Settling down on the shiny black sofa in the front room of their student house in Jesmond, Newcastle, Ailsa McNeil and her flatmates discuss what they would do once they had left university.
‘The idea of moving into the financial world of London and working long hours inside a massive company does not appeal to me,’ said McNeil, placing a textbook down on the cream carpet, among scattered magazines, scarves and revision notes. The 20-year-old had a final-year exam for her economics degree the next day.
People in their late teens and early twenties, she argued, were far keener to have a ‘good life with a standard amount of money’ than ‘slog’ their guts out like their parents. ‘I saw my mum and dad work really hard, but my work ethic is different,’ said McNeil. ‘I want to do well but I want to have great fun in life. Money and work are not the be all and end all. If you put all your effort into your job you lose sense of what you are living for.’
McNeil is not alone. New research has found that a similar attitude to work is burgeoning among the group of people known as Generation Y – usually defined as those between the ages of 11 and 25. A study of more than 2,500 people born after the early Eighties found that they were rebelling against their parents’ values and were determined not to lead lives that revolved so heavily around the world of work.
Instead, they were ready to resign if their jobs were not fulfilling and fun, with decent holidays and the opportunity to take long stretches off for charity work or travel. Salary and status were not high on the priority list, according to the study by Talentsmoothie, a firm that consults companies in banking, professional services and the law on the changing workforce.
Here is a group that has never known, or even witnessed, hardship, recession or mass unemployment and does not fear redundancy or repossession, according to researchers. The result is a generation that believes it can have it all and is not embarrassed to ask for it; a generation that will constitute the majority of the workforce within a decade.
That is why major companies, embroiled in the battle to attract the very best graduates, are doing whatever they can to lure them in. ‘The previous generation saw work as a primary part of life,’ said Madalyn Brooks, HR director at Procter and Gamble. ‘When they left education, work was a dominant part of what they did and they were not looking for time out. Now we are seeing the growth of a different profile of candidate. They have grown up in relatively affluent families. They want to be sure that they can strike a balance between work and their personal life, and so the opportunity to take time off, to travel, to work for a company with a strong social responsibility record, these are all concerns that we increasingly hear when recruiting talent.’
Procter and Gamble has already adapted its recruitment efforts and what it offers to meet the needs of Generation Y. Instead of just stressing higher salaries, this international company is highlighting the opportunity for flexible hours, the chance to work from home, the offer of up to a year of ‘family leave’ to look after children or elderly parents, and the promise of regular three-month sabbaticals. Similar packages are being offered by companies across Britain.
In his open-plan office in the centre of Aberdeen, Simon Chinn, 25, a senior consultant at a recruitment agency, rushed between meetings last week. He admitted that one thing that attracted him to the firm, Thorpe Molloy Recruitment, was the fact that it was flexible when employees asked for time off. In two cases colleagues travelled for a year before returning to the same job.
Chinn argued that it also played an important role for the candidates he was helping to recruit. ‘There is an oil service company in Aberdeen that has a very attractive benefits package,’ he gave as an example. ‘There is a good pension, gym membership in the office, opportunities for travel and sabbaticals. People can take time out and come back to the job. That does attract the best talent.’
The fact that young people changed jobs more frequently, argued Chinn, meant they were less willing to put up with long hours or poor holidays. Officials in the US have estimated that a typical member of Generation Y will have 10 jobs by the age of 38. ‘People think, why stay in a job you do not enjoy?’ he said.
In Newcastle, McNeil and her flatmates reached a similar conclusion. ‘If a company offers more flexibility, it is a sign that it has the type of culture you would want to join,’ said the undergraduate, who has signed up to the Milkround, a graduate recruitment network.
The fact that she now receives more than 20 emails a day from employers makes her feel more confident about her future options: ‘It is as if people expect to get a job. I also think that, unlike our parents, we feel like we have financial back-up if things go wrong. But I guess that could change if we enter a recession.’
It is the lack of a significant downturn in the economy over the past decade and a half that is driving the new attitude, say experts. Generation Y: what they want from work, the research from Talentsmoothie, concluded: ‘They have only ever known economic prosperity. They have many choices: gap years and extensive travel are the norm. They can join a company, or set up their own. They have seen their parents in stressful jobs, working long hours, and realise that hard work for big companies apparently does not bring prosperity and happiness, or make the world a better place. They want their lives to be different – and this shows. If they are dissatisfied, they resign.’
The study found that 85 per cent of Generation Y wanted to spend 30 per cent to 70 per cent of their time working from home. More than half wanted a flexible working arrangement.
The top priority when choosing a job was ‘doing work that I love’. ‘Earning lots of money’ was far behind, in seventh place. When it came to walking away from an employer, a lack of motivation was the top reason followed by a work-life balance leaning too far towards the job. ‘The Boomer generation [who are over 45] created the culture of long working hours and Xers [aged between 28 and 45] reluctantly accepted it,’ the report said. ‘But not Generation Y. While they are not work-shy, they don’t live to work. They will get the job done on time … but on their own terms.’
The confidence, it said, came from a feeling of security: ‘Unlike Xers and Boomers, they are not remotely daunted by the spectre of unemployment.’
Simon Walker, a founding director of Talentsmoothie, said this generation considered work something to do, not somewhere to go. ‘As long as they achieve what they need to they are not worried about being seen to do it at their desks,’ he said, explaining why things were different for the older generation. ‘I am 40 and when I was 10, 12, 14, there was the winter of discontent, Thatcherism and miner strikes. Three million were unemployed, so subconsciously employment was seen as precious and there was no such thing as a secure job. For the next generation, there was full employment, unprecedented economic growth. Their attitude is: “If I can’t get one job, I will get another one.” They are not preconditioned, like many of us, to be cautious of authority.’
In fact, the research found that younger workers were far more willing to challenge managers and were undeterred by traditional hierarchy. Walker said he was trying to help ‘Boomer’ and ‘Xer’ managers to understand the new attitude and not get frustrated by it. Much of what the workers were demanding, he said, such as work-life balance, personal development, exciting jobs and motivating managers, would be welcomed by older workers as well. But the clash of values was causing friction in offices.
In one case, outlined in the study, a chief executive of a large insurance firm emailed thousands of employees to inform them about a major decision. Sitting at his desk in the middle of the huge office, James, 24, who had recently joined the firm, told his older colleagues he disagreed with what had been done. He quickly decided to share his feelings with the head of the company and sent his thoughts directly to him in an email.
Within minutes, a reply popped up on James’s screen: ‘I have been running this company for 10 years; I think I know what I am doing.’ Still undeterred, he hit back: ‘I realise this is an uncomfortable conversation but I am not the only one that disagrees with you.’ Luckily he was able to convince the boss that he was not simply being rude.
The overconfidence of Generation Y is proving a challenge for employers. This summer the Association of Graduate Recruiters will host a conference, at which delegates will debate how far firms need to go towards accommodating the desires of younger workers and how seriously they should take the concept of Generation Y.
Carl Gilleard, chief executive of the AGR, recently described young workers as ‘opinionated’ and more demanding of employers. He said: ‘One colleague who recently faced a barrage of questions about what her firm will give one young man, was forced into reacting with the question, “And what are you going to give us?” ‘
While warning that those who did not make an effort to respond to the needs of this group would end up ‘dead in the water’, Gilleard added: ‘Just how far do employers lean over backwards before they end up being horizontal?’ Others felt that companies should not ‘overreact’ to the new values and attitudes, warning that things could soon change again.
Helen Bostock, global head of campus recruiting for the investment bank Credit Suisse and a board member of the AGR, said: ‘A few years ago I recall the dotcom bubble when everyone was trying to reinvent themselves with an entrepreneurial culture. Now it is generational theory. What happens is that employers get sucked into the whole thing, then the pendulum swings one way or another. One thing that is consistent is that there is always something we are tackling. If it is not work-life balance, it is diversity, inclusion or something else.
‘In reality large graduate recruiters take much longer to change and there is a danger that employers will overreact and reinvent themselves as something they are not.’ Bostock gave the example of the ‘dress-down’ craze, when thousands of firms encouraged their employees to come to work in more casual attire each Friday. ‘That does not happen now, people have largely returned to the world of suits,’ she said.
Given her global role, Bostock argued that Generation Y differed from country to country and warned that the time for UK graduates to be complacent about job opportunities would soon come to an end.
‘There are highly talented individuals from China and India heading our way,’ she said. ‘They are hungry, focused on work and focused on academic success. Just look at the number of high-achieving Asian women studying maths and science compared with home-grown students. This generation is facing different challenges.’
Walker said he planned to look at how attitudes differed across the world. He argued that ‘generational attitudes’ were partly dictated by age but also circumstances. In China, Generation Y was made up of only-children, as a result of the one-child policy, who grew up through difficult economic times. They would have very different values to their British counterparts, he said.
In Britain, meanwhile, there would be people of all ages who shared typical Generation Y attitudes, he argued, but they would be far more common within the age group. One of those attitudes, according to research by Walker and others, is an overwhelming desire to be fulfilled in their jobs.
A study in 2004 carried out by Common Purpose, an organisation that offers training for leaders and managers, found that those who were not getting satisfaction at work were hitting a ‘quarter-life crisis’. Searching for Something concluded that employers had to accommodate young workers’ wider ambitions or risk losing them by the age of 30.
‘We see young people that are searching for some sort of meaning in life and if you can’t align their values with the organisation they might leave,’ said Julia Middleton, the group’s chief executive. ‘I think life is cyclical – and there is a return to people searching for meaning and searching for values.’
Middleton agreed that economic prosperity had fuelled the values of Generation Y. ‘If you haven’t had money or faced the serious threat of not having money, you take money much more seriously,’ she argued. ‘We have a generation that has not felt the threat for some time.’
Now, for the first time in many years that threat is returning. While it may come as an uncomfortable shock for those self-assured members of Generation Y, it could also create a whole new work ethic among the toddlers and babies that constitute Generation Z; born after 2002 they still have a long way to go before they are thrown into a whole new world of work.
I don’t want my parents’ life
Aditi Horsburgh, 25, works as a PA in London
My dad works in the hotel industry, and that is a 24-hour job. He has always worked really hard. A lot of the time he could not take holidays or spend time with us. I appreciate what he did, but I don’t want that to be my life. I don’t want work to be so full-on that you cannot enjoy your family. I think my father’s attitude came from the fact that he did not have much when he was growing up. I am in a different situation. My parents worked very hard to give me what I wanted, and I am really grateful for that. I know that if I want to carry on with that lifestyle I will need to work, but I want to find a balance. I did a degree in business studies at Bristol University. Then I went to India to work for two years before doing an MA in media in London. I was looking for a job and I got in contact with Portfolio, a recruitment and headhunting firm for senior executive appointments in the leisure and hospitality industries. They offered me a job as PA to the chief executive and I hope they will train me up to become a consultant.
Obviously I want something to pay the bills, but I am also interested in the work environment. I want to work close to home so I don’t have to commute too much. I value my free time and I love to travel. The company I work for is quite flexible with time off. I am taking three weeks in the summer to go glacier tracking in India. Others have gone on three-month sabbaticals.
From the Baby Boomers to Generation Z
As the war ended and the servicemen returned on a high, the Baby Boomers were conceived en masse. Born between 1946 and 1964, their early memories may include watching Bobby Moore lift the World Cup, the day Neil Armstrong stepped onto the Moon and the Vietnam War. As they grew up they donned mini and maxi skirts and bell-bottoms, listened to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones on vinyl, smoked cannabis, maybe dabbled with LSD, and took the new contraceptive pill. Next came Generation X, born between 1965 and 1982. Raised on television and early computers, they have been unkindly labelled by some the ‘me generation’ of the Eighties. They were the punks of the Seventies, listening to the Sex Pistols and the Buzzcocks. Lots were teenagers when cassettes made way for CDs. They wore leg warmers and ra ra skirts, shoulder pads and snoods. Most remember the Cold War, the miners’ strike, the birth of Thatcherism and the yuppie. Some smoked cannabis or took mushrooms while City high-fliers splashed out on cocaine.
The Baby Boomers’ children are Generation Y. Dubbed the ‘internet generation’, they owned computers and mobile phones, write blogs, listen to their iPods and download music. Born between 1982 and 2002, the older ones will remember the rise of boy-bands and Brit Pop. They loved Take That and the Spice Girls, Oasis and Blur. Some of them dabbled with ecstasy and witnessed the rise of the super-club. They watched shows such as Big Brother and Pop Idol as reality television took off. They roamed the streets in hoodies.
A lack of memory of life before the war on terror defines Generation Z. They are toddlers and babies, born after 2002. They probably spend their time learning baby yoga.