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Think Tank: The generation gap

Think Tank: The Generation Gap – The next few years will see generational shifts as baby boomers reach retirement age and Generation Y enters the workplace. Are the plucky millennials fundamentally different in their approach to work or should we ignore the stereotypes?

The Panel

  • James Masini: Managing idrector of Hippo Jobs, an online job board for casual and part-time work
  • Bernard Salt: Partner with KPMG, demographer and commentator on generational matters
  • Mike Walsh : CEO of Tomorrow, futurist and trend watcher
  • Josh Mehlman: Moderator

Lose the attitude

Does Gen Y really have a different attitude to work?

Bernard Salt: Well, there are a lot of jobs that are young people’s jobs. If you look at the age profile of the 2006 Census, something like 90% of waiters is under the age of 24. It’s the sort of job you do while you’re at university. Interestingly, if you go to Paris or Rome, there are careers as waiters, but in Australia our culture is different.

But if you’re talking about office jobs, the main concern expressed by employers looking for young staff is that they have had a more temporal view of the workplace. They think, “Yep, this is a great job and I’m happy here – for the moment. But if something better comes up, I will be happy to move on. Or if my mates are heading off to London, I’m happy to pursue that.”

The concern from the workplace has been that they don’t have the same commitment to work – or even longevity of work or commitment to a workplace – as preceding generations.

That’s all well and good for part-time holiday work. But once you’ve finished university and you’re making a career choice, to carry that attitude into the workplace is a dangerous cycle when things are no longer prosperous.

James Masini: There are differences in the way they approach work and the ways in which they’re hired. Because their experience is so limited, they are generally hired for their cultural fit in a particular role or organization. They also choose jobs that are more about a cultural fit and they try and educate themselves during the process. They tend to believe they want a much larger role.

The loyalty myth

Are Gen Ys inherently disloyal, or is that a reflection of workplaces being less loyal to their employees?

Bernard: Gen Ys see that as a positive trait, you know. I mean, why should I be loyal to a corporation?

James: Or why should I be loyal to somebody who’s not really loyal to me? There are a couple of organizations we deal with that are exceptionally loyal to their staff and they retain staff relatively well.

However, a lot of these younger people are treating work the way they are being treated. If I’m on my holidays and I say, “I’ve got all these times that I’m available to work”, and my employer says, “We’ll put you on when we want – we’ll call you with an hour’s notice to let you know we’d like you for a shift”, Gen Ys start to believe that’s how you approach work.

Bernard: One of the issues for Generation Y is understanding the value of experience and relationships in the workplace.

My view of Gen Y in the professional workplace is that they don’t tend to be fully engaged. I mean, if you’re unhappy, move on. But there’s also the argument that if you can only work when there’s 24- hour stimulation or entertainment in the workplace, it’s just not going to teach you resilience. You won’t learn the capacity to come up against a hurdle, maneuver yourself and deal with it, and come out the other side.

James: Do you think employers need to start coaching Gen Y employees more?

Bernard: That’s an interesting response! There’s another problem with Generation Y: its management’s fault for not encouraging them, instructing them, or training them. To some degree, it is. Equally, it’s up to the individual. The employer is not responsible for every problem. A typical Generation Y response, if they make a mistake, is, “Oh, that’s unfortunate – you didn’t train me correctly!”

James: The issue I see is that this generation hasn’t had that experience in the workforce yet. They’re entering their first or second professional role. They’re on the unknown ground and they’re trying to navigate. They’re looking for someone to say, “It’s OK that you don’t understand this and we need to help you to understand.”


One of the stereotypes of Gen Y is that they don’t like being told that they don’t know things or that they need to learn things…

Mike Walsh: I think it’s a big issue for an employer; I’ve employed Gen Ys. When you’re employing young people, generally, there’s always that trap between telling someone what to do and making them feel like they can do it themselves and that they want to do it.

Gen Ys generally come into the workforce thinking they know everything, but they actually know a lot more than the generations that came before them.

A lot of people think they’re just brats, but because of the internet, they’re far more connected, knowledgeable, and capable of getting information. If they go to an interview for a job, they probably know a huge amount about the company and the person hiring them, from the official sources and also from what people are saying about them on blogs.

James: I think it depends on the way you talk to them – don’t belittle them! It’s the same thing I have to deal with being a Gen Y and the boss of a number of baby boomers!

If I said, “Hey, I need this done in this way”, they’re going to say, “Yeah, whatever mate”. You have to sit down with them and say, “This is what we need to achieve, how do you think we should approach it?”


Gen X writer John Birmingham recently wrote, “I think we hate spoilt Ys even more than we hate the boomers; we’re so looking forward to seeing them get run over by the coming recession.”

Mike: Gen Xs have been through it before. A lot of us went through the dot-com crash in the late 1990s and we grew up during the recession of the late 1980s. We’ve seen more recessions than booms. The Gen Y naïveté is matched by the Gen X pessimism.

James: Gen Y has not been through an economic downturn. They may not be able to change jobs so frequently or trade up to jobs that they perceive as better. I think it’s going to knock them back into place more than they realize.

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