Recruiting young people – meet the parents: the helicopter parenting phenomenon of Generation Y

More and more employers are falling victim to the ‘helicopter parenting’ phenomenon. How can HR make the best of family ties? Virginia Matthews reports.

Anyone who doubts that the phenomenon of ‘helicopter parenting’ – where parents hover anxiously over their grown-up offspring and manage virtually every aspect of their lives – is a uniquely modern phenomenon, should talk to Richard Branson.

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As one of four children in the 1950s, the serial entrepreneur was routinely dropped several miles away from home after outings with his mother, Eve, on the grounds that being forced to find his own way back would be character building.

Such is the nature of today’s more nurturing parenting style that Mrs Branson and her ilk would be accused of wilful child neglect.

The stark truth is that Generation Y (those born after 1980), born to Generation X parents, has never had it so cushy. Endlessly chauffeured from Mandarin classes to ballet or from singing to tennis lessons, there is little room to build their own independence.

This is all very well when they still have milk teeth, but may be more of a problem when at 21, their first employer discovers that it is the parents, not the young recruits themselves, who must be helped to settle in.

Enterprise Rent-A-Car, for example, was recently forced to turn away a mother who accompanied her son on induction day, while the University of Liverpool has now told undergraduates to stop bringing their parents to careers fairs on the grounds that it can be difficult to identify exactly who the jobseekers are.

Not even the City is immune from what some sociologists are terming the ‘infantilisation’ of modern society.

Sonja Stockton, head of student recruitment at consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, has experienced helicopter parenting first hand.

“I’ve had mothers pretending to be their graduate children’s secretaries so they can find out more about the job they’re applying for and I’ve come across fathers who have instructed their 21-year-olds to apply for a job in the City even though they would quite clearly rather go and pick coffee beans in Bolivia or travel the world for a year,” she says.

“When parents turn up on assessment day, which they frequently do, I’m tempted to say ‘go and get a life’, but all I can really do is smile and usher them into a side room.”

She adds: “If a young person who has already lived away from home for three years still can’t stand on their own two feet and think for themselves, then it is highly unlikely they will get through even stage one of our selection procedure.”

While Stockton believes that the people controlling this particular helicopter are the parents, not the students, others – including university lecturers faced with the problem of lonely undergraduates phoning Mum during lectures – argue that today’s cossetted young are equally unwilling to cut the umbilical cord.

Paul Redmond, head of the Careers and Employability Service at Liverpool University, believes that while rebellious students in the 1980s would have written 100 essays rather than phone home, today’s student is very different.

“Parents today are far closer to and more intimate with Generation Y than their parents would have been with them and the bond doesn’t just stop because they have reached 21,” says Redmond.

“Whether it’s a case of finding a university or choosing between competing job offers, today’s graduate looks to their family for advice and support and appears to welcome rather than resent what might seem like intrusion.”

“If they are quite happy to outsource the really tricky things – like finding them jobs or running their bank accounts – to the very people who are so anxious to do everything for them, can we really be surprised?”

Bob Athwal, graduate recruitment manager at energy company RWE Npower, believes that active parental involvement – as long as it doesn’t include actually filling in job application forms – should be welcomed.

“I’m glad that some firms attempt to stop mums and dads at the door because that means there is more room for Npower to become an employer of choice among parents,” he says.

“I see no reason why families shouldn’t attend careers fairs and ask for information on behalf of offspring who are feeling shy, and I see nothing wrong in them attending a whole week of induction if they want to.”

“If there is sufficient demand from the parents of my graduates, I will happily host a dinner just for them and invite senior management along – anything to reassure them that their offspring have made the right choice,” he adds.

Nor is Athwal phased by the prospect of parents contacting him to complain about young Anthony’s terms and conditions or Joanna’s bonus – or lack of one.

“I am confident enough in our graduate recruitment package to engage with parents directly on this issue,” he says. “It hasn’t happened yet – probably because our salaries are pretty fair – but I know there will come a time when it will.”

According to Carl Gilleard, chief executive of the Association of Graduate Recruiters, helicopter parents need understanding rather than pushing away.

“Today’s parents have been encouraged to take a very active role in their children’s education and long-term future, and with employment competition now so fierce, it is quite natural for them to want to see their children settled into a first job.”

“Of course, money comes into it, and the fact that they want to see a return on their investment – after all, many more students live at home or move back there after graduation, plus there are the tuition fees – but then so does the sheer accessibility of mobile technology.

“It is also simply a reflection of how friendly we are with our children nowadays,” he adds.

So what should employers do when faced with dozens of hovering helicopters?

“HR teams should turn this trend to their advantage by striking up a relationship with the families of new recruits and accepting that winning the backing of parents can considerably smooth the path,” advises Gilleard.

“While I wouldn’t expect to see quite so much involvement by parents once the young person gets to his second or third job, it’s best not to be too rigid about these things. It is quite acceptable for people in their mid-20s to still want loads of backing from home.”

Something to remember the next time you spot a worried-looking parent adjusting one of your star candidate’s tie.

Join the Generation Y debate

12 June 2008, 6pm-8.30pm

Founder’s Hall, Clerkenwell, London

Join our HR Directors Club debate, in association with Oracle, on Generation Y. We will examine how businesses are responding to the need for greater flexibility, mobility and information sharing, as well as looking at the key role collaborative technology and applications can play in maximising the contributions of this generation.

For more information or to register, go to or e-mail [email protected]

Enterprise Rent-a-car

One of America’s largest graduate employers, Enterprise is an early adopter when it comes to accommodating worried parents, as European HR director Donna Miller explains.

“For around 15 years now, we have invited dialogue with members of our employee families by sending the appointed person or people a whole package of information about the firm and a personalised welcome letter from the managing director (see below).

“While some candidates (and we don’t care if they’re 22 or 42) will choose a partner – a grandma or maybe an uncle – in the case of younger people, it usually goes to the parents (two sets if they are divorced).

“While we don’t like parents them to attend induction sessions – we see that as being a little too much like a child’s first day at school – we do believe in building on the family network,” she adds.

Extracts from Enterprise Rent-a-car’s letter to parents:

Dear Mr and Mrs Jones,

With the recent hire of your son Brett, I would like to take this opportunity to tell you about Enterprise Rent-A-Car… (we) began in 1957 in St Louis, Missouri with a single office…

Making a career choice is a difficult decision. I am very happy that your son ‘Brett’ has decided to join us. You can be assured that the choice was a good one. I began my career with Enterprise 20 years ago in the same position that Brett is starting. I look forward to watching Brett work hard and move up the company ladder.

I have enclosed some literature for your perusal (mission statement, company profile, media cuttings, etc). If you have any questions about our business or your son’s career, feel free to contact me.

Brice Adamson
Managing director – UK/Ireland Operations.”

Spotting the helicopter parents

The Agent: Operates like a footballer’s agent: fixing deals, arranging contracts and representing client at events that might be too tedious to attend in person.

The Banker: Accessible online, face to-face or via a personal hotline, bankers charge no APR, ask few questions and expect no collateral. Tend to say ‘yes’ to every request despite being resigned to never seeing loans repaid.

The Bodyguard: Protects the client from a range of embarrassing social situations and constructs elaborate excuses when client doesn’t show up. Doubles up as a chauffeur and PA.

The Black Hawk: Goes to any lengths to give their offspring an advantage over the competition. Particularly lethal when it comes to falsifying offspring CVs.

Helicopter sayings:

  • “My son is very interested in a career with you. Can I give you his CV? No, he’s not here, he’s in bed, but I’m here on his behalf.” (Careers fair)
  • “My daughter always travels first class. Is she really expected to travel second class on business?” (In response to query from HR)
  • “I’m phoning on behalf of Tim Smith. He won’t be in today, he’s got a cold…” (To departmental secretary)
  • “My daughter is starting with you on Monday. Can you make sure she remembers to get a reference for her landlord?” (To HR manager)
  • “This is Jane Brown’s mother here. She’s asked me to phone you about a problem she is having at work…” (To line manager)

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