Brave New Workplace
Ideas for Leaders #646

Three Generations of Young Professionals Reshape the Workplace

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Key Concept

Three generations of young professionals and emerging workers — Gen X reaching the higher levels, Gen Y bringing their focus on purpose and cause, and Gen Z just breaking in — create both challenges and opportunities for the 21st century workplace.

Idea Summary

INSEAD’s new global survey of Gen X, Gen Y and Gen Z respondents, focusing on the workplace, technology and leadership, reveals the similarities and differences among today’s young professionals. A collaboration between INSEAD Emerging Markets Institute, Universum and the HEAD foundation, the survey received responses from more than 18,000 professionals and students in 16 countries, and yielded specific insights in five areas:

Work fit. Young professionals, including Gen X (42%), are fearful of not finding the kind of job that fits their personality in terms of vision, culture, values or work style.  This fear was greatest for Gen Z (53%) followed by the Gen Y Student (51%) and the Gen Y Professional (50%).

Pivots. The survey asked respondents if they were more hopeful or more fearful than in the past about the future of work. Despite the different economic conditions in different countries, the true divide in responses to this question occurred along generational lines and specifically between Gen X and Gen Y. In a number of different and disparate countries, Gen Y respondents were more optimistic about the future of work than they had been in the past, while the opposite was true of Gen X.

Fears. The same geographic differences were expected when asking respondents from different countries about whether they feared getting “stuck” in a job with few development opportunities. However, whether in countries with few opportunities or in countries with fast-growing economies, a little more than half (53%) of Gen Y professionals and a little less than half (47%) of Gen X professionals expressed this fear.

Women. Both generational and geographic differences were apparent when respondents were asked about work opportunities for women. Gen Z women in India, for example, fear not being listened to, a fear not shared about their generational counterparts in the U.S., who are more worried about not being seen as valuable to the organization.  At the same time, Gen Y and Gen X women in the U.S. have different fears: Gen Y women feared not realizing their career goals; Gen X were concerned about not being able to enjoy their retirement.

Startups. For young professionals, the startup world is becoming more attractive than working for the international giant. For example, 45% of Gen Y professionals would prefer to be at a startup compared to just 31% opting for the giant international companies. Interestingly, 35% of Gen Z high schoolers responded that they would prefer to work for a larger company, while 31% would prefer working for a start-up. Will this attitude remain when these young people enter the workforce?

Business Application

Based on survey results, the research team offered a number of recommendations for employers, including the following:

State your purpose early and often. When young professionals say they want to work for a cause, they are not necessarily limiting their aspirations to social causes. Company retreats and events or opening your books are two ways to show employees that the work they do contributes to a higher purpose and vision than simply adding to profits.

Make the issue of fit a strategic priority. Finding a company that matches their personality is important for the younger generations. Make sure your company has a clear and authentic culture that displays what the organization stands for and what unites your employees.

Make large organizations feel small and nimble. Structuring projects around agile teams pulled together for that specific purpose, and fostering intrapreneurship by giving employees free time to explore their own ideas, are just two ways that even a big company can feed the entrepreneurial spirit of today’s young professionals.

Mitigate fear and stress in the workplace. Two common stress factors for younger workers are fear about money and stress from being overworked. Providing financial guidance and encouraging time off, even “dark” vacation cut off from work emails or phones, can help.

See turnover as an opportunity. Companies naturally want to avoid expensive turnover, but turnover can also be a chance for your company to enter the emerging gig economy — an economy based on contract professionals hired for specific jobs as needed.

Improve training and development. Money on training is often wasted as employees forget what they’ve learned, or can’t apply the learning to their jobs. Time spent on needs analysis ensures appropriate and realistic training. 

The best way to support a multigenerational workforce begins with taking the time to understand what they have in common and where they diverge. This understanding lays the foundation for your company’s sustained success.

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Idea conceived

  • January 2017

Idea posted

  • March 2017

DOI number



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