The Gen Y myth

2011

If many workplace commentators and observers are to be believed, companies are going to have to make some significant changes to accommodate the disruptive ways of Generation Y. These Millennials, we're told, are obsessed with the latest technology, demand 24x7 access to social media, want to choose where, when and how they work and are restless itinerants forever seeking change.

But according to a new study involving almost 25,000 people across 19 countries, much of the perceived wisdom about Gen Y's attitude and approach to work is nonsense - and much of what business leaders are being told or have assumed in recent years about working preferences also needs to be radically re-thought.

The report, by UK-based workplace consultancy JBA, set out to examine the generational views that are impacting the direction of workplaces - with some surprising results.

For example, we frequently hear that Gen Y are beating the drum for new working practices – demanding the freedom to work remotely, make use of stimuli such as social networks and to continually have the latest 'must-have' technologies.

But the study found that the reality is very different. In fact, younger staff expressed 15-20 per cent less desire than their older colleagues to choose their time and place of work - they actively seek out every opportunity to be in the office in the closest proximity to their boss.

It also found a direct correlation between age and appetite for flexible working. Among older staff, seven out of 10 wanted more choice about their work patterns. But just four out of 10 of their younger colleagues are keen to detach themselves from the office environment.

"This has real implications for accepted wisdom of workplace design and the built environment," said the report's author, John Blackwell.

"Many employers are planning radical changes towards 'leaner' working arrangements and less use of formal offices on the assumption that this will be appealing to younger hires. However in the light of this study, such plans will need careful consideration into how they might be realised."

Another myth busted by the report is that Gen Y are forever demanding new technologies and pushing the boundaries on wider intellectual connections and stimuli. Quite the contrary: younger hires are more accepting of the available equipment – by anything up to 20 percentage points than their older peers.

Neither did it find any evidence of younger staff demanding more access to social networks. If anything, they are reticent to ask for such tools in the fear they might be accused of malingering.

Another unexpected finding was around attitudes to change. Far from being restless itinerants forever seeking change, younger staff were just as keen as other age groups to consolidate their existing work situations and not to be caught in an on-going whirlwind of change.

What's more, younger staff placed more emphasis on working longer hours in the office and putting work before family than their older colleagues.

The key message from the survey, as John Blackwell said, is that for all the talk of technological and social revolutions, some things stay the same.

The SmartWorking Summit

John Blackwell will be one of the speakers discussing how successful organisations are transforming work practices at the 1/2 day SmartWorking Summit in London, 18th October 2011

"A universal desire among employees of all ages and nationalities is for a good career, with prospects, at a socially responsible company, working with managers and colleagues they respect, with a strong sense of duty towards their role and employer".

"Traditional values, such as duty and career prospects, are as equally germane for those born in the 1990s as those born in the 1950s."

Nevertheless, he added, "forward-looking organisations understand that the workplace of the future is not some place they are going to but one they're creating. Paths to it are not found but made, and the activity of making them changes both the maker and destination."

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