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How has the recession affected the mindset and expectations of Generation Y?

Tracy Coomber , 19 May 2009

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When they joined the workforce in the late 1990's, Generation Y (Gen Y) brought a different set of strengths, but with those strengths came new challenges for employers too.

Previously, demand was high for this technically savvy generation and the bargaining power seemed to lie firmly in their hands. But during the recession, Gen Y faces a certain problem: fewer jobs and fierce competition. Recruiters can be fussy; demanding very specific skills and experience which are more likely to be available as the market becomes loaded with the unfortunate victims of redundancy. These changes in the economic climate are set to challenge Gen Y's values and outlook - forcing them to re-evaluate their attitudes to work.

Gen Y, a burgeoning generation of 70 million; born between 1977 and 2002, is characterised by individuals who have come of age in a buoyant economy; they have not experienced the hardships of unemployment or previous recessions that the ‘Baby Boomers' (born between 1946 and 1964) have faced.

Because Gen Y was born into a skill-short market they have been able to pick and choose among organisations more readily than any generation which preceded them. They brought with them a new mindset and expectations about work; a mindset different enough for top organisations to develop strategies to attract, recruit, develop and retain this group specifically.

But the first of the Baby Boomers who have become eligible for retirement are not retiring en masse as previously expected, and many are choosing to remain in their jobs through this downturn. This has further highlighted stark inter-generational differences between Gen Y and the Baby Boomers and has led to the question: Are Generation Y's demands coming to an end?

One characteristic Gen Y does possess that will assist them in the downturn is short-term thinking. Business leaders have been forced to learn this, with the phrase "Vision is out, direction is in" being appropriately applied. Yet, a point to consider as we face the recession is whether Gen Y will be able to alter their values and attitudes and adequately deal with this new economic landscape.

So will the values from the Baby Boomers resurface in Gen Y? How Will Attitudes Change?

It is difficult to comprehend Gen Y completely abandoning their values. As we know, values are intrinsically held and not generally altered, although actions are easier to change. It is reasonable to assume that the previous attitude that characterised Gen Y will change to a certain extent during the recession. Similarly, it is assumed employers' attitudes towards recruiting and managing Gen Y will also change.

Switching jobs so readily is something Gen Y can no longer expect to do as easily. As
competition for jobs increases, moving between jobs quickly and easily becomes problematic.  Requests for sabbaticals and time off for personal endeavours may need to be curtailed. At such an uncertain time, requests such as these are unlikely to be approved as greater investment by employees needs to be made in order to maintain profitability.

Many organisations have introduced a temporary recruitment freeze, or have reduced
recruitment to only leadership positions. Redundancies are also likely; consequently, where Gen Y may have taken job security for granted, it is now important for them to demonstrate loyalty to their employer, to encourage investment in them.

Employers will need to focus on their internal talent management through development, training and coaching to ensure that they have the best employee skill set to maintain and continue to grow their businesses, and Gen Y will need to demonstrate loyalty and willing in order to be considered for such development opportunities. 

It is still a two-way street though; there has not been an absolute transfer of power.
Despite the lack of traditional employee incentives which is an unavoidable symptom of recession; motivation is still important, and employers should consider less traditional ways to motivate and retain key talent to mitigate the risk of a disengaged workforce. 

Inter-Generational Differences

Inter-generational differences in the workplace are becoming more apparent in tough times.  Baby Boomers, who may have endured more than one recession, recognise how precious employment is. Previous downturns taught them to value their jobs, be loyal to their employers and respect the hierarchy within organisations. Generation X (born between 1965 and 1977) reluctantly followed and accepted these values. This is contrasted by the attitudes of younger Gen Y workers who are more willing to challenge managers and traditional hierarchies.

Mixing generations together in teams and on projects, assists in a 2-way learning process for all generations in terms of communication styles, both face-to-face and using technology.

Assigning mentors from different generations satisfies Gen Y's demands for continual
feedback and enables Baby Boomers to highlight exactly what frustrates them. Traditionally, this would mean a more experienced Baby Boomer, mentoring a newly recruited Gen Y; however, reverse mentoring is becoming more popular, allowing newer generations to mentor Baby Boomers and further bridge generation gaps.

It is important that the culture in an organisation doesn't single out any one generation and afford them special allowances. If a justifiable demand is made, and the organisation can see the need and benefit of it, then it's important that this be communicated and available to all.  

Finally, technology is becoming more important and is more widely used. Gen Y might feel comfortable adapting to newer technology; however, providing training to all expected to use it ensures a fair and even playing field.

In summary, it seems that employment choices are now firmly back in the hands of the organisation. Attempting to bridge inter-generational differences might help to alter attitudes, leading to a stronger, more productive workforce to assist the company to survive a recession and emerge stronger than ever.

Tracy Coomber is a consultant at occupational psychologists A&DC

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