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Why ‘Generation Y’ is all a lie. By Sarah Fletcher

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‘Generation Y’, graduates and employees born in the 1980s, have a lot to answer for. Aside from crimes against fashion, these staff are reportedly selfish, demanding and disloyal to their employer. But, argues Sarah Fletcher, this assessment misses an important and fundamental point – it’s the employer’s fault.


Branded as self-seeking and disloyal for apparently demanding an extensive package from their employer – a good salary, development opportunities and an ethical commitment from the organisation – ‘Generation Y’ are rapidly becoming the scapegoats of the press and political commentators. But is the research accurate and, if so, aren’t graduates just a product of the marketplace that demands them?

An ethical illusion?

Today’s graduates are “a more caring, socially responsible, outward-looking generation than at the end of the Conservative era,” claims The Guardian. Its Grad Facts survey reported that over 70 percent of students said that a company’s ethical track record is a crucial factor when choosing their employer. However, there’s something not quite right with this picture, given that one of the main recruiters of graduates in the UK is a certain burger giant.

“Employers encourage talented graduates to leave the company by refusing them the promotions and salaries they deserve. If a company insists that the employee spends a certain time period in a role before they have their achievements financially rewarded, this will make talented staff look elsewhere for the monetary and career opportunities they are capable of achieving.”

“The current number one graduate employer in the UK is McDonalds; a company with a sketchy record for ethical practice, poor salaries and working conditions,” points out training consultant Nik Kellingley. So, when reporters claim graduates demand to work for an ethical employer, this isn’t exactly correct. “I think ideally ‘Generation Y’ would like those criteria to be fulfilled, but in reality – like every generation before them – they eventually settle for what they can get,” adds Kellingley.

Impossible to please or hardly trying?

Are critics really suggesting that this is unique to children of the 1980s? Have we in one decade bred a nation of evil ‘Me Firsts’?

It’s almost too obvious to state, but many employees of all ages have little interest in their organisation’s ethical values. Offer to fly them to New York and you’re unlikely to get many workers who refuse to go in order to save the environment from the plane’s toxic emissions. It’s an extreme example but the point is that these alleged ‘Me Firsts’ exist in every age group.

‘Generation Y’ may be branded as selfish, self-seeking and demanding, but the market has changed – the concept of a ‘job for life’ no longer exists and with its disappearance goes the loyalty that an employer would have expected from staff twenty years ago.

“Employers, as a rule but not always, show no loyalty to staff any more,” argues Kellingley. “Defined benefit pension schemes are for the chop as employers rush to ensure that their profits remain forever high. They expect that salaried employees will devote their life to work, cancelling holidays and evenings out at the drop of a business hat. These are the kind of things that particularly add up to employees not caring very much where they work.”

“Over 70 percent of students said that a company’s ethical track record is a crucial factor when choosing their employer. However, there’s something not quite right with this picture, given that the UK’s main graduate recruiter is a certain burger giant.”

Talent neglect

Employers also encourage talented graduates to leave the organisation by refusing them the promotions and salaries they deserve, using the excuse that they don’t have enough experience. If a company insists that the employee spends a certain time period in a role before they have their achievements financially rewarded, this will make talented staff look elsewhere for the monetary and career opportunities they are capable of achieving.

“Being treated with respect by an employer and being given equal opportunities to progress drives generation Y,” says Kellingley. “Until employers wake up to this they will find it difficult to keep the talent from these employees who no longer fear the consequences of chopping and changing every couple of years.”

HR manager Karen Bailey agrees, adding that businesses not only deny their talented graduates appropriate career opportunities, but that employers also fail to provide enough support for these staff: “Businesses need to think very carefully about what they do with graduates and whether the model has any validity in their working environment. We need to look at ourselves and ask whether we fully support these people who we have built up. If we don’t, then it’s not worth the investment.”

Further, graduate schemes can actually worsen organisations’ ability to retain ‘Generation Y’ by giving them unrealistic expectations of what life in the company is like. “Graduates have always had high expectations and as businesses we have done a lot to set up that expectation with them. If you look at the blurb on graduate schemes from most companies, all of them over sell in an attempt to attract the best of the best. How many paint a realistic picture of what it is going to be like?” asks Karen Bailey.

“I don’t think the problem is with the graduates – it’s with us as business leaders. We take these people onto a scheme, we shine a light on them and tell them they are special, we give them jobs where they get to move around the business and meet senior managers who they normally wouldn’t meet, they get special development programmes, they get extra attention and time – they are nurtured. Once off the scheme they become ‘normal’, one of the crowd and are no longer given special treatment, they have to compete for development funding and are expected to stay in one job and deliver. Who wouldn’t be disillusioned with that as a career move?”

Interestingly, HR manager Lynn Hebb argues that the problem lies with older staff: “Those now in their mid 30s definitely want it all; high salary, excellent career opportunities, excellent company culture, status, travel to interesting places but not weekly travel and definitely not outside the M25, training, the right to pick and choose the projects they work on – particularly turn down defence work on ethical grounds (but accept readily any bonus based on company profits that include defence work), not to work long hours but to have challenging work, to have status but not too much responsibility. I haven’t yet worked out if it is related to a particular age group or whether it is a natural progression and our undemanding graduates will become our demanding mid-career employees.”

So if ‘Generation Y’ is truly a difficult to retain, demanding and dissatisfied workforce, the employer must take some responsibility. Of course, many would argue that traits such as being self-seeking are not unique to one particular age group and to suggest otherwise is reductive and veers into dangerous age discrimination ground. As with workers of any age, if employers want to retain them, they would be wise to keep them happy.

Useful links:

  • Report on the Guardian Grad Facts survey
  • One Response

    1. Wanting it erery which way without any effort
      Very interesting article, could have benefited by talking to other generations more eg. generation X, older managers etc.

      As someone who had to struggle through the ‘old school tie’ Oxbridge barriers for years I think generation Y have it easy.

      You cant square all the materialism wants of capitalism and expect employers to behave ethically. Generation Y care a lot about ethics but how many are setting up their own businesses and putting in the effort to address it rather than working for someone else. Cumudgeonly moi? Never.

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