· 7 min read · Features

Generation Y - Time to grow up

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The generation born between 1979 and 1999 entered the workplace expecting to call the shots. Will employers continue to meet their demands when times get tough?

Earlier this year, a headline in the Daily Mail heralded the "arrival of Generation Y - the graduate divas who want it all". This is the generation (all born between 1979 and 1999) of young, talented wannabes. They are the frequently overindulged and overprotected children of the digital age who have entered employment and will continue to feed school-leaver and graduate-intake schemes until the next generation comes of age.

As the Mail's unflattering headline indicates, Gen Y has been widely pilloried for pickiness and harbouring unrealistic career expectations. The Association of Graduate Recruiters' annual snapshot of the graduate recruitment market, published earlier this year, painted a picture of a demanding, fickle and greedy generation of new recruits who are calling the shots about how they want to be employed.

The established stereotype goes something like this: Gen Yers, weaned on technology and reared amid an intensifying environmental debate, offspring of the anyone-can-do-it era of Pop Idol and Big Brother, have different aspirations and characteristics from their Gen X forerunners. They are impatient for results, expect to have access to technology, and take an interest in their employers' CSR policies and carbon footprint. They prize work-life balance and have an entrepreneurial outlook. They are "Sir Richard Branson meets Paris Hilton", according to specialist research consultancy Ask Gen Y.

For organisations trying to recruit these people, studies show there are very real problems - especially when it comes to loyalty. The US government predicts that by the age of 38, the average Gen Yer will have had between 10 and 14 jobs. Ask Gen Y's research in the UK has found that 52% of this generation expect to be promoted within a year of starting a job, with an even more ambitious 8% envisaging promotion within just six months.

But with a world economic slowdown, have these halcyon days finally come to an end? Will Gen Y finally have to fall into line? Can employers breathe a sigh of relief safe in the knowledge that, when all is said and done, this 'brat pack' still needs to work, and their days of calling the shots are over? In short, should this group be treated the same as any other?

Association of Graduate Recruiters chief executive Carl Gilleard believes employer attitudes have "hardened a shade" in this tougher economic climate with the realisation that organisations have perhaps bent too far to accommodate the desires of this group. Some of the most extreme examples include industrial vehicle-maker Caterpillar admitting it had to redesign its tractor cabins to better suit an age group more familiar with hi-tech buttons than heavy levers. Microsoft, meanwhile, with its www.hey-genius.com recruitment website is among the most radical examples of a major corporation adopting graphics and tone aimed squarely at building a rapport with these people.

Many believe it is no coincidence that the rise of this generation's expectations has coincided with a buoyant economic period. "The notion of being grateful to have a job had become very old-fashioned, but fashions have a habit of being cyclical," points out Iain Heath, graduate programme manager at Centrica. He adds: "I'm sure tough times would shake out some of the less realistic graduate demands and have an impact on many employers' willingness to accommodate them."

While much of the bullishness has been laid squarely at Gen Y's door, Heath says employers have been just as much to blame. "We can't lay the fickleness charge solely at the graduates' door - it takes two to tango." Even Heath admits that Centrica has had to adapt, but says he has not bowed to demands that do not make business sense.

"Graduates no longer expect employers to provide a job for life and are increasingly focused on building a transferable skills portfolio by way of personal careers insurance," he says. "They are better connected and therefore hear about opportunities much more easily. We've certainly adapted our approach over recent years in response to our understanding of current grad expectations, but all of these things have improved the process and made us more competitive."

One company that will be cutting back on its Gen Y recruitment is engineering consultancy Faber Maunsell. It has been hiring more than 200 graduates a year for the past three years but will recruit slightly fewer in 2009 because of economic conditions. However, the company believes it must still meet Gen Y's demands. "What is high on the Gen Y agenda is that they do want to make a difference and want an environment in which they are listened to," says Faber Maunsell recruitment manager Steve Rodgers. He adds: "They want to make sure they are not just a bum on a seat."

Although he admits he has encountered some Gen Y candidates with unrealistically high expectations, Rodgers says this is not the rule. And, because this group is attracted to like-minded people, he says Faber Maunsell uses Gen Yers to recruit their peers, such as at schools and recruitment fairs.

Ten-year-old web-hosting company Rackspace also has a high Gen Y quotient - around half of its 500 staff. Roughly a quarter of its recruitment comes through employee referral as this is a generation that is highly networked, says Rackspace HR director EMEA Alison Grace. Videos with employee comments feature prominently on the recruitment area of its corporate website to appeal to an audience used to the online broadband experience.

"Despite the market conditions, we feel we still need to market ourselves in a way that reflects the reality of working here," adds Grace. "Because people are looking to acquire skills that are portable, it's important to express the quality of the opportunity and training we have available. Gen Y does have high expectations. We do seek out challenging, demanding people and they will push back and ask a lot more questions."

Perhaps accommodating these people has become such a permanent fixture that a short-term economic wobble will not have any impact. Even Heath at Centrica concedes that Gen Yers are a breed employers cannot ignore. "For those who have developed a balanced dialogue with their applicants and graduate employees, giving honest answers about what they can provide, economic change, while not irrelevant, will be much less of a factor," he says.

THE TRUTH ABOUT GEN Y

- Half of young employees recruited to UK firms via graduate recruitment 'milk rounds' leave within only two years, according to research by Siemens and the Work Foundation.

- However, Chartered Management Institute research into young managers released in June showed 63% of respondents to have been in their current job for three years or more, and only 4% of respondents strongly agreed with the statement: "There's no point being excessively loyal to an organisation."

- Although only a relatively small number (10%) of Gen Yers found their current job through a job search website, this is more than double that for other generations - Gen X (4%), and baby boomers (3%) - according to research and recruitment consultancy FreshMinds.

- At a Kids Today, Leaders Tomorrow seminar hosted by iOpener at the London Business School in July, more than 50% of the student panel said they would take a low-paid job which they loved, and only one member of the panel said they would consider working for a large multinational corporation.

- According to a survey of more than 2,500 senior HR executives by global consulting firm Novations Group, employers have little time to 'prove' to employees in their 20s that the company is the best place for them: over a quarter of new staff from Gen Y decide whether this is the case within a month, and a further 51% before six months.

- Research from Forrester underlines the importance of technology in the lives of Gen Yers - 24% of them read blogs, double the number of Gen Xers; moreover, they like to be able to go online wherever they are and spend more time on the internet than watching TV.

- Google is preferred to print publications as a way of accessing information, and working out of office is prized as a perk. These were among the findings of research among interns at the US Defense Information Systems Agency.

HOW THE NHS HAS HAD TO ADAPT TO RECRUIT GEN Y

'Step into the NHS' was a campaign launched by NHS Employers in June 2007, aimed at raising awareness among 14- to 19-year-olds of career opportunities in the health service. "There are over 350 different careers in the NHS, but we found through research that many young people just think it is all doctors, nurses, long days and poor pay - largely from watching TV programmes such as Casualty, Holby City and ER," says NHS Careers senior communications manager Caroline Robson. "We wanted to dispel some of the myths and help people understand the opportunities. For example, that you can start off as a support worker and then work your way up."

Central to the campaign is a website developed with the help of Brighton-based digital agency Worth. Gen Yers' familiarity with blogging, user comments and so forth means they feel they have a natural right to speak one-to-one with an expert. There was a limit to what could be done here, but this was partially addressed on the site by using case studies and 'Does this sound like you?' snippets on each job description.

To gain audience approval it was important to get the tone of the writing correct, not to be too 'matey' or patronising. Several versions of the text were pitched at different age groups. All were tested with a panel of young people, who preferred the 'older' language and style versions.

Research also showed young people were keen to find out about pay, even though many had no idea what £20,000 a year actually meant. So a 'What could I earn?' comparison with other kinds of job was included.

Over 9,000 people have registered since the site went live in summer 2007. Moreover, research among registered users found that 93% have a more favourable view of the NHS than before they visited the site.

YELL USES TECHNOLOGY TO SPEAK THE LANGUAGE OF GEN Y

Directories business Yell has developed a number of innovative ways to reach out to the Gen Y audience. In April 2007, with the support of recruitment advertising agency TMP, Yell launched a recruitment campaign in online virtual world Second Life.

A team of avatars (digital characters created online to inhabit virtual worlds) were kitted out in distinctive yellow T-shirts, promoting Yell's careers website. The online recruitment team also directed other avatars to Yell phone boxes, specially created for the Second Life environment to provide a direct link to www.yell-career.com.

Yell followed this up by creating the UK's first-ever 'virtual world' careers fair in Second Life last October. The Second Life activity led to phone conversations with 50 candidates, with 15 then being selected for face- to-face interviews.

In June 2008, the company achieved another UK online recruitment first via a gadget ad. The rich media interactive ad featured the strapline "Talented digits", intended as a humorous play on the way fingers work with digital technology. The ad enables users to watch home-made videos of finger dancing (currently popular on sites such as You Tube) submitted by people from around the world; play a game based on finger dancing; and apply for jobs in areas such as marketing, technology and sales.

According to Yell UK head of resourcing Isabelle Hung, the impressive technology behind the ad has given the company gravitas and added to its appeal among Gen Yers, many of whom have mentioned it in job interviews.