MT FreshMinds: Work 2.0 Survey - My generation

On the way out: baby boomers. On the way in: Gen Y. And piggy in the middle? That would be Gen X. So how can the age groups rub along happily? Stefan Stern digests our exclusive research looking at the future world of work.

Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

One day in 1973, in the middle of a murder investigation, detective chief inspector Gene Hunt turned to DI Sam Tyler to defend the reputation of their prime suspect. 'So? He pushed a bird out of a car,' Hunt declared. 'Doesn't make him a bad bloke!'

That last observation is wrong in so many ways. If we laugh - admit it, some of you did - it is with the benefit of hindsight, and the comfortable knowledge that such prejudice is unthinkable, or very nearly so, in 2008.

Gene Hunt is the fictional anti-hero of the BBC's popular travel-back-in-time drama, Life on Mars. A sequel, Ashes to Ashes, also featuring the fearless DCI Hunt, is now being shown. For nostalgia freaks, these TV dramas are irresistible. We are treated to colourful glimpses of 1973 and 1981: the clothes, the music, the politics (sexual or otherwise). This is a world without mobile phones, websites, or HIV/Aids. Gene Hunt takes us back to the Cold War, to crackly phone lines, to a world long gone.

The workplace is the melting-pot where three different generations are thrown together. How might the different age-groups respond to this journey back in time? From the disbelief of the current Generation Y - born around the time in which Ashes to Ashes is set and in the decade or so after - to the wistful reminiscence of baby-boomers (born between 1946 and '63), opinions on DCI Hunt and his unreconstructed colleagues will vary widely. And don't forget the almost equally bemused Generation X-ers - born between 1964 and '80 - caught in the middle.

For you as a manager, these people, whatever their ages, are your people. Their inter-generational tensions are your problem. You don't need a degree in sociology or psychology to realise that developing team spirit between such individuals may not be all that easy. MT is here to help. We commissioned the research and recruitment consultancy FreshMinds to investigate the opinions of these key generational cohorts. An online survey of 1,000 people was supplemented by three extensive focus-group sessions, to try to pin down their differing perspectives.

What emerges is a complex picture of a workforce in a state of flux, struggling to come to terms with the changed realities of today. This evidence is relevant to all managers who want to have a better understanding of this new world, which we have labelled - inevitably - 'Work 2.0'.

Alistair Leathwood, managing director of FreshMinds Talent, says his firm has long been interested in these shifting generational attitudes. But its interest was more than merely routine. Generation Y seems to be presenting a particular challenge to employers everywhere, and this needs to be understood much better.

'We believed that Generation Y wasn't just different by degrees, but that this group was a disruptive generation, which through its attitudes and behaviours would have a significant and lasting impact on the future of work,' says Leathwood.

He is definitely on to something. Other surveys - most notably, one from the Association of Graduate Recruiters - have pointed to Gen Y as a 'diva' generation: high-maintenance, out for themselves, lacking in loyalty, thinking only of the short term and their own place in it.

The FreshMinds data confirms this view. Gen Y people are ambitious, hopeful - and in a hurry. They want rapid progress: 28% of them think that a signing bonus is important on starting a job; only 13% of baby-boomers do. Thirty per cent of Gen Y respondents think they are likely to get a job in another sector within five years; only 12% of boomers do. And 54% of Gen Y respondents have already had three or more jobs.

But when it comes to job satisfaction, it pays to be older. A remarkable 100% of older boomers are satisfied with their job, according to the FreshMinds survey, whereas only 66% of Gen Y feels the same way. And Gen Y employees want more at work: gym membership (important to 28% of them, but only 17% of Gen X and 9% of boomers); and sabbaticals (important to half of Gen Y but only 29% of boomers).

The over-40s need to try to understand this apparent 'me, now!' focus of Gen Y. As Leathwood says: 'The characteristics we see emerging from this survey are set to become even more pronounced in the future as Generation Y becomes the dominant group in the workforce.

'As the proportion of Generation Y in the workforce increases, it is having an impact on the work environment,' he adds. 'Portfolio careers, switching industries, career breaks, flexible working, a more objective view of one's value in the market, are all defining features of Work 2.0, this new world of work which Generation Y is helping to create.'

But before we get too carried away with this cult of youth, let's stop to consider other elements of the debate. How did we get to this situation, with benign but less and less relevant boomers shuffling off to retirement, and grumpy, disgruntled Gen X-ers losing their allure and finding themselves stuck in the middle?

This story begins in 1945. The landslide Labour election victory of that year laid the foundations for modern Britain. The pre-war, pre-welfare state model was dismantled. Even those who had grown up in the pre-war years were powerless to resist the temptations of the consumerist world of the late 1950s. When in 1957 prime minister Harold Macmillan declared people had 'never had it so good', he was right.

Social change - the rock'n'roll years and the liberal reforms of the 1960s - further altered the context. Sir Paul McCartney will be 66 years old this summer, Sir Mick Jagger 65. These are the overgrown kids who have helped shape the world-view of most people at work today.

Indeed, Jennifer Saunders was being more perspicacious than she realised when she created Edina and her goody-two-shoes daughter Saffy in the hit sitcom Absolutely Fabulous. Today's boomer parents frequently display more laid-back attitudes than uptight transitional Gen X-ers. Boomers made free love, producing children who remain embarrassed by the antics of their parents to this day.

On the other hand, (small c) conservative boomers also preserve certain old-fashioned qualities that have truly gone out of fashion: restraint, reticence, manners, reserve. The Big Brother and other 'reality' TV series would have been unimaginable a generation ago. They reveal how much we - or some of us - have changed.

We cannot leave Mrs Thatcher out. Her assault on the nostrums of the post-war settlement is still being felt. Again, it is not so much Gen X as Gen Y who are truly Thatcher's children. Gen X saw its parents' world disappear, but Gen Y has never known anything else. Perhaps this explains the kids' perceived flexibility, ambition and career agility: they know there is no job for life, and are not going to pretend to want one.

And now, the boomers are beginning to head for the exit in increasing numbers. What does this mean for the world of work? Clearly, a potential loss of 'corporate memory' - as well as increased inequality, between those with decent pensions and those without.

But for Gen X coming up behind, there is even less to be confident about. The thirty- and forty-somethings face another three decades at work, but with few guarantees about their financial future. This was not the world of work they entered 15 or so years ago. This was not the deal most Gen X-ers thought they were signing up to. Gen Y will have fewer problems in adapting to the changed realities of the 21st century.

Leathwood shares this analysis. To him, it seems that Gen Y holds most of the aces. 'It's a combination of social, political and economic factors which have created a highly educated generation that's used to prosperity and has grown up with the idea that the choices are all theirs to make,' he says. 'That they should apply the same philosophy and sense of entitlement to their careers shouldn't come as a huge surprise. It'll be interesting, however, to see how Generation Y adapts to the current uncertainties in the market and the threat of a possible recession.'

All in all, this sounds like a cocktail for resentment and potential unpleasantness in the workplace. How can we avoid things kicking off?

The Employers Forum on Age has long argued for the benefits of age diversity at work - the age-balanced workforce - but now we are going to have to make it work. This will require imagination on all sides. It will also require plain, old-fashioned competent management.

Are Gen Y people really such a selfish, contemptible lot? It seems unlikely. But are they different? Yes, of course. They are demanding. They want respect. And they may sometimes struggle with the concept of 'hard work'. But if bosses have ever meant even half of what they have said about the 'war for talent' and becoming an 'employer of choice', they should not complain about their high-maintenance new recruits.

Are boomers really inflexible and resistant to change? It seems unlikely. But, of course, they grew up in a different world, and need reassurance - especially if once robust-looking pension plans have crumbled away in recent years. Boomers' insights and experiences are priceless, and need to be shared throughout the organisation.

Are Gen X-ers struggling with all this change? Yes, they are. They are the meat in the sandwich. And they face a potentially even more daunting prospect than their boomer predecessors: being carers for their own children but also their parents for decades to come. Do we need to re-calibrate the expectations of Generation X? Yes, immediately. (Full disclosure: your reporter - did you guess? - is an anxious X-er.)

Leathwood has an equally stark message for employers. 'As far as the phenomenon of Work 2.0 is concerned, it's employers who need to catch up - the rules of engagement have changed,' he says. 'Work 2.0 signals a new social contract between employers and employees - one premised upon short-term commitment, flexibility and, most importantly, one where the employee's loyalty to their employer is not expected to be any greater than what little the employer provides to its staff.

'Right now, many employer/employee expectations are out of kilter, and Generation Y is frequently stereotyped as being footloose and fancy-free. The survey suggests, however, that, actually, much of this Work 2.0 phenomenon is not new, it's just that Generation Y is the most successful at sussing out and seizing the new opportunities it presents.'

Meet the new staff - same as the old staff. Same, but also different.




41% of Generation Y expect to progress rapidly in their current organisation, compared to only 20% of Generation X

38% of Generation Y define themselves by their success at work, a higher proportion than any other group


20% of Gen Y expect to start their own business within 15 years, compared to 15% of Gen X and 11% of baby-boomers

Gen Y men are the most entrepreneurial of all, with 16% planning to start their own business within five years


66% of Gen Y are satisfied with their jobs

Gen X men expressed the least job satisfaction, at 56%, while baby-boomer women expressed the most, at 69%


The average job tenure is 16 months for Gen Y, three years for Gen X and over five years for baby-boomers

54% of Gen Y have already held three or more jobs, and 30% of them expect to have a job in a different industry within five years


28% of Gen Y think gym membership is important, compared to 17% of Gen X and only 9% of baby-boomers

50% of Gen Y think sabbaticals are important, compared to 45% of Gen X and 13% of baby-boomers


22% of Gen Y are likely to take time off to travel in the next five years, compared with 10% of Gen X and 9% of baby-boomers


GENERATION Y (D.O.B. 1980-95)

Travel first, then a career

Elvira Linzalone, 24, has already displayed a wisdom beyond her years: she has abandoned all earlier thoughts of pursuing a career in journalism.

'That would have been like doing an English degree for ever,' she says, with obvious distaste. 'You'd have just been writing essays for ever!'

Linzalone is not some mumbling, sullen, vacant, overgrown teenager. 'I know exactly what I want,' she explains, calmly but firmly. 'I think maybe I scare people off a bit sometimes.'

Instead, she has her eyes set firmly on the law. Having completed a two year conversion course, she is currently working in a legal recruitment firm in London. Soon she will 'bugger off, travelling', as she puts it, but return in the autumn to begin her legal career in earnest, as a trainee with a city firm. After that, she is aiming for a long and fulfilling life as a lawyer.

'I did worry a bit about being an "eternal student",' adds Linzalone, 'but I want to think long-term.' So, none of this live-for-now stuff that the under-thirties are supposed to be obsessed with. 'I realise that a real career is for life,' she says, 'and that is what I am aiming for. Hard graft doesn't faze me.'

With an Italian father and Polish mother - though she has lived in the UK all her life - Linzalone is typical of the cosmopolitan young Brit planning her life in London. Her continental roots may give her an advantage: she has seen her immigrant parents work hard to achieve their position in life. Linzalone has few illusions about the world of work, but she is not lacking in confidence about her future.


GENERATION X (D.O.B. 1964-80)

After the slog, the rewards

James Jones, 36, has worked in the travel business for 11 years, the last four with the same firm. He's now a product manager for Lotus Dial-a-flight, negotiating with hotel and accommodation owners all over the world.

Lotus serves both consumer and business markets, employing more than 400, 'but I'd guess only 20 or 30 of them are over 45,' says Jones. 'This is a young firm: the emphasis is on working hard and enjoying yourself.'

Yet generational differences make their presence felt. The salesforce is composed mainly of Generation Ys, with a few senior X-ers to leaven the mix. 'The Ys slog their guts out to make their targets and they won't take no for an answer. But they can be cocky.' The older sales staff may seem world-weary but are often better performers. 'They've built strong relationships with really big customers - the kind who spend £100,000 a year on holidays.'

Jones left university in 1994, straight into the teeth of an economic blizzard. 'I felt that the unspoken contract of a degree leading to a good job had been broken, so I decided to go for a job that I would enjoy rather than becoming a suit.'

He thinks this early experience of a chilly business climate sets him apart. 'We've had full employment in this country for 10 years now; younger people don't realise what it was like.'

He doesn't think there's any difference in ambition between the generations, but younger staff switch jobs more. 'It's expected of them. If they didn't have three or four jobs in their twenties, employers would ask questions about their drive and motivation.'

For himself, he's cautiously optimistic that filling out application forms might be a thing of the past. 'My days of applying for jobs may be drawing to a close,' he says. 'I hope I will be offered my next job without having to apply. It's what happened to my predecessor.'

What's more, he's happier in his work than he has ever been - a new salary structure means that 'for the first time in my career, I'm being paid decent money'. Our survey suggests that most of his Generation Y colleagues won't be prepared to wait anything like as long for their just rewards.


BABY-BOOMER ('46-63)

A search for security

Paul Morrell, 60, remembers postwar rationing of sweets. But scarcity of that kind is not something Generations X or Y can readily understand. 'My parents lived through the war,' he says. 'That kind of influence makes you look for security. For my father, a career was something you needed to stick at. He used to say: "You travel the furthest if you continue in a straight line." You weren't supposed to hop about between jobs.'

Not that Morrell thinks that Generation Y, in particular, is characterised by feckless, short-termist individualism. 'They are not disloyal, but there is a new kind of relationship. Loyalty always has to be earned, in any case.'

The coming economic slowdown will test Gen Y's attitudes even further. 'Now we will find out what they are really made of,' he adds.

Having started his career in 1971, Morrell has lived through three full business cycles and seen good times and bad. He did 36 years at surveyors Davis Langdon, rising to senior partner. He is now deputy chair at CABE (Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment) and is on the board of the RSC, as well as continuing to practise as a consultant.

'We took values for granted when we started work,' he says. 'Now it is more explicit. What hasn't changed is the importance of family life. So if we are in for bad times, it will be interesting to see if people get their heads down and try to cling on to that job.'

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