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Double trouble as Gen Y managers reject their seniors’ lifestyles

Published on Saturday, 24 Jan 2015
Richard Jolly
Shelly Painter
Aaron Lau

Surveys show generation gap in attitudes to work-life balance as ‘double crunch’ worsens

Two recent surveys conducted by the London Business School seem to highlight a generation gap when it comes to striking a work-life balance.

The school published the results of a five-year survey of participants in its emerging leaders executive education programme. This found these members of Gen Y put work-life balance at the top of their priority list, ahead of organisational culture and with promotion prospects only in third place. However, when senior executives were polled about their attitudes, only 40 per cent ranked work-life balance as a high priority when considering their development in the next three to five years.

Richard Jolly, adjunct professor of organisational behaviour, teaches on London Business School’s ‘Transitioning to General Management’ and ‘Leading Change’ programmes for executives. Jolly believes members of Gen Y are not focused simply on maximising their income.

“I see a transformation happening in organisations today, and many senior teams are either unaware of it, or don’t know how to respond. The organisations that thrive over the next few decades will do so because of their ability to harness the collective ‘social capital’ – the ability to get things done by other people – rather than the individual ‘human capital’ – knowledge and expertise – of their experienced executives.

“Gen Y executives typically reject the lifestyle of the senior managers they report to – their ambitions are more holistic and demanding. If organisations do not respond to these ambitions, they will fail to attract and, more importantly, retain top talent. The traditional ‘command and control’ approach of senior executives increasingly doesn’t motivate these younger executives, who expect a more collaborative way of working and a more flexible work environment.”

One cause of stress that members of Gen Y may be wary of is what Jolly terms the “double crunch”. This occurs when promotion into a first general management role comes around the time they are starting a family. Simultaneously, these new managers are experiencing greater demands on them both at work and at home.

“The double crunch is getting more pronounced as people have families later in life,” he says. “Companies are going to be forced to look at this and we see this happening already.”

Senior management, however, doesn’t have to know all the answers, but they do need to engage in dialogue about this challenge with their employees to come up with the answers.”

However, Shelly Painter, regional MD for Asia at investment management firm Vanguard, believes geographical and cultural differences may be greater than generational divergence. She says among her predominantly young workforce “no one talks about work-life balance. That is common in Asia. Most people choose to work hard because they do want to get ahead and they know that working hard is a big part of proving themselves.

“I spent some time in Australia, and work-life balance is a very different thing there. You are almost going against the grain if you are working long hours.”

Aaron Lau, CEO and president of Cheil Greater China, believes a strong work ethic may have developed in this region because of the economic deprivation suffered by previous generations. “The younger generation, though, now have much wider exposure to the world and can make better choices about a work-life balance.”

On the other hand, he warns, “the era of globalisation means it’s never been more difficult for an individual to move up the corporate ladder”. He believes companies could be doing more to support those beginning to climb that ladder as they move into management from positions based on their technical or creative skills.

“I don’t think the business community overall has invested enough in helping people move from skill-based opportunities to more management-based opportunities,” Lau says. “If you take a look at my industry, marketing services, four of the top groups are no longer led by ‘technicians’ – people such as copywriters or creative directors – but instead by people with IT and financial backgrounds, and the like.”

This is partly due to tight margins and competitive pressure in the advertising or marketing services industry. “There is very little room to dedicate time and resources to anything that may not necessarily be profitable within a short period of time.”

Jolly says more than 95 per cent of senior executives he works with are “hurry sick”, and he thinks local bosses are more prone to this condition. “I don’t have specific data by region, but Hong Kong executives are the most ‘hurry sick’ group I have come across – one look at how worn out the ‘door close’ buttons are in the elevators demonstrates this. Long hours, a frenetic work pace and limited boundaries between work and non-work are big challenges.”

But how much of the onus for ensuring a  less stressed generation of senior executives lies with their companies? “The question about who is responsible for your well-being is a complex one, as there is clearly a responsibility for the organisation to create a healthy context for their employees,” says Jolly. “However, I would argue that the primary responsibility is for the individual to make choices actively and consciously to ensure they look after themselves.

“We know stress in organisations is not caused by long hours, but rather the primary cause is not feeling in control. Executives have to take personal control of their choices and the inevitable trade-offs they are making. Creating boundaries around all the key elements in their life, then making these boundaries non-negotiable, is a critical aspect of taking more control.”

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