Over the last few years we have seen a proliferation of research studies on attitudes of Gen Y aka millennials as they are more popularly known. The findings of these studies are invariably presented in a dramatic way and almost sound like a bugle call for revolutionizing workplace culture and practices. I quote,
“Many millennial employees are unconvinced that excessive work demands are worth the sacrifices to their personal life” – PWC’s Next Gen: A global generational study 2013
“Millennials demand career growth – and lots of it” – Deloitte Global Millennial Research
“Move over stability and job security. Gen Y is more bothered about a non-hierarchical management” – CII Deloitte Generation Next Study
While preferences cannot be contradicted, I have always been skeptical of generational stereotypes. In my view, a large number of my Gen X and Gen Y colleagues do not conform to many of the myths that abound about them in our popular discourse. The Gen Y employee is stereotyped as being “entitled’ – unwilling to work long and hard, have unrealistic expectations of career growth and compensation and lack loyalty for the organization. In fact, Time magazine ran a cover story on millennials called “The Me Me Me generation.” On the positive side, millennials are seen as digital natives who thrive on innovation, variety, change and are more concerned about empowerment and hierarchy at the workplace than about stability and job security.
Stereotyping – myth or reality
The stereotyping has two negative effects. At one level it is demeaning to both Gen Y and Gen X employees apart from being patently untrue. For e.g. comparisons of Gen Y attitudes with Gen X attitudes conversely stereotype Gen X as being inflexible, technologically challenged, hierarchical and thus, unsuited to the modern workplace. I have come across many Gen X colleagues who are extremely adaptive, technologically savvy and are very comfortable working with colleagues half their age. Similarly, most of the Gen Y colleagues I have been fortunate to work with are the antithesis of the “Me Me Me” stereotype. Some maybe highly individualistic but certainly not entitled.
The other negative effect is the evangelizing of so called best practices culled from the practices of new age organizations that are seen as Gen Y friendly. However, evangelizing the adoption of these practices in organizations which are at a very different stage of their lifecycle and growth totally overlooks their contextual relevance. What may be relevant for a Facebook or Google which are hailed as poster boys of Gen Y friendly workplace practices may just not be relevant for a 150-year-old conglomerate. In fact, a one size fits all strategy is more likely to exacerbate inter-generational conflict in a workforce that is multi-generational. At the same time, any policy or practice needs to be critiqued in the context of its intended as well as unintended consequences.
Recently, I heard a senior leader of a new age organization wax eloquent at a conference on how they have promoted a non-hierarchical, democratic workplace where managers are appraised by their team members. Before one hails appraisal of managers by team members as a best practice, it would be pertinent to consider the impact of such a practice on executive accountability and whether such practices influence adoption of sub-optimal populist decisions. While consultative decision making certainly needs to be encouraged, one certainly would not want quality of the decision to get impaired by forcing unwarranted compromises apart from inducing paralysis in decision making. Eulogizing or copying so called best practices without an adequate critique may just well be a recipe for disaster.
Trends impacting the future of work
Moving on, I believe that self-reports of attitudinal preferences suffer from an inherent defect in accurately predicting workforce behavior and consequently, the future of workplaces. Our preferences are contextual to our socio-economic circumstance and the prevalent socio-economic environment. We have seen young professionals making frequent job changes when economic growth in India was robust and job opportunities were aplenty. Organizations went to extreme lengths to lay out the red carpet to attract and retain employees. The period before the financial crisis of 2008 was characterized by high attrition, wage inflation and opportunities for rapid career growth. This was primarily due to availability of a large number of jobs and the imbalance in the demand and supply of employable labor.
As economic growth and job creation declined post 2008, we immediately saw a fall in attrition, reduction in wage costs and restricted opportunities for career growth. Hence, the moot point would be to recognize that our behavior is disproportionately shaped by our prevailing socio-economic context. Similarly, employees demonstrate tremendous resilience and capacity to adapt by accordingly calibrating their expectations to the changing socio-economic context. Commercial organizations also respond to changing economic circumstances in a manner that follows the cool calculus of commercial logic. Hence, organizations are hardly likely to pander to employee preferences unless necessitated by the business logic of attracting and retaining the right people.
The impact of changing attitudes of millennials on the workplace of the future will hence, need to be understood and examined in the broader context of the various trends – demographic, technological, social, cultural, economic etc. In my view, the key trends that are likely to disproportionately influence the future Indian workplace is the trend of increasing urbanization, narrowing of the aspiration divide and the democratization of opportunity for both men and women.
For centuries, tradition, command or the sheer struggle for survival have dictated the choice of life and vocation. Even till a couple of decades back, it was expected that the children of doctors, lawyers, engineers, business people would follow their parents footsteps not to speak of the countless millions following the vocation of their ancestors in agriculture, trade or craft. The opportunity to exercise choice of a career, choice of education or simply the choice to aspire for a better life is a modern day phenomenon and especially so in the Indian context. Socialist India offered few jobs and few opportunities relative to the size of the population and it was unthinkable for the underprivileged to aspire for a better life for themselves and their children. The fruits of economic growth and liberalization have led to an incredible array of career choices becoming available for pursuing a career in our urban and increasingly in our semi urban centers.
Simultaneously, the trickle-down effect in the form of burgeoning numbers of those enrolled in primary, secondary and tertiary education and greater penetration of cable TV, mobile telephony and the internet across the country have led to the emergence of a more confident, better educated and aspirational workforce. The saturation of the agricultural sector for providing sustainable livelihood and the emergence of a confident, better educated and aspirational workforce will provide the impetus for many amongst our youth to break free from the shackles of their caste, community and socio-economic circumstance to form the supply pool for formal & semi-formal employment opportunities that are likely to emerge as the economy grows and prospers.
My personal experience of this emerging workforce is that they are hungry for opportunity and are more than willing to work hard and long to secure a career that will economically uplift them and their families. Also, the attitudes of the emergent workforce would be in stark contrast to the current white collar urban Gen Y workforce. The urban Gen Y who constitute a disproportionate part of the current work force have access to myriad career choices due to the quality of their education and are also relatively far more financially secure due to the affluence of their parents. It is but natural that this relatively privileged segment will respond to questions of workplace preferences in a manner very different from their peers who come from an underprivileged background. Any discussion on trends impacting the future workplace would hence, necessarily need to factor the attitudes and preferences of this hitherto silent mass as they will constitute the dominant group in the workforce of the future.
It is a given that we will continue to live in a VUCA world at least in the foreseeable future, a world which will see rapid obsolescence, technological shifts and changing consumer preferences. While organizations and employees will need to adapt and embrace the changing reality, the larger theme of equity, fairness and respect for individual rights and dignity would continue to play a central role in shaping workplace practices. A better educated, aspirational workforce consisting of an increasing number of women employees will demand that workplace practices reflect the changing attitudes, mores and norms of society. However, the assimilation of a new emergent workforce in the formal economy will also have its own set of challenges. A raw but aspirational workforce unused to the ways of the formal sector will encounter conflicts with their traditional values and beliefs pertaining to work, family and gender relations. These challenges will need to be addressed not just for building a fair, just and humane workplace but for building a fair, just and humane society.
(c) 2014, K. Ramkumar. Used by permission. Originally published at http://theotherview.in