Whys and wherefores of Generation Y

The latest wave of recruits to the workforce, born in the 1980s and 1990s, have a distinctly different outlook to the people managing them

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 22 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 22 June, 2013, 3:55am

Every year around this time anxious new graduates inundate the job market. Candidates send out resumes and sit through round after round of interviews. However, for the 1980s and '90s generation, sometimes known as Generation Y, getting the job is not the hardest part: keeping it is.

Gone are the days when employees would stay with a company for their entire working life. For the younger segments of the workforce, it is not uncommon to switch jobs every year.

The jumpiness stems from a stark cultural divide between those doing the hiring and managing, typically born in the '60s and '70s, and junior-level candidates, from the "me generation", who are used to getting things their way, says Angel Lam, a manager at the recruitment specialist Robert Walters.

Lam explained why managers find it so hard to understand Generation X and Y and what both sides should be doing to bridge the generational gap.


How do the1980s and 1990s generation compare with the previous wave of employees?

Years ago, many employees would stay with a company for life and get rotated to different units within the organisation. Companies would spend a lot of resources to develop them. Now, many fresh graduates change jobs every year or every two years. That's very common among the 22 to 28 age bracket.

When I ask them about motivations and what prompted them to leave their firms, the answers are all really similar: better title and better money. Back in the day, it would be career prospects, stability, job scope, development. This gives employers the impression that the new crop of employees is more money-driven and focused on the short term.


What has caused this mindset change?

You have to trace it back to the '80s and the '90s. The Hong Kong economy was still booming. The parents were doing well and most families had only one or two kids. A lot of resources have been put into those kids and that attention has changed the way they think. They're more self-centred, focused on their needs and what other people can give them. They also have a lot to fall back on - they don't have to support the family and they usually live with their parents until marriage. It's just so easy for them to change jobs.


What kind of behaviour does that translate to in the workplace?

When I meet fresh graduates or people with one to two years of experience and talk to them about career progression, instead of saying, 'What's required to get promoted?', they ask, 'How fast? How soon? How much?' Their mentality is … aggressive. They want to achieve something in their career but they need to understand it's not about people giving you the money first and then you perform. You perform and prove yourself before getting a promotion.


Is changing jobs every few years necessarily a negative thing?

No. It really depends on the nature of your role and the employer's perspective. Every time you change jobs, you do broaden your perspective. The conflict arises because those currently managing Generation Y are the '60s and '70s generation, and stability to them is very, very important because you had the '60s depression and the stock market crisis in the '70s. They are judging their subordinates using their own standards and they find it a big shock. Negativity comes from that gap, not necessarily from the style. Both mentalities have to change and both need to meet each other one step further.


What is an acceptable length to stay in a job nowadays?

For a junior-level - the first six years post-university - two to four years is fine, but preferably three. My recommendation is that for the first job, if you don't like it, leave. Second job, the same? Fine, leave. But the third job must be stable. The third employment is very critical. If you are at the third company and you also stay only two years, it will start to raise eyebrows.


What about doing a "boomerang" (leaving a company but returning after a few years)?

I did a boomerang too, but you can only do it once or else employers will question your adaptability to new environments. Employers will think that for some reason you go back to what's most comfortable for you. A boomerang does not necessarily mean a faster promotion or higher pay. It might not go well with peers. Human resources is also quite cautious about this. They won't want to set up a bad example [of people doing boomerangs and skipping a level].


Does someone's line of work affect the jumpiness of their career?

Yes. We broadly divide jobs into frontline and support functions. Back-office jobs tend to be more stable, around three to four years per stint. But if you are in a frontline sales role, for example, it is shorter, and employers will also be a little bit more lenient and understanding of the rationale for changing jobs.

That said, after 10 years you should be reaching the mid-management level. That is a whole different ball game. You need at least three to five years within the same company. Once you reach the 30-year benchmark, you cannot afford to browse around.


How much of the jumpiness in younger generations is a reaction to smaller company budgets?

I think [Generation Y] are feeling a bit insecure and slightly paranoid. It's pretty much to the point where they think, 'Either I leave or the company asks me to leave, so I'd rather leave first.' But I think organisations are gradually realising that high turnover is not going to make their shareholders happy. You basically don't have any succession planning. It's going to backfire if they overlook this. I'm starting to see more and more companies stepping up their efforts with regard to talent retention and management.


How do local candidates stack up compared with their mainland counterparts?

I would not be surprised if the job market for fresh graduates in Hong Kong gets even more competitive. Mainland Chinese students tend to come from well-to-do families, top schools, are bilingual and their English skills can be a lot stronger than the locals, I must say. They might even have the personality and confidence, because they are the elite. We're talking about the cream of the crop, who can come to Hong Kong and get accepted by local universities, compared to just the average in Hong Kong.

But if I am going to make any recommendation [to local candidates] it's to keep up with them. Obviously they have that software but you guys were born and raised here and you know the market and the culture. You still have a pretty strong advantage. You can get a little bit more practical work experience and give yourself a head start.

Because their parents send them to school, they need to focus on academics. It's very hard for non-locals to get a visa to work and study at the same time. You can work and go to school at the same time and get that exposure.

Hongkongers must acknowledge that it's not just competing among themselves but people from overseas as well. Even from the UK and other parts of the world, students come to Hong Kong to study, because back home it's very hard to find full-time employment.


What recommendations do you have for managements in looking for and retaining talent?

The post '80s and '90s generation is not a bad bunch. They are just more direct. They're very vocal about what they like and they need straight answers. Have more visibility vis-à-vis progression or succession planning so they understand what they are getting themselves into.