre processes or mediocre leadership."

Sheahan says Generation Yers are easily bored, shun mundane or bureaucratic rules that don’t seem to have a real purpose, and live for change. "They are creative, innovative and resourceful," he says. The downside for businesses is they haven’t got much in the way of company loyalty.

"They are always on the look out for a better opportunity," Sheahan says. And with unemployment rates low and getting lower, there’s more demand than supply, meaning for now at least, there are plenty of better opportunities out there to be found.

"There’s unprecedented choice," Sheryle Moon, managing director of recruitment consultancy Manpower says. "Sixty-two per cent of people doing apprenticeships leave before they get their certification. Sixty-five per cent of Generation Y university students change courses within the first year. They’re looking for new and different experiences and they’re taking longer to settle into job decisions."

"The number of people doing double degrees has increased dramatically, so you have people doing engineering and IT or arts and law. They’re putting a foot in multiple camps, and you’re seeing more generalist degrees than specialist," she says. "So this is evidence of that desire to position themselves to take advantage of all the opportunities that come along."

And now some of the generations before them are starting to take note. Babyboomers and Gen Xers are beginning to make the same demands. Mature age workers in particular are looking for increasing flexibility. Parents, and especially women with young children, are also making similar demands.

"If you become a Gen Y friendly organisation, you become a talent friendly organisation," Sheahan says. "To do that, though, will take more than buying a few bean bag chairs and a latte machine. Organisations need to stop thinking about things like funky furniture. What we’re talking about is empowerment."

But it’s not all cut and dried. Some generally accepted rules of Gen Y are being challenged by qualitative research by labour market economist Dr Richard Denniss, who interviewed 50 full-time workers between the ages of 23 to 28 in Sydney, Melbourne, Goulburn and Canberra about their expectations. He found the results markedly different than expected.

His findings didn’t completely contradict the general notion of confident Gen Yers. "They take for granted that their skills will always be in demand and that there’ll always be jobs for them and employers should be the ones spending money trying to find them. There’s a little naivety there, because they’ve not experienced that kind of insecurity that other generations have," Denniss says. Those perceptions have likely been shaped by low unemployment rates and strong economic times, he says.
"They’re confident because they’ve never seen a downturn. They take credit for the good times they’ve had in the labour market." And Gen Yers seem to have abandoned the once common expectation of long term tenure or a `"job for life".

But just how that confidence plays out in their work lives may not be so simple as some say. While the Gen Yers he talked to were indeed confident, they weren’t necessarily quitting their day jobs overnight either.

People with university or TAFE qualifications tended to be more confident about their chances of finding something better, but that didn’t mean they were going to walk out on a whim: "Across the board young people showed a strong preference for waiting until they found another job before quitting the one they had," he says.

When asked to imagine their response to particularly distressing situations at work, few said they’d pack up and leave. And they weren’t much bolder when it came to talking money, saying they were "terrified" and "horrified" at the prospect of asking for a pay rise.

That’s a sharp contrast to what Sheahan, Moon and Christian say is the norm for this "demanding" generation.

The apparent contradiction could be the result of a materialistic generation too afraid to miss a pay cheque or two, Denniss says. "It’s one of the interesting paradoxes about Generation Y. While they’re quite confident, they’re also quite conservative," he says.

The Weekend Australian


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