Dear HR: Stop chasing “Gen Y”

It’s one of the most discussed topics in the world of work and beyond: Generation Y. In an attempt to nail down what this “Y” actually means, numerous big corporations conducted one study after the other, hoping to “get a clear picture” about this new workforce. What are their beliefs, how do they want to work, what motivates them and how are they different from past generations?

Sociologist, Marcel Schütz claims: “The discussion around Gen Y is affected by subjective judgments, speculations and is full of contradictions: some experts claim that Gen Y lacks solid work ethics, some say exactly the opposite. Some say they are individualistic hedonists, others say they are anxious over-thinkers.

I am classified as part of the so called Gen Y, based on my age and degree of education only (yes, there is no classification that is more accurate than that).

Here are some of the characteristics that apparently define “my generation” based on popular studies by corporations, universities and other institutions:

  • Value time autonomy more than money – flexible working hours and “me-time” are more important than a steep career curve
  • Request openness, transparency and tolerance. Also from institutions: Open Data, Open Science, Open Education, Open Innovation, Open Government and much more
  • Digital natives that can’t live without a smartphone and internet
  • Hedonistic and want to enjoy life “to the fullest”
  • Wish for an autonomous and self-determined life
  • Personal fulfillment, family and purpose in life is more important  than a marvelous career
  • A good relationship with colleagues and supervisors is a top priority in the job environment

Funny enough, some studies say on the contrary that money matters more than flexibility, purpose and a nice working environment. This doesn’t particularly allows for a clear picture of the Gen Y.

According to my personal observations, my Gen Y peers can be divided up in two main groups when it comes to work:

1.Hard-working, ambitious and ready to climb the corporate career ladder. Value a good income and security in their job, but also life-long learning. Want to become experts in their field. Value security and stability (good income, secure job). Practical and traditional – the careers of the past generations are a role model to some extent.

2. Ready to take risks, start their own business instead of pursuing a corporate career. Also value life-long learning but prefer to stay generalists. Value flexibility and home-office opportunities. Value excitement and change in their job as well as having  a purpose instead of only a good paycheck. Likely to move to a different country and experiment with “alternative” life models.

Some other things that describe Gen Y beyond the 2 groups just mentioned:  tech-savvy and aware of the importance of “work- life balance” – but these things are only “natural” and also apply to other generations as technology and social trends develop. If people are given new opportunities like better technology, they will take it. This is not a Generation thing.

When it comes to the work environment, these two groups require different things So, let’s assume an HR manager wants to attract Gen Y. If he plans campaigns to show how fast-paced, purposeful and exciting working at that company is, he will likely attract those who value excitement and change in their job, especially if there is a chance to travel. Those who value security though and value money more than purpose will look for a different company. And this is how it’s always been! Poeple are different, even within one generation. What have changed is that there are more job opportunities and paths than ever before in history. Naturally, people will choose what they see a good fit for themselves.

So what’s the lesson? Companies shouldn’t go crazy about the “Gen Y” – and focus on what makes their company unique. They will attract the right people if they communicate their values right – independent of trends. It’s more important to think about the global trends like new technology and work-life balance – as this is a new standard that all workers expect.


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