The next generation of employees

Read our article in the Cayman Financial Review Magazine, eversion 

They are aged between 18 and 30 years old, they’re smart-talking, technologically savvy, independent and impatient, high performers; yet high maintenance. They are well-educated, entertained and protected, receiving trophies for participation so that “no one’s feelings get hurt”.

They grew up in a world of global terrorist attacks, the AIDS epidemic, school and university shootings, devastating hurricanes, tsunamis and earthquakes, in a world of Two Minute Noodles and “The One-Minute Manager”. Their adage?  Life is short” and, after seeing their baby boomer parents make sacrifices for financial gain and job status, they are less concerned about job longevity and more about self-fulfilment and immediate rewards such as work-life balance, flexible hours, telecommuting and time off for travel.

In today’s workforce four generations work side-by-side: the Silent Generation, baby boomers, Generation X and Generation Y. Each generation has different attitudes and expectations regarding their jobs and careers. “As the workforce continues to shift, it has become increasingly important to focus on the friction between generations,” says Janet Mackey, Ernst & Young’s lead people consultant for Bermuda, Bahamas, BVI and Cayman.

“Based on an Ernst & Young Generation Research Project that surveyed all three generations – Baby Boomers, Generation X, and Generation Y, we found the most significant sources of conflict between generations lie around flexibility, the use of technology in communication, sense of entitlement and work ethic. With views spreading from one end of the spectrum to the other, employers will need to find new and creative ways to address these issues. The focus not only has to be on the current workforce, but also on how to address generational issues as employers recruit in the marketplace.”

The generation that entered the workforce in the past decade, Generation Y, exhibits certain distinctive characteristics when compared to their older counterparts. Generation Y (also known as Millennials, Echo Boomers and the Facebook Generation) is an accurate depiction of the age in which they have grown up, a time of shifting demographics, corporate distrust and values shaped by heavy parental involvement.

They were raised with the expectation that they can achieve anything they put their minds to and were constantly reminded of the value of team-work over competition. Furthermore, Generation Y has technology rooted into the core of its DNA; making extensive use of the internet, social networking, blogging, mobile phones and texting. This has created a dynamic of “cyber communities” and instant relationships, making them a generation of “multi-taskers”.

Each generation brings a unique set of attitudes to the workplace and they do not often fit the expectations of today’s leaders. Generation Y have been portrayed as being over-protected, disrespectful, narcissistic and entitled. Criticism of previous generations is nothing new and dates back to Socrates of Ancient Greece, who once commented, “the children now love luxury, they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise”.

Though one would think there would be some form of compassion for the younger members of Generation Y, many with Masters degrees, who are leaving university only to end up on their parents’ couches, in a society battered by record-high unemployment and a sluggish economy. The younger Generation Y’s, aged under 25, who are now entering the workforce, are experiencing more challenges than those aged 25 and over.

The unemployment rate for 16-24 year olds in America is an astounding 17.6 per cent (US Bureau of Labour Statistics June 2011), a substantial increase over the generation unemployment rate of 9.2 per cent for the year. Further, when the job market does finally recover, these younger members of Generation Y will be competing against the ageing baby boomers (born 1946-1964) as well as the Generation X workforce (born 1965-1980), who have both equally been affected by the recession, but have the benefit of experience on their side.

In addition to the concerns about having skilled employees available for jobs once the economy strengthens, there is also is a complicated numbers game involving talent and the generation. The baby boomers and Generation Y are large generations, but tucked in the middle of them is the smaller Generation X. While there are plenty of Generation Y workers to take over from baby boomers once they move on, they cannot always leapfrog over Generation X because they generationally do not have the needed skills and experience to do the work.

It’s unlikely that a 29-year-old is going to take over the job of a 60-year-old baby boomer, so the business world will be looking to Generation X to fill the void left by the baby boomers. The problem being, for every ten boomers there are only nine Generation X workers, so there could be a talent shortage and consequently, insufficient workers with the necessary experience to move into open positions in the years ahead.

Despite the current job climate, Generation Y will inevitably take its place in the workforce and it is therefore imperative that employers understand Generation Y’s priorities, work-style and ways and means of attracting the best of this workforce. In order for companies to fully benefit from the skills and perspectives of the new workforce, they need to incorporate a Generation Y outlook into their cultures, organisation and management styles.

“A critical challenge facing most employers is how to develop the Generation Y workforce and keep them engaged,” says Phil Jackson, past president of the Cayman Islands Society for Human Resource Professionals.

“The majority of Generation Y don’t feel that they owe their employers loyalty nor do they expect, or want to be with the same employer for their entire career. However, employers who do a good job of providing developmental opportunities and increased responsibilities will be better positioned to attract and retain Generation Y with the most potential.”

That said, major multinational corporations are soliciting the help of consultants to attract the best talent this generation has to offer and to implement effective strategies to manage and develop that talent over time. PricewaterhouseCoopers is one such organisation and Human Capital Director Jaslyne Bridges notes that, “PwC is currently conducting an on-line survey Millennials at Work, found on their careers pages with the goal of the survey seeking to measure the views of the generation about to enter the workforce.”

Five tips for managing Generation Y employees:  

  1. Work/Life balance: Unlike their boomer parents who placed priority on their careers, Generation Y are more interested in making their jobs accommodate their family and personal lives. Keep employees engaged by implementing policies that reflect Generation Y’s need for connection to the world outside of work, such as flexible work schedules and telecommuting.
  2. Continuous learning & development: Generation Y are typically well-educated and, having a higher percentage of university degrees than any generation before them, they understand the need to be continuous learners, in both their professional and personal lives. They are well-trained and have come to expect constant learning, new challenges and a steady diet of meaningful input in their daily work-lives.
  3. Encourage technology: Companies need to allow Generation Y to leverage their technological skills. “Go to this group for innovative and forward thinking ideas!” says Kim Wallace-Watler, senior manager of HR Services with DART Enterprises, “they have a pulse on ’all things new’ in technology and are very creative in navigating around the latest technology tools and are great researchers. They may very well be the ones who come up with the most efficient ways of re-engineering work processes in the most creative way.”
  4. Constant feedback: Due to the role of technology in their lives, Generation Y prefers to receive frequent feedback. Unlike the past where people received annual reviews, Generation Y needs to know how they’re doing much more regularly; they have grown up with constant feedback and recognition and therefore require ongoing evaluation. Managers might even consider a short, weekly catch-up session with them to provide input regarding their performance.
  5. Mentorship: Mentoring is even more important in today’s workplace than it was when boomers were beginning their careers. Things change so fast, not only in process and technology but also in the competitive landscapes that we now work in and therefore a steady flow of professional guidance is critical. Give your Generation Y employees mentors who can help them make sense of the corporate culture, business decision-making, and the rest of the, often peculiar, business world.

“Businesses sometimes discover that their managers aren’t really able to understand and accept the behaviours of the Generation Y populace,” says Kim Wallace-Watler. “So working with your management team to educate them of how this group of employees think, their work styles and preferences, what they see as valuable, and then designing strategies for their productivity and work engagement, will go a long way to your business and employee success.”

In the current economy employers are enjoying a buyer’s market for talent, as there are simply more people than there are jobs. But this recession will end eventually and several factors will turn the tables on staffing strategies.

Companies will need more employees as they grow to pre-recession size and beyond, the boomers will be retiring in hordes, and the Generation X population will, most likely, be insufficient to replace them, leaving employers in a war for talent.

Generation Y, the youngest generation in the workplace, will therefore be pivotal to future success for growing companies; they offer the next huge opportunity and perhaps, the next considerable challenge for managers and business leaders in the new economy.

Companies, poised for post-recession success, must adapt their attraction and retention strategies and management techniques, to accommodate Generation Ys, in order to allow them to flourish and engage in the workplace. Strategies including work/life balance, more meaningful engagement with management, career opportunities, responsibility and recognition of good work, are essential to manage this generation.