Getting wise to the ways of Generation Y

Much has been written and postulated about Generation Y. This generation of workers is generally described as ambitious and demanding, wanting a high degree of work-life balance at the same time as challenging and interesting work. They are also considered to value corporate and social responsibility, a positive employer brand, and a well-designed and technologically advanced workplace.

This is undoubtedly interesting, and these ideas have quickly become inserted in the book of important things HR must know. But two questions need to be asked: where did these ideas originate? And where is the evidence?

Taking the first question, generational theory has been with us for some time. First there was the Lost Generation, and then various others, including Baby Boomers and Generation X, up until the most recent, Generation Z (post-2000).

Historically, generational theory seems linked to global events of magnitude. For example, Baby Boomers were born in the aftermath of the second world war, when soaring birth rates and economic resurgence were felt to have created a generation with a certain collective personality (solidified by the increasing presence of television).

However, since then the generations seem to have become rather arbitrary. What are the ranges based on, and who decided them? Furthermore, as with most fairly blunt categorisation, there is a problem. Today for example, Gen Y can include everyone aged 14 to 30. Is a 30-year-old likely to share values, aspirations and even ‘personality’ of a 14-year-old?

Myth making

Unfortunately, without trying to be too cynical, it may be that generational theory has become a mechanism for creating convenient sociological folklore. In terms of HR, this means money-making opportunities for consultancies that specialise in non-evidence-based approaches, using the latest terminology to convince an unwary audience of the validity of a particular approach. Put simply, it’s a profitable business.

Conflicting evidence

Am I correct to take this cynical stance? What is the evidence for the generational approach? At TalentDrain we have amassed data from more than 16,000 UK-based employees. This has allowed us to reliably evaluate how ‘work values’ and levels of engagement differ across demographic groups, including age cohorts. Some of our findings in relation to the Gen Y hypothesis:

  • Concern for corporate and social responsibility tends to increase with age. This contradicts the idea that Gen Y values this area strongly from a young age.

  • The importance attributed to work-life balance and working conditions also increase with age, contrary to the Gen Y hypothesis.

  • Younger people place more value on career progression, in line with Gen Y.

  • Employee engagement increases with age, and this is particularly marked for the younger cohorts, after which it levels out. This supports the notion that Gen Y workers are more likely to look to move on.

Some of the findings conflict with the Gen Y hypothesis others support it. But are these specific generational effects, or just typical age trends? For example, it somehow seems more plausible to think that younger people have always been more concerned with career progression – and more likely to switch jobs – rather than accept this as a specific Gen Y phenomenon. In truth, only a large-scale longitudinal study can put that argument to bed.

Demographic hierarchy

Finally, note that age differences in work values are much smaller within managerial and professional occupations, suggesting that demographic differences (such as age) are not clear cut. Alongside age, we have also observed differences in work values linked to gender, ethnicity, education and occupation.

From a practical perspective, these findings essentially invalidate the one-size-fits-all approach to HR. Organisations who want to harness the benefits of a diverse workforce need to understand and accommodate demographic differences in terms of their structures, processes and opportunities.

This will better enable them to manage demographic risk, maintain an accurate employee value proposition, and optimise both individual and organisational performance. Applying stereotypes based on generational theory may not help.

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