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Gen Y – The Future is Now

Gen Y, Millenials, Generation Next, Echo Boomers, Boomerang, the Peter Pan Generation — however you identify this group, it currently makes up a significant proportion of workforce entrants today, making it a priority for many HR Leaders. As more and more conversations with our HR friends turn to Gen Y, I thought it was important to explore the topic further – to find out how this group differs from previous generations. And if this generation is so different, what are HR Leaders doing to attract, engage and retain Gen Y, understand them better, and even prepare their respective companies as this group become the majority – and the future leaders.

Who is Gen Y?

It is widely agreed that Gen Y is currently aged between 18 and 32, making them the younger and more inexperienced employees in most organisations. In spite of this, according to one talent expert, “Don’t expect them to subscribe to the same old beliefs as to structure, rules, working hours, corporate culture or business models. They are breaking the traditional rules, while becoming fast, aggressive new competitors.” Tension and frustration between generations in the workforce can certainly exist, as can be seen in this summary, which highlights the differences in perception:

Gen Y on Gen Y: Positive, creative, need new challenges, career focused.

Gen X (roughly age 34-54) on Gen Y: Annoying, Idealistic, unfocused, sense of entitlement.

Despite these differing views, it is clear that Gen Y is having an increasing influence on companies globally. This can be partially attributed to rapid baby boomer retirement, resulting in Gen Y being given more responsibility, earlier in their careers, as compared to previous generations. And this suits Gen Y well, as they want and expect interesting and challenging work that expands their skills. They are keen to see the bigger picture and often want to understand why the company is making certain decisions. This group has clear expectations and will express these much more readily and clearly than ever before. Many of these qualities make them very good employees, but from a management perspective, Gen Y can be demanding.

Gen Y vs. Previous Generations

Most HR Leaders agree when compared to previous generations, Gen Y expects a greater work-life balance, more flexibility within the workplace, and they are much more “tech-savvy.” They are also generally more demanding with regard to career progression and regular positive feedback, with 80 percent of Gen Y saying, “they prefer on-the-spot recognition, rather than formal evaluations,” in a 2012 research study by Achievers and Experience Inc. As one HR Leader recently described it, this group has a “high gratification orientation” — meaning they want constant rewards, favourable input, and early career progression (whether capable or not).

Is this partly due to Gen Y being generally much more tech-savvy than their older colleagues? Whilst the benefits of such skills are obvious, does reliance on multi-media cause previously unseen problems that older generations simply didn’t encounter? Does the instantaneous nature of the way we now communicate (WhatsApp, Twitter, Facebook) mean that our workforce is more impatient and more easily distracted? Do they need constant reassurance and gratification? When we recently asked clients to characterise Gen Y, comments included: low appreciation or regard for experience; less bound by conventional thinking; lower organisational loyalty and more likely to switch jobs – even without a new job to go to – just because the role didn’t meet all expectations early on.

Much of the above can be viewed as a double-edged sword. Being ‘less bound by conventional thinking’ might mean that you can ‘think outside of the box’ and come up with new solutions for old problems — or it could mean that you are an organisational rebel who can’t or won’t tow the line. Being ‘tech-savvy’ is certainly a prerequisite for many jobs today and can result in great efficiencies, but if it means that you have a short attention span and always need instant gratification, is this really a benefit? Staying with the same company for many years can demonstrate great loyalty, or it can indicate dead wood.

These contrasts resemble the answers we received from clients regarding Gen Y — some viewed the generation as key to the organisation’s success going forward, while others see this group as lazy and irresponsible. As one HR Director put it, “Gen Y seem almost determined to work less — ‘max wage, minimum effort’ could be the catch phrase of the Y Generation.” However, according to Gareth Ling, CTO, GroupM Singapore, “Gen Y have a fluid and global mind-set in my experience. If they cannot be fulfilled they have a low threshold of contentment. They are more accepting of change and deal well with ambiguity. They are direct in communication style and readily feedback.”

Attract, Engage & Retain

What is the HR community doing to attract, engage and retain the best of Gen Y? There appears to be no standard approach. Some HR Leaders and companies are actively embracing Gen Y – changing their outlooks, policies and procedures to better suit this group – whilst others are doing very little at all. In our discussions, we found that many organisations have “nothing official” in place, and when asked about engaging Gen Y in particular, many acknowledge that “we don’t, but we should.” On the other hand, there are some interesting and forward thinking policies from companies that acknowledge the need to have an agile mind-set, if they are to attract the best of Gen Y. Many of these policies are focused around flexible working (virtual, home, flexi-hours,) and personal circumstances. One company has even designed office space with Gen Y in mind, including multiple breakout areas and incorporating different styles of workspace.

The other key area where some companies are winning the war to retain their top Gen Y talent is around engagement and career progression. When asked what the organisation was doing to engage Gen Y particularly, one HR Leader replied, “We have a strong focus on career development and the notion of building enterprise experience, which encourages cross line of business moves and lateral moves. This focus promotes the ethos that career development and advancement is about broadening experiences and connectivity, not necessarily promotions.”

A crucial initiative put in place by one HR Head, who says when a strong performer indicates that they are looking to leave/ resign, much more emphasis is put on trying to retain them and change their mind. This can range from assigning someone more senior to talk through the options internally, or even providing coaching to help them see things from a different perspective. When working with a group as willing to change jobs, companies and even industries as easily as Gen Y, this could be a key retention strategy.

MasterCard is one organisation that is taking specific action to attract and engage Gen Y. According to Aditi Madhok-Naarden, Regional Head of Talent, APAC, “There has been an increased focus at MasterCard in the last couple of years to hire Gen Y talent. We have created a robust Summer Internship Program in our global, as well as regional headquarters, including Singapore. In the past few years we have also invested in a formal Graduate Hire Program which has a robust learning and development curriculum and rotational experiences so that we are able to help Gen Y’ers transition into the world of work.”

Rewards

Does Gen Y need to be rewarded differently and if so, who is doing what? Findings range from “nothing” to “no, but we should” to “yes, definitely and we are on a journey of getting input by generation and demographic. As a result, we may have a segmented reward strategy toward different groups, or a strategy where employees can choose based on their lifest
yle / life cycle.” The element of choice is certainly common and often incorporates flexible benefits, which were put in place with Gen Y in mind, but are available to all employees. Some argue the case that any strategic approach to reward is influenced by the competition for talent, as much as their age, and that the market is driving different remuneration models in order to attract the best. This is especially true when top graduates may have multiple offers to choose from and will be looking for non-financial benefits such as international travel and rotation opportunities.

Conclusion

There is no doubt that the workplace is adjusting in order to accommodate Gen Y. Change has always been necessary to meet the evolving demands of new generations, but given the incredible technological advances that have taken place within the last 30 or so years, the gap between Gen Y and previous generations does seem much greater. Whilst Gen Y is sometimes viewed in a negative light, we have found that most HR Leaders believe this group is incredibly keen to learn, and has a strong desire to find a job and a company that will provide them with an environment to enable change and growth, both personally and professionally. Gen Y is looking for an employer that respects and values them, and in return this group has a strong sense of corporate social responsibility. Yes, they want recognition in the form of money and freedom, but they are willing to work hard and will be loyal, if this is provided.

So, what is next? Gen Z has already been identified as the upcoming generation, and they will apparently be ‘Social/Tech Warriors’ who are even more tech-savvy and reliant on the latest forms of communication. As technology continues to evolve at an ever-increasing pace, the gap between Gen Y and Gen Z will be just as great as the breach between Gen X and Y, if not greater. Ultimately, whether Gen Y is perceived as better or worse, what can be said with certainty is that this group is different, and if HR Leaders want their companies to keep up with this changing world, they must keep up with our future generations.

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