In retrospect, six months ago wasn’t the best time to join a bank, as layoffs in the sector have been fast and furious since then. But Helena Farstad takes it in her stride. After all, should the bank let her go, it would be her third brush with redundancy before turning 30. “When it comes down to it, you’re on your own,” says the 28-year-old, now a finance business analyst at Lloyds TSB in London. Although committed, she’s not “emotionally attached” to any employer, she adds.
In previous jobs, at chemical groups Uniqema and ICI — both taken over and restructured while Farstad was working in the finance department — she was surrounded by “people who thought they were sorted for life.” When they learned this wasn’t the case, she saw “a lot of despair” around her office in northeast England, a region with a history of wrenching de-industrialisation. “It was a horrible, but useful, lesson to learn,” she says.
Stories like hers add nuance to the stereotypical image held by many older executives of the latest generation of workers, commonly referred to as Generation Y or “millennials.” These employees — roughly speaking, anyone in their twenties or early thirties — are often considered disloyal, distracted, impatient and needy by their elders. Hiring and retaining these young guns can be expensive, and exasperating, many complain.
In a global survey this summer of more than 160 senior executives, IT firm Genesys and the Economist Intelligence Unit, a sister company of CFO Europe, found that only 3% of top managers considered the millennials’ most distinctive characteristic to be a reliable work ethic. (See “Skill Set” at the end of this article.) Three-quarters were most impressed by this generation’s ease with technology, though this could be a backhanded compliment as dexterity on a mobile phone or an iPod are hardly critical business skills.
But speaking to young finance workers, such as Farstad, dispels many of the stereotypes, or at least adds some subtlety to the caricature. There is little doubt that this generation has “a completely different view of the world than the generations before them,” says Ian Graves, managing director for continental Europe at Robert Half, a recruitment company. They have grown up immersed in technology, encouraged — some would say coddled — by extremely supportive parents and have yet to experience a recession during their working lives. And however current conditions may affect the job market in the short term, most millennials are aware that long-term demographic trends are in their favour as the bulge of “baby boomers” now start to retire.
In response, companies are refashioning benefits packages, working patterns and much else. Nearly 70% of global HR executives surveyed earlier this year by WorldatWork, a professional association, said that they will tailor rewards to different generations within five years.
But before finance chiefs fret about overhauling benefits packages and rewriting corporate charters, Graves notes that millennials crave “stability, security and challenge, like everyone before them.” They may express these desires differently — thus requiring some adjustments to traditional corporate structures — but, deep down, they are not the entirely new breed of employees that many of the older workers believe them to be.