Generation Y and why we need them more than ever. #67 #cong16

By Ruairi Kavanagh.

As the Great Depression was getting firmly under way, John Maynard Keynes predicted that by the end of the first quarter of the 21st century the workweek would be a maximum of 15 hours. Sounding curiously like the young Karl Marx describing communist society, he envisioned that the principal challenge facing the ordinary citizen would be “how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well…...

Dr Peter Evans….Stanford University 

So how did that work out then?

If you’re reading this article on your phone at night, after checking work emails again, then I doubt it’s what Keynes was thinking. Exceeded those 15 hours already and it’s only Tuesday? Damn right you have. 

Sure we’ve learned in ways to work in a fashion that we believe is ‘smarter’ but does it mean we are living better? We’re living longer though and working longer, so for my generation (Generation X) we’re on the cusp of seeing, for the first time ever, five distinct generations within the working population. Granted, it’s a very transient thing, as you can see by the graphic below, the maturist pre-war generation have almost left the workforce, but not quite. It’s also interesting to see the aspirations of that generation ‘home ownership’ and that of Generation Z, those born after 1995. Perhaps scarred by the economic crisis, they cherish security and stability, similar in a fashion to those born before the end of the war. 


Today’s workplace is constantly changing, and that means challenges and changes for everybody. The workplace battlefield is currently roughly divided into three major kingdoms:

  • Baby Boomers (Born 1956-1960): 33% of workforce
  • Generation X (Born 1961-80): 35% of workforce
  • Generation Y (aka Millennials, born 1981-1995): 29% of workforce. 

Generation Z, those born after 1995, are entering the workforce in serious numbers now.

Sometime early in the second decade of this century, we passed peak ‘baby boomer’ in the workforce, as this generation was supplanted by Generation X, who have made up the rump of the workforce for much of the last decade. We’ll have less than ten years at the top though, as the Millennials are snapping at our heels. The smartest, most diverse, most dynamic, toughest, most needy, most fragile, most criticised, most demanding generation yet. TIME magazine said they will save the world. Considering where the world is currently headed, they may well need to. 

Generation Y and the workplace

While Generation X observed the changing of the modern workplace with the digital revolution, the millennials are expecting consistent and constant transformation, as they are ‘digital natives’ and for them the digital revolution is a constantly evolving reality. “In terms of career profiling,” according to Dr Mary Collins of the Royal College of Surgeons, “a millennial employee places a strong emphasis on being challenged, but they also want a fluid workplace structure, where they are trusted and empowered to work in different ways. For them a work/life balance is very important, but they view work as something that can be done at any time, from almost anywhere.” Adapting to the needs of ‘Generation Y’ is a growing priority for many employers today, as they represent to next generation of talent for any organisation, and with the competition for the best graduates at the highest it’s been in the last ten years, organisations are having to box clever in order to obtain the best graduates. 

Indeed, keeping the right people is a constant challenge for organisations, those who want to develop the leaders of the future from millennial generation working within their organisations. One of the problems with retention is that organisations can struggle to keep their employees ‘engaged’ and ‘happy’ in the workplace. Dr Collins research shows that on average only 29% of employees could be described as engaged, with 52% disengaged, this also means apathetic or unhappy-and 19% are actively disengaged, which can manifest itself in the form of wilful disruption within the organisation. If an employee is engaged, they are 87% likely to leave and on average they will deliver 20% more productivity.

While organisations wonder and worry about how they can best attract and retain the best Generation Y talent, it could be argued that if the workplace in which this generation wants to work was realised, it would lead to a far better, more holistic and rewarding place for people of any generation to work. While Generation Y are indeed ‘needy’ and easily distracted, they are also resourceful and willing to invest considerably in a place of work in which they feel they are making a contribution. A 2014 Deloitte study spoke of the importance to Generation Y of culture and career potential over pure monetary reward. While these aspirational values are admirable and encouraging, Dr Collins research did point out that an unhappy cadre of millennial workers could lead to rapid disconnection or disengagement from their work, and that although a millennial values feedback and communication, they do not respond well to criticism, hence the commonly heard criticism of ‘Generation snowflake,’ an unfair term which doesn’t refer uniquely to these generations and would be applicable to us all at some stage in our lives. 

Working with Generation Y is also an opportunity to really shake things up. Millennials can indeed be (snow) flaky when they don’t think they’re going to get what they want or need in their lives, but they’re also very aspirational and if you move to engage with them you could find yourself harnessing the goodwill and increased engagement of three generations of workers; the workplace discipline of the ‘baby boomer’, the dynamism of ‘Generation X’ and the flexibility and idealism of ‘Generation Y.’

The future 

The reality is that within less than ten years, this generation will comprise three-quarters of the planet’s workforce. For employers successfully attracting and retaining millennial workers, this means creating meaning, purpose and direction in their work and reinforcing values and vision. It’s important to them that their manager or employer has an interest in their personal career path and can emphasise both the opportunities and the challenges to them. It also means stepping on their toes occasionally, telling them that their verbal and personal communication needs to be as engaging as their digital input and that facetime is not as good as face-to-face. They may not always respond well to criticism but it is worth remembering that they are undoubtedly the most criticised generation in human history, subjected to a level of demographic and sociological scrutiny that their predecessors were not. It borders on cruel. Makes you wonder what will happen to Generation Z? Will the Millennials turn the microscope on their successors in the same way it has been turned on them? Or will they learn from our mistakes and turn away from a data obsessed society? At what point does the unpredictability of human behaviour, catalysed by an unpredictable world, break these demographic models that have been carefully constructed for the past quarter of a century. Are we really that different after all?

As new political movements turn established political orders on their heads and 42 conflicts rage around the planet, the world of work will not be the only things challenging Generations Y and Z. Having driven the planet to a place where so many things are at a tipping point, we will depend on these Generations to undo or resolve much of the damage. Have we created societies that still provide them with the intellectual, emotional and technological tools to do so? Or have we focused on creating technology at the expense of what makes us human? 

A commonly heard question is, what comes after Generation Z? Well, that will be for them, not us, to decide. 

CongRegation © Eoin Kennedy 2017 eoin at congregation dot ie