Generation Y – A different species?

Employer Branding Human Resources Career Generation Y

Members of generation Y are supposed to be qualified, tech-savvy and globalised. They are unwilling to compromise if the work does not bring personal fulfilment, and highly capable when they enjoy what they do. Despite their narcissism, they are reputed to have a strong sense of community and liberal views. Protest is not their thing, but they still want to save the world. They are 100% loyal, but only if they are 100% satisfied. Otherwise they pack their bags and move on. They seek out new challenges, with their universally recognised Bachelor's and Master's degrees, gained in the shortest possible time. At least in theory.

What can definitely be said about "Generation Y" in any case, is that everyone is writing about them. Since 1993, the term has been bandied around in all the newspapers, magazines and of course the Internet: the true home of this generation. Today its members are about 30 years old, and the hotchpotch of attributes ascribed to them is as heterogeneous as they are themselves.

Maybe now is an appropriate time to take another look at the "Millennials". One might almost say in retrospect, as the next generation dubbed "Z" with their smartphones at the ready is waiting in the wings and will soon conquer the labour market. 

After X comes Y, then Z

As dictated by the alphabet, Y follows X. "Generation X" came into the world in the '60s to '80s. The term was dreamed up by photographer Robert Capa and transferred into common parlance by Douglas Coupland's novel of the same name. Characterised by a high divorce rate and brought up by TV, the so-called "Gen X" is characterised as a work-shy, cynical generation that was hostile towards capitalism, caring little for career or prestige, but always wanting to be individuals. When this generation grew up, they didn't want to repeat the mistakes of their own parents and became "helicopter" parents to their children, the "Ys". Although the latter generation is less focused on individualism than their parents, due to their childhood upbringing which was based on reward and recognition, they are more confident. They demand a lot from their employers, want feedback and praise, but are more flexible. Because they have grown up in an economically crisis-ridden period in which technology is changing and improving very rapidly, they are always on the go, always ready for change.

Their children, the "Zs", will turn out to be culturally even more diverse, more interconnected, as well as more worldly-wise.

Better or different than before?

Like all categorisations, we can sum up "Generation Y" not only by seeking common denominators of the group but also - and perhaps much more - by identifying how it differs from other groups. In the narrowest sense, there is its time-based differentiation from the parent generation X. And that's where the problems start: a "Y" can have been born between 1980 and 2000. First of all, in times of massive technical progress, that is an incredibly long period of time – you don't even need to look at political and historical events to realise that.

Secondly, generational issues are always cultural issues: American "Ys" will necessarily differ from German, Spanish and Chinese "Ys".
Thirdly, it depends on what aspect of such a generation that we are considering. If we are looking at the world of work and requirements in relation to work, the "high potentials" will receive attention, since they characterise the work ethic because of their leadership potential.

The "high potentials" of the previous generation were consumption-oriented and hungry for social recognition. That is diametrically opposed to the description of "Generation X" as a group of "anti-capitalist punks and hippies".

At the same time, side by side, there were also the followers of different subcultures and the career-oriented workaholics, to which the term "yuppie" applies: in mutual incomprehension and mistrust, with little contact with each other.

But their children are interconnected (whether they want to be or not) through the Internet - especially Web 2.0. They are all users that can meet intentionally or unintentionally at the one special place, or "non-place”: the World Wide Web. This makes them more receptive and open to new things, as they are supplied with different thought constructs and world views in their news feeds, and don't have to laboriously figure out different ways of thinking for themselves. So, however heterogeneous "Generation Y" may be, its members are only a mouse-click away from each other. And that unites them.

From the perspective of the employer

But what about "Gen Y" and their attitudes to work, and how do they differ from the attitudes of previous generations? Sociologists and historians around the world have tried to find this out in studies, with the result that the "high potentials" of "Generation Y", in contrast to the previous generation, place far more emphasis on self-fulfilment than on climbing the career ladder.

Doris Storm, who is responsible for Employer Branding in the Human Resources/Talent Acquisition division at A1, deals with the question of how her company can attract young talent. This task of course can involve a conflict with the "high potentials" themselves, their wishes and expectations: "Over the years, it is striking that – especially in the graduate segment – we find more and more applicants who are looking for jobs with which they can really identify. On the other hand, right from the outset, they make it clear that there are limits to their commitment (keyword: work-life balance). At present, there are good prospects on the labour market for those who are particularly committed to the job and have additional qualifications. The challenge for companies is to offer exciting jobs for the young generation", says Sturm.

"Whether 'Generation Y' will be able to fulfil their requirements for a better work-life balance in the long term will only become clear over the years", says the expert. The desire for identification with the job has also been noticed by employers. To achieve this level of identification, some "Ys" are willing to accept the boundaries between work and leisure becoming blurred. Even if Spotify playlists are occasionally compiled in the office, in exchange, work e-mails are answered while having dinner with friends. "Ys" don't want to spend their whole life vegetating in the same office shackled to their computer, but change jobs far more often than previous generations, always optimising their work-life  balance. This is an elitist "multi-option society" that already had the choice in elementary school between yoga, French lessons and flute. But is that true?

Action and reaction

On the one hand, yes: this generation is generally better educated, and often over-qualified, more proficient with technology and more globalised than its predecessors. On the other hand, some apparent trends seem to be less a common mindset of a peer group than a forced reaction to the situation on the labour market. Many people frequently change jobs not because they are spoilt for choice, but rather because companies cannot or do not want to extend what are often short-term contracts. The "multi-option society" is facing the harsh reality of high unemployment, which only a very small group within this postulated generation will be able to escape. Not every well-trained academic is also a "high potential". Only an elite within the elite is spoilt for choice.

Even the sought-after “digital natives" can only exploit their advantage over older workers for a few years – because what is now perhaps considered an exceptional asset or additional skill will soon be what is expected of every job applicant – social media literacy as a unique selling point will soon be as passé as a Snapchat.

One may speculate that values such as "job security" and "loyalty”, which were appreciated by the previous generations, would be just as highly cherished today, if they were a realistic expectation. The advent of precarious work conditions, where demanding job security is just not an option any more, has been accompanied by a change in values. Putting it as "If I can't have a permanent contract, I would like at least to have self-fulfilment" may be something of an exaggeration. However, "Generation Y" would not frame this sentence as a reproach. They have grown up in the knowledge that they are living in uncertain, changing times. They know what their options are, and are making the best of them. As each generation has done before them in its own way.


Amira Ben Saoud