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“Talkin’ ‘bout My Generation!” What Every Employer Needs To Know About ‘Generation Y’ August 22, 2008

Posted by liverpoolchamber in Media.

Dr Paul Redmond, University of Liverpool

They are the most educated, affluent, assertive and open-minded generation in history, the ‘digital natives’ who have never had to get up off the sofa to switch channels, who have no memory of Morecambe and Wise, and who, for the first time in human history, have a better grasp of technology than their parents. Welcome to the brave new world of Generation Y.

Where were you on the evening of 20th October 2007? Chances are, like millions of others across the UK you were watching England compete in the Rugby World Cup Final.

But there’s also a good chance that at some stage during the TV coverage, you found yourself pondering the following question:

What has a man in a gorilla suit playing drums to an old Phil Collins song got to do with chocolate bars?

If so, you were in good company. Forget Jonny Wilkinson and Co.,  Cadbury’s amazing half-time ‘Drumzilla’ advert, in which a man in a £100,000 electronically-powered ape costume plays drums to Phil Collins’ ‘In the Air Tonight’, rapidly became the big talking point of the entire evening’s television. It also went on to sell the company millions of extra chocolate bars. The question is, how?

How to really drum up business

Like many long-established firms, Cadbury found it had a problem when trying to reach new consumers. Hardest to reach of all were ‘Generation Y’ – those born after 1980. In this they were not alone. Studies have found that Gen. Y is notoriously brand-savvy, and far too sophisticated, knowing, and selective to be fobbed off with traditional tried-and-tested marketing techniques. What they want, indeed, what they demand, is to be ‘edutained’ – educated, intrigued, and entertained, all at the same time. Drumzilla was Cadbury’s brilliant, high-tech, risky, game-changing response. And it worked: Generation Y loved it and sales rocketed. A Cadbury spokesman was reported as saying: “We have been amazed by the way the advert has captured the public’s imagination.” However, the planning director of the advertising agency behind the ad was more revealing. He said: “Chocolate is about joy and pleasure. For years Cadbury has told us that it was generous through the glass and a half strap line. We thought, don’t tell us how generous you are; show us. Don’t tell us about joy; show us joy.”

So what does this tell us about Generation Y?

The new Generation Game

Few academic theories are currently as topical as Generation Theory. Many national and international firms are now applying it to help them understand how they can re-brand to appeal to different generations. Behind all this is a concern that traditional communication channels between organisations and today’s new generation of consumers are no longer working as effectively as they once did. And the name on everyone’s lips is ‘Generation Y’. So who are these people?

‘Boomers’, ‘Xers’ and ‘Yers’

The concept of ‘generations’ first appeared in the early 1990s. Essentially, it views society as consisting of successive ‘generations’, the three most recent of which are the ‘Boomers’ (1943-1963), ‘Generation X’ (1964 – 1979) and ‘Generation Y’ (1980 – 2000).

Each generation, it’s claimed, possesses its own unique ‘character’ – a character shaped by the dominant social, economic and cultural forces that were shaping the world during the years in which they were growing up. Crucially, only by understanding these forces can you really decipher what makes a generation tick, what gives it its own unique outlook on life.

So what do we know about Generation Y?

  • Characteristics of Generation Y
  • Techno-savvy
  • Civic minded
  • Connected … 24/7
  • Anti-commitment
  • Self-confident
  • Service-minded
  • Optimistic
  • Environmental
  • Educated
  • Entrepreneurial
  • Bored by routine
  • Opinionated
  • Success-driven
  • Diverse
  • Lifestyle-centred
  • Goal orientated

Source: Deloitte

Babies on board

The first thing about Generation Y is that there are lots of them. In the US alone, they encompass more than 70 million people and are almost three times the size of Generation X. Nevertheless, most Yers grew up in small families. This gave them a head start in terms of self-confidence. The 1980s were the ‘the decade of the child’ which meant that many Yers grew up feeling special and cherished (remember all those ‘Baby on Board’ signs?)

Gen Y also grew up affluent. Not only did they have more disposable income than previous generations, they were able to spend more time in full-time education. This might explain why Generation Y is good at keeping its options open. According to Business Week, Yers avoid commitments, be they to employers, institutions, even partners (marriages among Gen Y are at an all-time low). Instead, when they need support, they go shopping. According to the London Evening Standard this is the first generation that prefers retail therapy to religion; the ‘MyPodders’ who are so image-conscious that a BBC Gen Y poll found 51 per cent willing to undergo surgery to improve their looks.

Generation Y is also supremely brand-conscious. This is the first generation that tattoos brands on to their bodies (‘Harley Davidson’ is the most popular Gen Y brand tattoo followed by ‘Disney’, ‘Coke’ and ‘Google’). This is possibly because brands have been such a constant feature of the Generation Y experience. By the age of four, as Eric Schlosser, author of ‘Fast Food Nation’ claims, Generation Y was able to recognise one symbol above all others: the ‘golden arches’ of McDonalds’.

It’s good to plork

But it is in the workplace that Generation Y is attracting most attention. The Financial Times has labelled Yers as ‘every employer’s nightmare’; while Fortune claims they are destined to be the most high-performing in history. As Eric Chester writes in ‘Employing Generation Y’, ‘although they are better educated, more techno-savvy, and quicker to adapt than those that came before them, they refuse to blindly conform to traditional standards and time-honoured institutions. Instead, they boldly ask, ‘Why?’

Research indicates that Generation Y communicates differently than other generations, which also gives them a distinctive role in the workplace. Mostly this stems from their familiarity with new technology (combined with their increased levels of disposable income). According to the professional services firm KPMG, Generation Y rarely uses email; instead the preferred media are social networking sites such as ‘My Space’ and ‘Bebo’.

Studies also show that Gen Y doesn’t respond to formality – particularly office hierarchies and traditions. One City manager recently told me how highly paid traders in her firm would regularly spend several hours each day ‘plorking’ (a computer-based blending of work and play) between different websites and technologies. It wasn’t that they weren’t hitting their targets; it was how they were approaching their work.

Generation Y – What they want from their careers:

  • Long-term career development and multiple experiences within a single organisation
  • Sense of purpose and meaning to the work
  • Access to mentors and other company champions
  • Work-life flexibility
  • Tech-savvy work environment
  • Primary loyalty is to networks before their  employers

What many firms are suddenly discovering, to their cost, is that Generation Y is quite prepared to walk away from organisations that are unable or unwilling to match their values and concerns. Unlike Generation X, Gen Y has been found to have a far higher level of awareness about corporate social responsibilities and the environment. One survey last year by the Association of Graduate Recruiters found that 72 per cent of final year students said they would have to feel happy with an employer’s ethical record before agreeing to work for them. And Yers are serious about this. As one respondent said, “If we don’t like a job, we quit, because the worst thing that can happen is that we move back home. There’s no stigma’.

All of this presents employers with a significant challenge. Get it right – provide the sort of culture, incentives, contacts and development opportunities that Generation Y responds to – and you get to attract and keep the brightest graduates. Get it wrong and the chances are they’ll walk.

It seems that Alexis de Tocqueville was right. Every generation really is a new people.

If you would like to learn more about Generation Theory and how it could help you or your organisation, please email: paul.redmond@liverpool.ac.uk



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