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21 June 2014

Generation Y

Tag(s): Business
Last weekend I celebrated my birthday – if you want to know which one, think of a famous Beatles song – so it seems a good time to write about Generation Y. This is roughly defined as those born between 1980 and 1995 and so are also referred to as the Millennials because they joined the work force from 2001 onwards. I recently attended a seminar conducted by PwC where they presented the results of what they claim is the “largest, most comprehensive global generational study ever conducted into the attitudes of Millennial employees.”[i] They were assisted by the University of Southern California and the London Business School which gives it some academic respectability, I suppose, but, though I have some doubts about its robustness, some of its findings are undoubtedly of interest.

PwC were prompted to conduct this research after they had noticed that around 2010, some ten years or so after this generation had joined the firm, the number of young professionals leaving them after just a few years was growing. It seemed that “a significant majority of them appeared to lack interest in the traditional professional services career path, one that required an intense work commitment early in their career in exchange for the chance to make partner early on.” Web-based surveys were conducted anonymously with 44,000 respondents of all ages in 18 global territories. PwC believe that their findings represent “the most comprehensive body of research into the aspirations, work styles and values of professional service employees in the Millennial generation. The findings both confirm and dispel stereotypes about Millennials and provide compelling guidance as to how organisations must adapt their companies to fit the demands of both Millennial and non-Millennial employees.”

Some of the key findings were as follows:
  • 65% want to be able to work from home and 66% to shift their hours. Additionally 71% say their work interferes with their personal lives.
  • Millennials say that creating a strong cohesive, team-oriented culture at work, and providing opportunities for interesting work, are more important to their workplace happiness than for their non-Millennial counterparts.
  • 41% of Millennials prefer to be rewarded or recognised at least monthly for their work, if not more, whereas only 30% of non-Millennials would like that level of frequency.
The concept of work/life balance is not new but of course is mis-conceived. It suggests that we just work for money and derive happiness from our other activities. What we should all want is to be happy in our work and some of the most fulfilled people I have known are those who set out to do for a living what they most enjoyed doing. On the second two points there may be something going on here but it may just be a generational matter, not in the sense that the new generation is fundamentally different from the older generation, but just that they are younger. Perhaps when one is younger the need to be part of a team is greater because one has less confidence in one’s own ability and derives strength from the team ethos. Similarly the newer employee may need more frequent reassurance that all is well while his or her older counterpart no longer needs such frequent reassurance. To validate such research it would be necessary to repeat it every few years asking the same questions in the same way as with any other attitude survey.

The research claims also to debunk some myths:
  • 96% of Millennials want to talk face to face about their career plans and progress, like 95% of their older counterparts.
  • Only 38% of Millennials do not expect to work at one place for nine years or more, compared to 30% of non-Millennials.
  • Post-2008 – career progression and financial incentives are significantly more important than ethical reputation and corporate values. In 2007, 88% of Millennials said they would choose an employer who represented their values.
It is reassuring that virtually everyone prefers to discuss their career face to face with their boss rather than try it on Facebook or Twitter. The second point is not particularly telling as these non-Millennials were presumably longer-serving by definition. But in the workplace as a whole the average tenure is just under ten years and all the indications are that it is likely to reduce. Few think of a job for life anymore and so, when I am asked to advise those who are setting out on their journey, because I cannot possibly predict which businesses will still be around in ten years’ time, I suggest they concentrate on developing as wide a range of skills as possible to make themselves highly employable, or if they are so inclined, to make their own jobs by starting a business.

Five years of recession has probably knocked some of the idealism out of young people. Even if they have kept their own jobs they will have friends who have lost theirs. So, when asked to rank the factors that made an organisation attractive as an employer, hard material factors were placed ahead of softer issues. 52% ranked career progression; 44% financial package; 35% training and development; 31% benefit packages; 21% flexible working; 20% international opportunities; 15% good ethical reputation; 15% matching corporate values; 15% employer of the best people; 10% brand; 8% diversity and 8% sector.

To some extent this varied geographically. When asked if they would compromise on their values for a job around 70% in Hong Kong, the UK and the US said they would while only 40% in India, Japan and Turkey agreed. But perhaps the recession hit harder in the UK and the US. When it comes to the favourite secondment destination that remains Western Europe and the English language dominates, so in that respect perhaps the willingness to compromise is more universal.

Some of PwC’s bright young things were paraded before us to represent Generation Y. We were told that their buying behaviour tends to favour the intuitive such as Apple or the technology drivers like Amazon. They engage with brands via social media and brands are rated for their ability to generate engagement. Apparently Gillette is rated first in this with such campaigns as asking “How do you think Superman shaves?” Call me old-fashioned if I think I have better things to worry about but I do take seriously their warning about the complacency of brands that don’t align their channels of communication. You can’t have schizophrenic organisations as everyone will know. When one particular bank was reported as having a problem within two hours there were 2 million hits on Twitter.

So what does PwC think are the implications for your business?

1. Employee insights:
  • Create a flexible culture which allows for different career profiles
  • Fully leverage technology
  • Increase transparency around compensation, rewards and career decisions – become renowned for talent development
  • Build a sense of community; encourage multiple communication styles
  • Introduce or accelerate your global mobility programme
  • Put health and well-being at the heart of your thinking
  • Remember that one size does not fit all.
2. Customer insights
  • Recognise the importance of the overall customer experience to Generation Y – understand the ‘moments that matter’ and ensure you clearly differentiate on these moments
  • Seek out points where greater collaboration will bring added value to the business and your customers
  • Understand what engagement is taking place with Generation Y across the business
  • Ensure segmented customer data is being captured with appropriate discussion at Board level
  • Explore a communication strategy which plays to the media used by Generation Y
  • In a less loyal world, understand how your customers evaluate your products and services
HR magazine conducted a webinar recently on a similar theme[ii] and it is interesting to compare and contrast some of their panellists’ views with the PwC study. Stephen Bungay, director of Ashridge Strategic Management Centre and a respected thinker on such issues, warned against taking individuality out of the equation but said that we can assume the group is “a digital generation, rather narcissistic and very demanding”. They tend to have an “instrumental approach” to the companies they work for. Younger employees no longer ask what they can do for their employers, but what their employers can do for them.

Tracy Robbins, executive vice president at InterContinental Hotels Group, said all workers, regardless of age, crave two things: “Value and appreciate me, and treat me as an individual”. But she thinks Generation Y employees lack the “loyalty gene” that previous generations possessed. “They want to get on with their careers and they’re very quick to vote with their feet”. Doug Sawers, managing director UK & Ireland at Ceridian, thinks the amount of information available is what has changed things. But this is an opportunity for companies to involve employees at all levels more comprehensively in decision-making. In other words it’s about employee involvement more than engagement. “Everyone has an opinion, and it’s a lot easier to access that opinion today.”

I suspect the employee/employer relationship has always swung back and forth on a pendulum depending on the balance between capital and labour, the balance between employee rights and employer responsibilities, as well as changes in education and social awareness. I am mistrustful of attempts to characterise a whole generation unless there was some massive change in the demographic. The current debate about the so-called baby-boomers also gets that wrong. There was a massive change in the demographic in 1945 and immediately afterwards millions of young men, who had been separated from their wives for several years, came home to the US and the UK to father the children who were not born in the early 1940s. But in the UK that had normalised by the early 1950s. To categorise anyone born between 1945 and 1964 as a baby-boomer is nonsense. There are also clear differences between what happened in the UK and the US. 

Still, some of the lessons that seemed to have been learnt from the deliberations are useful. It’s a good thing to research employee attitudes and it’s a good thing to take note of them in your employee dealings.

[i] PwC’s NextGen: A global generational study 2013
Copyright David C Pearson 2014 All rights reserved

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