Are our perceptions of Gen Y accurate?

generation y mythsThere are many misconceptions in place around Generation Y, with a prevailing view that they will force through a significant shift in how the modern workplace operates.  New research by JB Associates challenges this point of view.

The study involved 25,000 people from 19 countries and looked to get to the bottom of many of our workplace perceptions.  Their findings shoud shake to the core many of our core beliefs about how the workplace functions.

Central to these findings is a shattering of perceptions around Generation Y.  For instance the perceived wisdom is that Gen Y crave flexible working, utilising social media and other modern technologies to do their work from anywhere but the office.

The reality is somewhat different however.  Gen Y employees were found to be 20% less likely to demand flexible working than their older colleagues.  It seems that many go out of their way to spend time at the office and close to their manager.

Indeed flexible working was found to be the preserve of older generations.  Amongst older employees demand for flexible working hit 70%, compared to just 40% of Gen Y employees that demanded such flexitime.


"This has real implications for accepted wisdom of workplace design and the built environment," said the report's author, John Blackwell.

"Many employers are planning radical changes towards 'leaner' working arrangements and less use of formal offices on the assumption that this will be appealing to younger hires. However in the light of this study, such plans will need careful consideration into how they might be realised."

Do Gen Y really want modern technology?

Similarly, Generation Y are often portrayed as being at the vanguard of new technology.  They are the epitomy of the early adopter trying out the latest mod cons.  This notion is pure myth according to the JBA report, with younger employees far happier to work with existing technologies than their older peers.

Likewise the report found that younger managers aren't demanding access to social media.  The report suggests that they are reluctant to request such access for fear that they may be seen to be loafing.

Change shy youngsters

A final shattered myth revolved around attitude to change.  Popular perception suggests that younger employees are keen on changing environments at work.  The reality uncovered by this research suggests that younger employees are no more keen on change than any other age group.

The key message from the survey, as John Blackwell said, is that for all the talk of technological and social revolutions, some things stay the same.

"A universal desire among employees of all ages and nationalities is for a good career, with prospects, at a socially responsible company, working with managers and colleagues they respect, with a strong sense of duty towards their role and employer".

"Traditional values, such as duty and career prospects, are as equally germane for those born in the 1990s as those born in the 1950s."



I think it has been too easy (and probably wrong) to parcel up individuals from different years and say they all behave in a particular way. I suspect if we went back to the Industrial Revolution we wouldn't be too surprised to hear that the generation then was strongly influenced by the technology available. That didn't necessarily make their values any different to the generation before them, as it doesn't now.

Hmm, that is interesting.  I wonder if the findings are the same across each country or whether national differences exist?

Younger workers report greater contentment at their jobs but also a greater willingness to leave, says a Mercer survey of 17 global markets, including the U.S. American workers ages 16 to 24 reported a higher-than-average willingness to leave a job, the survey says.


I wonder if many of our preconceptions about what Generation Y will want are actually projections and vicarious living by the baby boomers and Generation X with Generation Y being cited as the reason we want more flexible and remote working; dynamic workplaces; new and exciting technology etc?

It actually makes sense for Generation Y to start off in the office and near colleagues who can provide advice and support as they learn the job but also from a social aspect.

There may be a natural cycle that says once you've had your fill of socialising and you're comfortable and confident in your role, you want more autonomy and space to perform and this may be better achieved through physical distance such as remote working.

Agreed Colin. I think the perceived generational differences are exaggerated.

Folks, as the authors of this report we can shed considerable light onto your questions and comments.

The publication came about when twelve of our large clients asked us for an accuate view of what's actually happening to the changing work practices and work places.

We started by getting our team at Durham University to do a literature review and what we found shocked us.  Without exception, every study over the last decade had a biased sample - just senior execs or just graduates, etc. There was no true comparator study.

Consequently, we conducted our study across 25,000 people in 19 countries, asking over 200 questions about attitudes to the workplace and to change.  We had control factors for age, gender, education, geographic location, commute distances, direct and virtual team size, technology adoption, etc, etc.

What emerged was that, almost everything that business leaders are being told or have assumed is not borne out by facts.

I'd be delighted to go into specific details about our findings with interested folks.

By way of one small example, changing work practices or adopting social media technologies is not a Gen Y question vs the rest of the world, it's about the comparative propensity across all age groups to work differently and adopt different practices (or not).

Our work highlights that just because there's a team buried in an organisation somewhere working on new work practices, or CSR issues, this commonly doesn't percolate through the organisation.  Surprise, surprise, people will behave the way they're incented - and we typically find negligible evidence of staff performance metrics aligned to environmental sensitivities or changing work practices.

As I say, we're happy to share our findings, methodologies, and conclusions.

Hi John and a big welcome to CMI from me.  Did you find any national differences in your study?

Hi Adrian,

I'm actually a Fellow of the CMI however this is the first time I've used this blog.

We were fully expecting to see national variance across the 19 countries but surprisingly there was virtually nothing to report ... when compared and contrasted to the sizable differences stemming from staff performance criteria.

Please ask any other questions that spring to mind.  We passionately believe this is a ground-breaking study (OK, I fully accept this is an overused term) and represents a first in its comparator breadth of workplace issues.

Hi John,

I'm wondering if it's just a generational thing.  For instance do all young people go through a similar shift in expecations of work, be they generation Y, X, W, U (you get the picture)?

Hi Mike,

Rather than any specific generational finding, the most notable issue to emerge was the absence (or lack of recognition) of any alignment between staff performance metrics and organisational initiatives such as adopting new technologies (i,e, web conferencing or social media, etc) or working away from the office.

Despite organisations being aware of, and eager to pursue, the tangible financial and productivity gains from work practice change, we found negligible attempts to articulate the basic 4P's of change - Picture (why are we being asked to work differently), Purpose (what's in it for me), Plan (where is this going/ what's the first steps) and Part (what's needed from me/ who do I turn to when I encounter problems).

In the absence of any aligned metrics or sustained counselling from HR partners, staff are electing the perceived 'right' way to work.  And all-too frequently, this is long hours, work before family, visibility in the office, staying close to the boss, avoiding change, ad on.  We found this particularly prevelent amongst younger staff where adopting 'perceived' good practice rather than known effective practice was 10-15 points higher than more mature staff.

However, as we probed into 'older' staff and those with longer tenure, we found a dichotomy.  While there was greater awareness and acceptance of effective work practices, we found significant evidence of 'institutionalisation' - staff becoming stifled by corporate culture and consequently less willing to explore change boundaries.

The net result is the absence of clear metrics and enduring guidance (or possibly understanding) around effective working practices is thwarting wide-spread adoption. Due to their overall lack of experience, Gen Y are particularly vulnerable to this, however corporate culture suppresses innovation and inspiration as tenure/age increases.

The bottom line is that, irrespective of age, career and bonus trumps all.

Hope this helps.



As an addendum to the above comment, we have a major concerns about the number of poorly informed 'studies' and 'research' into changing work practices.

Our review of literature and publications over the last decade showed almost all had a self-selecting bias.  For example, one notable study from a major supplier of 'global workplace solutions' has published the definitive guide to future work based on a sample of 5,000 2nd year university students!  Even IBM publishes reports on work practices drawn from 1,200 CEO's or CIO's.

The lack of genuine comparator data is alarming.  Ask 100 left-handed people about the need for left-handed tools, and the predictable statistical response is easy to see!

We passionately believe that, to gain true insights, it's essential to pose the same questions to the widest possible comparator study - and then track the deviation between the comparator groups.

I'll jump off the soap box now!

Hi John,

I'm really interested in the findings and additional commentary and in particular the 'institutionalisation' part.

Is the problem - then - that we don't actually have any meaningful metrics for measuring performance and if we do, the people using them lack any depth of understanding so we revert back to the simple things such as staying close to the boss; working long hours because visibility is seen as equating to productivity and commitment etc?

What the research appears to be suggesting (if I'm reading it right) is that if we better understood the important things that we should be measuring, we could then start to loosen the iron grip we have on staff and allow them to go off and achieve organisational goals regardless of the generation they're associated with?

The picture that's actually emerged over time (and which in my opinion then needs to be addressed head on urgently then) is that we value behaviour over objectivity; we reward expected behaviours rather than ability and productivity and this will ultimately demotivate those who're performing well and encourage them to start demonstrating the expected behaviour to achieve promotion rather than gaining it through merit?

Young managers are 'aping' the behaviour of older managers (who they see as role models) and older managers are acting out what they know gets recognition rather than objective results whilst they can no longer be bothered to challenge the accepted norms through 'institutialisation' so we create a vicious cycle?

And with regards to utilisation of technology - it's not actually even a generational issue it's a productivity one but we've failed to recognise that?


What we found was a lack of the ‘right’ metrics.  It’s well-known that people will strive to achieve whatever metrics are set ... however, we found very little (read any) alignment of performance metrics to issues such as changing work practices or social, ethical, and environmental sensitivities, et al.

Your point about the gulf between those creating performance metrics and the way staff interpret them is well-made.  But, it goes beyond that – we found plenty of talk in HR circles about productivity, engagement, CSR, but the greatest weight still seems to be given to performance (read financial) metrics.

Your second point about “loosening the iron grip on staff” is also well-observed.  What our research highlighted was an overwhelming need to trust staff – to rid organisations of the old hypocrisies of hierarchical management.  Our study allowed for free text entry as well as empirical data, and one quote is particularly notable “I’m trusted to stand at a cold station/ airport early in the morning to head off to a meeting without my manager being there.  Yet when I step across into the HQ, I’m continuously checked-on, told when I can eat, where I can meet colleagues or even sit.  It doesn’t make me feel positive”

Your third point about valuing behaviour over objectivity is interesting.  We would say our findings point to a need to balance behaviour with objectivity, and not to lose sight of the core exam questions.  If it’s reducing costs and/or enhancing productivity, then metrics must address behaviour and objectivity aligned to innovation plus the investment needed to act quickly.  Hollow metrics deliver hollow results.

And when it comes to new technologies (or any other change for that matter), we found it’s not just that staff young or old fail to recognise possible productivity gains, it’s that career issues win out.  If there’s a choice of devoting time to driving up the career ladder or picking up new technologies, the former wins.  The net result is productivity improvements are slow to percolate throughout the organisation (just ask anyone from Microsoft about this issue).

It was also interesting to see the corporate control factors surfacing – another interesting comment from our study was “I’ve endured endless and pointless training on this [new application] and it doesn’t let me do my work any better.  [My organisation] seems to have overlooked that there’s 700 million Facebook users, not one of whom has ever been trained into how to use it”.

What emerged was a need to reappraise performance metrics, and to urgently do so.  The old models do not apply to the new economic landscape.  To close, perhaps thought should be given to incented and rewarding the dissenters and free-thinkers that, last year would have been fired!

Hi John, did you see the Cisco study out recently?

It's been in the news a whole lot focusing on what Gen Y apparently want from work.  Now obviously it's done by Cisco who have a vested interest in remote working technology, but they report that 60% of Gen Y people want the right to work remotely.

A led study or one with some validity do you think?

Yes, we have seen this report and all the hoopla that Cisco have been creating.

Sadly, it’s another example of a self-selecting study.  Their survey sample was confined to 1,441 college students (age 18–24) and 1,412 employees (age 21–29).

With the best will in the world, college students have little or no experience of work, and the 21-29 year old age group do not represent “the workplace”.

Statistically, this is akin to asking 3,000 left-handed people whether there’s a need for left-handed tools?  This is not an informed decision – you wouldn’t abandon all right-handed tools when left-handed people represent 10% of the overall population!

Maybe it would be useful to ask Cisco if they would hand over the running of their organisation to 18-24 year-old college students?  I figure we all know the answer :)

P.S. as an addendum to my comment above, none of the Cisco folks responsible for this report or the folks they wheeled out for press/TV interviews, etc would have qualified to contribute to this study!

Surely if you're studying the expectations and attitudes of Gen Y people to work it should be limited to people of that age though?

You make a good point Adrian.  Were this report solely focused on the views of a specific generation, having a biased sample would be fine.

However, this report states it's advising on the broader workplace and explores lofty questions "is the Internet a fundamental human necessity?" and "is a workplace with flexible mobility policies as valuable as salary?"

The 'workplace' is a broad ecosystem and, as such, for any study to offer sound counsel, it must offer a perspective across all comparators.  Without clear guidance, it's impossible to make considered investment and innovation decisions - and this is at the very heart of business competitiveness.

A senior Cisco insider described the report to us as "...typical PR fluff to get Cisco's name in the press. The quote about twitter being more important than air is just a joke to get headlines..."

Such 'advised' business counsel wouldn't fit well with the CMI's code of professional conduct, would it?

At the risk of paraphrasing Winston Churchill - "I'm in the smallest room in the house and have this report in front of me.  It will soon be behind me"

I agree John.

A recent survey claimed that for new graduates the most important criteria for job selection was salary. I can believe this since you have very little other data to go on. Things like internet/social media access, and flexible work practices can only be judged after spending time within a company to understand local practices and culture.

I think younger employees are sometimes misunderstood. I have heard my managers complain that younger people lack proper time management, but at the end of the day, these people sometimes have higher productivity and better results than the old and seasoned workers.

Harri -