Ignore generational trends at your peril

I know the are a lot of people out there who are adverse to the idea of any generational comparisons. I get that, The Generation Y piece is the neglected Bank Holiday barbecue sausage of a topic, cooked to within an inch of its life, unpalatable to fairly much all and a shadow of its intended state. But as a profession, we need to be curious about the macro environment, we need to be interested in demographics and we need to look at the generational factors that may be impacting on our supply chain: the workforce.

Generalising from the specific is never a good idea, but trying to disprove trends by raising anomalies is also foolish. We should be better at analysis than that, we should be more questioning and we should be more thoughtful. Because there is something going on with the current generation of job seekers and we should be aware of this as employers.

I was sat last Thursday having dinner with five French people in their seventies, all now retired. Two had worked their own farm, one had worked in accountancy and two were (what we now call) serial entrepreneurs. Like any conversation in the euro zone at the moment, it wasn’t long before it turned to the economy and specifically employment. The views of the current generation of jobless were, at best, damning. Not about their skills, their abilities but their willingness to take opportunities. I heard time and time again, “the jobs are there, they just don’t want to do them”. Coincidentally this came on the same day that Jamie Oliver made his comments about UK employees and their attitudes to work.

But is this coincidence? Or something else?

I first wrote about this topic in 2010 and recounted a conversation that I’d had two years earlier when I was being lectured to about the needs of GenerationY. My response, over six years ago now, was that we’d witness a massive economic downturn, the labour market would toughen and that the winners would be from the less advantaged countries, who were willing to work harder and start at the bottom. It was a bit of a throwaway comment at the time, but true words spoken in jest and all that.

I know that there are hardworking young people out there, I see and meet with them all the time. I know that there are lazy work shy, feckless septuagenarians too. But I don’t think we should overlook a body of anecdotal and empirical evidence that suggests that we have are witnessing a mismatch in expectations (and I’m not just talking about these two occurrences) that is leading to an employment gap.

Do we need to prepare ourselves for a lost generation? Do we let market forces take their course and allow the next generation to right the wrong? Do we need to do more as employers? Or do we write this off as generational nonsense and bury our heads back in the sand?

The CIPD launched a brilliant piece of research earlier this year “Employers are from Mars, young people are from Venus”, which if you haven’t read, I’d implore you to do so. It explores a number of these issues.

As for the answer, well I’m not sure. But one thing I’ve learnt over the years, is that when you see a dripping tap, or a crack in the wall, you’re better off inspecting it and looking at the root cause, rather than turning a blind eye and pretending it doesn’t exist.


  1. Gareth Jones · September 2, 2013

    I think we already have a lost generation, possibly two. And I’m not sure, given the general trend to a ‘not me’ largely responsibility less attitude that we can afford to let market forces work it out. After all, its the last 30 years of market forces that got us here. I too think its dangerous to both generalise but also ignore. We do have an issue, but unfortunately its made worse by a legion of other generational types that are ‘following suit’ and generally doing nothing to right the wrong. Thanks for the tip re the report!

    • Neil · September 7, 2013

      Great points Gareth, thank you. So what do we need to do?

  2. Simon Jones (@ariadneassoc) · September 2, 2013

    This is a very interesting article but I think it confuses two different issues. The first is that HR people should have a good understanding of the labour market they operate in (which can vary industry to industry), which includes the demographics – and then plan around this. (In fact I’d say that labour market economics is as important a knowledge area for HR people as employment law or an understanding of theories of motivation). In that I’d entirely agree with you that HR people can’t ignore the issue.

    The second – where I do disagree with your analysis – is the lazy stereotyping of young workers. Radio 4 are currently running a season of classic British “new wave” plays from the 1950s and early 1960s, such as “Saturday Night, Sunday Morning” and “This Sporting Life” which are in the main an exploration of how the wartime generation and those who grew up immediately after conflicted. The older generation criticise the younger ones for being lazy, expecting everything on a plate and having a poor attitude to work. Sound familiar? And when I started work in the mid 1980s I was constantly told about how “young people” (i.e. people of my generation) didn’t want to work.

    Of course people have different attitudes based on their experiences and environment, one of which is their ages. And cultural norms do vary from generation to generation. But what the “#generationblah” approach that you criticise is trying to tackle is the more fundamental issue of creating workplaces where all employees can be motivated and productive, rather than segmenting people by their birth date

    • Neil · September 7, 2013

      Thanks for the comment Simon, well thought through, but I have to disagree I’m afraid.

      I think you’re wrongly separating the two points. Point one has to inform point two. We need to base opinions on data. The youth unemployment figures, versus the open vacancies figures for example. Read the report and the evidence of the gap between employers views and young job seekers.

      I don’t think the #generationblah approach is trying to tackle anything. I just think it is a bunch of people whinging on Twitter. Don’t segment people by their ages? That’s naive, if I may say so.

  3. daviddsouza180 · September 2, 2013

    In a previous role I used to do a lot of work with 14-18 year olds, looking primarily at employability/business skills . I was always stunned at how confident and creative they were compared to what you might have expected to see 20 years ago.

    I saw a 14 year old do an in depth, well researched presentation of a quality far outstripping most business presentations (I know, low bar…). They had created it in their lunchtimes.

    I was also continuously impressed and distressed by how much freedom they demanded and expected over time and approach. It simply was a complete mismatch for all but the most creative of roles.

    The issue of ‘who owns the problem’ will rapidly become overtaken by the problem. The problem isn’t wholly generational, but simply of an evolution in the way people are (and how they do what they do) that is far outsripping any evolution of the workplace.

    I’d agree that generational stereotyping is lazy thinking, but the fact that people change is a constant that cannot be overlooked or ignored.

    We told a whole bunch of people they could all be whatever they wanted to be – now we have a recession and they don’t want (in some cases) to do the work that is available. I’m not sure where the fault lies, or that it matters, but it is probably with not with a generation just wanting to get what they were promised.

    • Neil · September 7, 2013

      Great points, I think you’re right. It isn’t about generations per se, but the development of society which is represented through the generations.

  4. Working Voices · September 2, 2013

    Firstly, great article. Working Voices works with both senior and entry level professionals in a variety of industries and sectors, and what has been said here (by other commentors too) matches what many of our trainers have experienced.

    There will always be a ‘gap’ where one generation considers the next generation lazy, or unappreciative, and this has been documeneted well before things were being written on blogs. This is probably quite natural.

    But statistics do show that Generation Y is more narcissistic than any before them, and that they have shorter attention spans and a more self-centered in their actions. This doesn’t mean they aren’t hardworkers, and it certainly doesn’t mean they aren’t clever, but it does mean that they have to be managed differently and communicated to in a different way; sometimes this means they respond better to flatter hierachies, other times they need more direction.

    Is this a problem? Well certainly in some areas it appears to be, yes, and big employers are often seeing ‘mismatch’ between senior workers and manager’s expectations and those of their entry-level workforce. Really, employers can only react and try and reshape the young people who don’t fit in to their organisational structure, or adapt themselves. If society wants young people to be less narcissistic, celebrity focused, or unadjusted to following other’s leadership, things need to change at a social level.


    • Neil · September 7, 2013

      Thanks for contributing, I think the point is “the mismatch between expectations”. This is real and we can’t ignore it.

  5. Julie · September 2, 2013

    As always – a thought-provoking post.

    Although I’m usually on the “shut-up already” side of the generational discussion, this doesn’t mean that I don’t agree that there are and will continue to be differences among the different generations.

    How could there not be? How can a group of people, whose big technological advance was the fax machine, compare to a group of people who work with clouds? To David’s point – it’s evolution.

    Where I find it difficult to not roll my eyes is when marketing and the sales machine takes over and there are suddenly a dozen webinars, seminars, and books telling us the next generation coming up the ranks is different. Shocking.

    As HR we need to be aware. We need to be aware of the expectations and possibly the needs of the various groups (generational or otherwise) at our organizations. And we need to decide what we can do that will work for both the business and the employees.

    I agree with you that there are hard-working and lazy people at all levels and of all different ages. My concern is when we rely on generational labels to predict behaviours and attitudes rather than categorize actual ones.


    • Neil · September 7, 2013

      Thanks Julie and you’re right, the marketing machine is a nightmare. But we can’t throw out the baby with the bath water, we need to be more analytical than that.

  6. Rupert · September 3, 2013

    Great article which I want to add to as I think the root cause is very much about a macro piece on the supply and demand side as well as an issue with HR’s lack of closeness to modern jobs and the skills they require.

    In my experience the flip side of this piece is the growing, and often acute, skills shortage in the job areas, specifically digital and technology, that you would expect this generation to be filling. And we have massive youth unemployment of people who think they would like to do these kinds of jobs. Our hypothesis is this is not just about the generation joining work it is about a workplace that does not know what to do with them.

    I believe the challenge is that there is a real skills gap of what it takes to be useful in a modern firm and what young people arrive with. So many entry level jobs have been automated out and people need to start with more to be useful. This is compounded by a regular failing from HR to really understand the skills that the new, in demand roles, in their organisation needs. So the recruitment process reverts to a set of soft skills which can only really be understood from previous work experience. Team work at school or Uni is not the same as in the typical corporate. Net result recruiters favour experience. And becoming a great UX designer or content strategist requires specific as well as general skills, again favoring experience.

    What needs to happen is for HR to really get to grips with the “hard” skills that their organisations need today and tomorrow for the critical roles. They then have to put in place, potentially with FE and HE partners but more likely in house due to the speed of change, programmes to actually teach those skills to the point of usefulness for new starters. Then there is demand and the organisation and new starter wins. Interestingly with all the new courses and technologies out there the cost of this has crashed. Sadly most FE and HE is not delivering the skill level needed.

    On the education side it is fascinating if you ask a typical well educated school leaver or student to name typical jobs in a modern firm and what they do. Our experience is they can name between 10 – 15 roles which includes Doctors, Nurses, what their parents do and a few other traditional roles. Reality is they don’t know what jobs are, and what they involve. As the work place has fractured in hundreds of super specialisms, the understanding of new starters of what work means is stuck in the 1980’s.

    The Google Squared initiative is a fascinating example of a company seeing their customers do not have the right skills or understanding and doing something to fill the gap.

    So yes there is a gap between people who have not worked and people who have, and many of those will be young. But the attitudinal malaise may be far more to do with the lack of a sense of efficacy and usefulness from people as they start in the job market without the relevant skills at the right level rather than a generational characteristic.

    The organisations that get this right and move to fill this gap will have a fantastic opportunity to get some real competitive advantage as they are not out there trying to attract high priced contractors and freelancers to support their core business in an increasingly hot labour market.

    • Neil · September 7, 2013

      Rupert, you make some brilliant points. So thank you. The issue of not knowing what opportunities are out there is a real concern. How do we match supply and demand when people don’t understand the demand side?

  7. Disappointed employee · September 7, 2013

    We are in constantly changing times and the people we hire reflect our skills at recognising their appropriateness for their roles. Whilst the older the employee is, the more evidence we have for their appropriateness it would be damning to refuse youth the opportunity to develop and learn from their mistakes. For example an HR employee entering a new post foolish enough to have her facebook account accessible to employees; whose first impression of her involves vulgarity and a two finger salute to those who were hoping to respect her. First impressions count for so much, initial hard work and dedication is positive but it is so easy to cause damage in your careers and the youth of today need to be aware of the quick to judge attitudes that are present in our workplaces.
    A colleague of yours from one of your previous roles who has recently joined your current team has not made the best impression through her internet presence. If HR people are prone to such errors in judgement what do you hope for from those you represent.

  8. Pingback: Censoring blog comments | change-effect
  9. Alasdair D Murray (@Alconcalcia) · September 9, 2013

    Does the employer need to adapt to meet the needs and expectations of Gen Y or should Gen Y adapt to meet the needs of the employer? That’s the question for me. When I was a surly youth way back when, of course I had my own idea of what the world owed me, but I soon found out that in order to get on in life and in work, you need a degree of flexibility rather than a set of immovable expectations around which employers need to woo you. The difference is, back then we didn’t as a generation, have a voice as such. There was no such thing as blogging or social networks. We just got on with either conforming or watching from the sidelines. Now of course not a day passes by without reading about how this generation is different and thus how they need to be treated differently. I;m not just saying it because I am now older and wiser, but that is a load of arse! Every company has its own unique environment and is made up of a mix of ages ethnicities, cultures and personalities. Getting your foot in the door and your feet under the desk demands the ability to adapt, to say the right things and come across as someone they would want to employ. Going in with a preconceived idea of what gen y are’ and a wish list in your head about the way you want to work is madness and doomed to failure. Back to my surly youth again, and I recall my first experience of work to be an eye opening experience that required me to get rid of my theoretical opinion very quickly and get into line with the reality. And the reality is, that there is no room for anyone in a business who thinks the world owes them a living or that conditions have to be just so in order to satisfy the theoretical needs they have read about in a thousand and one blogs on the subject.

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