Keeping Up with Generation Y

1 October 2008 Alistair Leathwood

Alistair Leathwood, managing director of recruitment consultancy FreshMinds Talent, discusses how employers can adapt to secure the best talent Generation Y has to offer.

The world of work is changing. A fundamental shift is taking place in the way we look at our lives, our careers and employment in general. Broadly speaking, these changes can be seen as a reaction to the classic job structure: the nine-to-five working day week with suit and tie, and company car. In its place, people are increasingly cultivating a ‘portfolio career’ – a series of jobs throughout their lives spanning different roles and even different industries. This is as much a change of perspective as a cultural shift, but its implications are profound.

Generation Y, those born after 1980, are often singled out as the root cause of this revolution in the workplace. They are regarded with suspicion and lambasted as spoilt, lazy and unrealistic. Earlier this year, the UK’s Daily Mail announced the "arrival of Generation Y, the graduate divas who want it all", while across the Atlantic the same 20-somethings were accused by USA Today of "wearing flip-flops to the office or listening to iPods at their desk". The product of a boom economy, Generation Y have excelled at school and in university far in excess of anything achieved by their predecessors. They have been encouraged to travel, be creative and ‘make a difference’. And they have been fought over by employers in the war for talent. Is it any surprise that what they want from their jobs and their careers is different from the hardened Generation X of Thatcherism and Baby Boomers of tougher economic times?

The representatives of Generation Y that I have interviewed have generally been exceptionally ambitious and more than aware of the wealth of options at their fingertips. There’s nothing new in that, of course. Every 21-year-old I have ever met, regardless of what decade they were born in, has wanted to get a top job, earn lots of money and travel the world if they can squeeze it in somewhere. What is new is the scale of Generation Y’s ambition, and their determination to balance that success at work with equal success outside it.

We ran our Work 2.0 survey (talking to 1,000 people and running three in-depth focus groups) at the beginning of the year to look at intergenerational attitudes to work, and some of the responses were astonishing. 41% of Generation Y said they expected to progress rapidly within their existing organisation, over double the number of Generation X who agreed with the statement. This vast, intergenerational step-change can be traced to feelings of being overqualified and undervalued. Two thirds of Generation Y believed they were overqualified for their current role, while 38% defined themselves by their success at work. Both statistics are considerably higher than in the other generations.

Workplace attitudes

But the most interesting trend revealed by Work 2.0 is that it isn’t enough to say that Generation Y is disrupting the workplace. Their aspirations, concerns and desires are infectious. They are changing the way all of us want to live and work. Over the next 15 years, 52% of Generation Y plan to change job roles and 40% believe they will move into a different industry. And Generation X are following suit, with 36% wanting to try their hand at a new job role and 32% hoping to jump ship to a another industry or sector. So what does this mean for UK businesses and the way they attract, retain and reward talent?

On the surface of things, it presents a pretty immediate problem. As employees look for new challenges it will be harder to retain them. However, there are a number of things you can do to incentivise them to stick around for longer. The first is to try and maintain their interest. Google famously asks each of their technicians to spend one day a week working on other projects outside of their day jobs to keep them interested and engaged in what they’re doing. The innovative scheme has reaped significant rewards. Google News, for example, was born out of one of these side projects.

Another employer which has managed to surpass all its competitors when it comes to attracting and recruiting Generation Y is McDonald’s. In the US, one in eight people has worked for the fast food chain. Why? Perhaps because McDonald’s offers transparent career progression. Practically anybody can make it to the top if they work hard and are committed to the brand. 21 of their 50 strong senior management team started out life on the shop floor, including their COO, chief restaurant officer and two of their three US division presidents. These examples are an inspiration to every shop floor manager or commercial analyst in the business, and provide a stunning reason not to jump ship at the first opportunity.

Since 2001 (when Generation Y first started entering the workplace) it has been absolutely essential to adapt the way you present your company and incentivise your staff to win the war for talent. And up until twelve months ago, employers were scrambling to get hold of the best graduate and Generation Y candidates. The next big question for the recruitment industry, and in time for the economy as a whole, is what will happen now that the economy has slowed down and the war for talent is over. Well, in my opinion, attitudes rarely change as quickly as economic climates. What we’re seeing is that, rather than employers necessarily finding it easier to get good people, many of the Gen Y-ers they’re looking for are taking the credit crunch as a golden opportunity to explore personal interests. Whether it’s doing an MBA, going back to university or travelling the world, top talent is as elusive as it has ever been. The onus in part therefore lies with businesses themselves. If the world of work is changing, what are you going to do to keep up?