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How to tap into Generation Y

Published on Sunday, 17 Apr 2011
Matthew Hill
Managing director - Hong Kong, Ambition

Many employers want to understand more about Generation Y (Gen Y) in the workplace. Who are they and what are their attitudes towards work? This article looks at the characteristics of Gen Y, the best way to communicate with them, the importance of employment branding in recruiting Gen Y, and some thoughts around the successful recruitment and retention of the younger generation.

Gen Y represents those born between 1982 and 2000, immediately after Generation X (1965-1981). They are the largest generation since the baby boomers (1946-1964) and account for over 12 per cent of the overall workforce in Hong Kong. The oldest members of Gen Y have not even hit 30 yet and are embarking on career decisions. 

Gen Y has its own set of values, view of authority, loyalty and ideal work environment. Known for better education, collaborative ability and open-mindedness, they are the hottest commodities in the current job market and employers like their energy, drive and skills.

They are young, smart and able to grasp new concepts quickly and are used to adapting to different situations. However, these young employees are somewhat impatient, mobile and although they may have recently seen their parents experience tougher times in the job market, most of them personally still have high expectations of their own careers. As positive thinkers, they are optimistic about the future and constantly strive for success.

Unlike baby boomers who place higher priority on career and stability, Gen Y has different priorities. They value things other than the office with a harbour view, impressive job titles and high salary. Instead, they look for jobs that can accommodate their family and personal lives. They want to be understood, accepted, respected and included in their workplace.

Gen Y workers also have high expectations of themselves and their employers. They aim to work faster and better than others, even as they want fair and direct managers who are highly engaged in their professional development. They hope to start at the top or climb the career ladder at a swift rate. They believe they deserve the position they want, but are unlikely to commit to staying long at the same company.

They also seek creative challenges and view colleagues as vast and useful resources from whom to gain knowledge. To avert boredom and, hence, attrition among Gen Y employees, managers should give them challenging projects rather burying them in a cubicle to follow instructions. In fact, these young employees look for opportunities for ongoing learning to advance themselves and want to make an important impact immediately on projects they are involved with. They are looking for immediate gratification and an opportunity to excel.

Growing up in the age of technology, tech-savvy Gen Y members are able to take advantage of it and are receptive to the digital world. They will question workplace regulations and their expectations of online communication are higher than ever. While older generations may expect a phone call or face-to-face meeting on important topics, the younger generation prefers email communication. A company’s intranet also competes with the internet. Therefore, it is essential to provide them with technological tools at work.

Values can collide when members of different generations work together. The hiring managers may be the baby boomers or Generation X who can be dismissive of younger employees’ ability. The communication style of Gen Y is also different from previous generations. They like freedom, place importance on diverse experience and are socially driven, whereas the baby boomers and Gen X are structured, focused on learning and are more self-oriented.

Gen Y has been labelled as demanding, impatient and poor communicators in some surveys. They are reputedly more difficult to deal with and have less respect for seniority. Since many of them are children of the baby boomers or older Gen X couples, they have been nurtured and pampered since they were toddlers. During their upbringing, they have been used to challenging their parents, so when entering the work force, they are constantly questioning the status quo. In their minds, their boss is not always right, so Gen Y employees seek open-mindedness from their employers towards their suggestions.

Gen Y workers are comfortable with constant feedback and recognition from others and feel lost if communication from their employers is irregular. Hence, reviews should be held quarterly to ensure expectations are being met by both parties.

The format of training for Gen Y tends to be different and they are unlikely to pay attention during full-day sessions, as they become distracted easily. Training should be available in different interactive platforms and preferably in smaller groups. Use humour to create fun learning environments. The training modules should also be downloadable to their computer or PDAs so that they can study the details later.

To communicate well with Gen Y, seek their opinion constantly. Positively challenge them at every opportunity, encourage them to take risks and provide new solutions to work issues so that they can explore new ways of learning. However, don’t expect them to do the same job for years as monotonous and routine tasks will drive them away.

As the largest generation in our history, baby boomers will start retiring soon and many employers will have to face the hiring challenges of a labour shortage. This has switched focus to Gen Y, which is probably the last generation to enter the current workforce but, arguably, the most educated, confident and independent. They are one of the company’s greatest assets today, but many employers fail to formulate effective strategies to recruit and retain this talent. As Gen Y members have become more prevalent in the workforce, your recruiting methods and messages have to be tailor-made for them.

According to an Ambition survey conducted in Australia, 15 per cent of Gen Y respondents worked with at least three different employers in the past four years.  Slightly more than 80 per cent said they had looked for a new job mainly due to lack of respect and direction from management, while about 60 per cent thought the job was boring and felt a change was needed. Other factors were flexible work hours, a fun work environment, diversity of projects, competitive salary as well as career growth, learning and travel opportunities provided by the company.

To attract and keep Gen Y workers, the HR function needs to take a different approach from what it has done with previous generations. These young people no longer define a good job only as monetary gain. They take a job offer because they want to work there, not because they have to. They look for an organisation where they can create good relationships with their employers and colleagues, so your organisation must have social flair such as internal events and team-building activities to appeal to this audience.

Finally, before creating your recruitment and retention plans, it is crucial to understand Gen Y as, after all, they are our future.

Matthew Hill is Ambition’s managing director, Hong Kong

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