Have we been stereotyping Gen Y too harshly?

Gen Y
HRM online

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written on December 21, 2015

Forget everything you think you know about Generation Y. Far from being the self-entitled, selfie-obsessed layabouts of popular culture, a long-running study has found this much-maligned generation is in fact more educated and ethical than its predecessors, while facing more hurdles in their search for stability.

In the context of the workplace, Gen Y (those born between 1982 and 1995, also called millennials) are typically seen as overly-ambitious dreamers, who don’t want to pay their dues and are only concerned about higher pay and more time off.

However, the Life Patterns longitudinal study from the University of Melbourne paints a very different picture, chief investigator Professor Johanna Wyn says.

“Gen Y get a lot of bad press about being greedy and narcissistic. It’s not true – there’s no evidence to support that,” Professor Wyn says.

“It’s a very ethical generation, who care a lot about the environment. And they’re putting more effort than any generation before them on investing in learning.

“These things don’t speak to a negative generation who are just obsessed with themselves.”

Although Gen Ys’ main goals remain similar to those of Gen X – to have an intimate relationship, financial security and a family – they place more value on living an ethical life and are less interested in making a lot of money and achieving a position of influence.

Life Patterns is an impressive body of work. The study has tracked the lives of two cohorts of young Australians, since 1991 and 2005 respectively, through annual surveys and interviews.

The first cohort are now in their forties and have been participants for more than half their lives – around 300 remain. The second cohort, which now numbers around 600, left secondary school in 2006.

The study shows that despite Gen Y’s emphasis on education, the Australian job market has become more insecure and precarious for them, causing considerable anxiety and culminating in what Professor Wyn dubs “the new adulthood”, which is encroaching on their childhood.

“New adulthood is about keeping options open, engaging with education over a long period of time and building a sense of purpose without having a single career,” she explains.

“In previous generations, when you were young you might be combining study with part-time work and lots of jobs. These things, which used to look like ‘youth’, are now starting earlier – often in adolescence – and washing into adulthood.

“People do gradually gain more stability, but it’s hard work.”

The study found Gen Y must navigate low-paying, insecure jobs, which often come with unpredictable working hours, such as late nights and weekends. Finding a secure, meaningful job can take up to a decade after leaving secondary school.

Professor Wyn says these stresses have a direct impact on Gen Y’s health, happiness and relationships. Researchers found Gen Y were less likely to think they will be married, become a parent or in a well-paid job in the next five years, compared with Gen X at the same age.

Professor Wyn believes a further drop in the fertility rate could be on the cards, as Gen Y delays having children until they find more stability.

The study found many men would like to spend more time with their children, but feel unable due to inflexible workplaces.

“In many workplaces, it can’t be discussed,” Professor Wyn says. “Some people paint this as men having the favourable position. But they’re locked in as much as the women are. And it’s bad for everyone – the men, the women and the children. So that’s a considerable downside of the insecurity this generation faces.”

How can employers best utilise Gen Ys?

In a related opinion piece, the study’s authors say: “Much of the impetus for using the skills and knowledge of young people rests with employers, who need to promote work that is meaningful, secure and builds capacity.

“Never before have employers had such well-educated young people to choose from, so investing in this incredible resource by offering quality work is sure to pay dividends.”

Here are some things to consider when hiring Gen Yers:

  1. Employers need to think in bigger terms than a pay cheque. They must make a realistic assessment of what they are offering the Gen Y talent they seek to recruit and retain. Consider all the aspects of “what is it like to work here?” Does it make for a compelling case when compared to Gen Y values?
  1. Create a plan for change. Prioritise areas that are important to change in the short-term and identify aspects that are longer-term or ongoing in nature. In order to keep Gen Y, companies must have programs for increased training, be trusting and teamwork oriented.
  1. While you’re transforming, don’t over promise. Be honest about where your company is relative to the expectations of today’s workforce. Give Gen Yers opportunities to assist with the transformation.
  1. Constantly monitor your progress. Create an ongoing dialogue with your employees to see how well you’re doing and where you’re at risk of losing top talent or employee engagement.
  1. Expect great things. Gen Y welcome being held to high standards and pursuing ambitious goals. Leadership’s role will be to enable and support the ideas and initiative of this new powerhouse generation.

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