Rethinking how we work with Generation Y

Generation Y (Millennials) have very different views about the workplace from the generation before them and how they wish to be led. Adam Kingl, Adjunct faculty at Hult Ashridge, shares some of his findings following extensive research of over a decade on this topic culminating in his book, Next Generation Leadership.

There has been no lack of literature on the paradigms held by different generations. I can’t open an HR-focused magazine without finding at least one article about Generation Y (Millennials), sometimes described with admiration and awe, sometimes decried as irrational or even dangerously separated from reality.

I had one conversation with a very senior Gen X human resources executive who remembered conducting a job interview with a twenty-something candidate and remarked with some emotion how the candidate behaved as if she were interviewing the HR manager. This response illustrates a fundamental shift in the employee-employer social contract. Gone is the ‘You should grateful to work here’ paradigm. The more likely view held by Gen Y is ‘Why should I work for you?’. This dynamic can dramatically unsettle even the seasoned interviewer, as it genuinely does make us question who really holds the power here?  The answer is not so straightforward.

In a job interview, the party who is more willing to walk away holds the balance of power. If you will allow me to generalize here for a moment, the implication is that Gen Y has more of the power than at least the four generations preceding them. Gen Ys care less about working for a specific employer and more about the quality of their work environment. They care less about job longevity and more about mobility.

Just think about our own family experiences. I’ve asked the following questions to dozens of Gen X (my generation) colleagues, executive education participants, and clients over several years. Their answers are almost invariably true no matter their country of origin.

How many employers did your grandparents and parents have?  How many will you have if your average frequency of changing employers holds?

The common answers among Gen X are that their grandparents had only one or two employers over the course of their careers; their parents had three or four; they will have seven or eight at their current rate of mobility.

This pattern implies that the number of employers in a lifetime is doubling with every generation. Therefore, will Gen Y typically have about sixteen employers by the time they retire? This prediction seems very realistic – a new job every three to four years. But ignoring anecdotal evidence for the moment, let’s see if quantitative evidence bears this out.

From 2009 to 2014, I issued a survey to the Gen Y executive education participants on a program I directed for emerging leaders, asking their attitudes toward work, employee engagement, and leadership paradigms. This course was a training ground for the global managers of tomorrow. One of the questions in this survey asked how long the students would anticipate staying with any given employer.  In other words, ‘What does the little voice in the back of your head tell you is the appropriate time to remain with a company?’ The results were startling:

  • 11+ years: 5%
  • 6-10 years: 5%
  • 3-5 years: 53%
  • 2 years or fewer: 37%

Two big takeaways here are that 1) 90% of those surveyed anticipated staying with an employer for no more than five years, and 2) over a third do not foresee staying for more than two.

For the employer and specifically for the HR function, the implications are fundamental. The human resources department needs to focus more on asking its employees: ‘What can we do for you now rather than five years from now? How can we support your development with short, sharp interventions, programs, mentoring, or coaching? How can we support your career with the mutually understood expectation that you will probably explore other opportunities? How might we be able to entice you back when you are an even more senior professional? How can our purpose and culture, less than our employee “package” convince you to stay longer than we might otherwise enjoy? What benefits and qualities do you truly seek?’

These are not always easy questions to ask or to answer, particularly because the responses will be idiosyncratic to each organization. But if talent is key to success, and I see no evidence to suggest that this conclusion has changed recently, then our company must have compelling responses to the answers it receives from its people. Those responses may represent a sea change over previously held sacred cows.

Adam Kingl is Adjunct Faculty at Hult Ashridge,, and the author of Next Generation Leadership (HarperCollins 2020)

Register for our webinar

Join our upcoming live session with Adam Kingl on 'Next Generation Leadership: How young talent can thrive with your organization'

Hult International Business School
Hult International Business School 
Ashridge Executive Education