What Generation Y and Z expect from their employers | SEI - Swiss Engineering Institute
What Generation Y and Z expect from their employers
September 03, 2018
By SEI Redaktion


What Generation Y and Z expect from their employers

But what lies behind the abbreviations Y and Z? In sociology, they identify different generations that can be described as having a set of common characteristics or expectations:

  • Babyboomer (born after 1945): This generation grew up in a time of post-war optimism. Many of today's executives come from this generation, which is particularly oriented towards hierarchical systems in the working world.
  • Generation X (born after 1965): It experienced the prosperity of the 1970s, driven by stronger expectations of self-realisation than was usual in their parents' generation (dubbed "Generation Golf" in Germany).
  • Generation Y (born after 1980): This generation includes those who grew up with digital media as a matter of course (digital natives). They are also called "Generation Why", as they often question social conditions in order to be able to position themselves optimally in the working world.
  • Generation Z (born after 1995): They are the second generation of digital natives, and even as young children came into contact with the digital world. They are less motivated by money than by meaningful work.

A study conducted at the Baden-Württemberg Cooperative State University (DHBW) illustrates how Generation Z tends to tick. The students were questioned about their expectations of the working world. Responses included the following from 19-year-old Yanik: "The question that always needs to be asked is: Why is it this way?" An understanding of the background is necessary. "If we want to make progress, we need to understand processes in the company better." This has nothing to do with a lack of respect for managers, unless they lack real leadership qualities. 

Personal added-value on the job

"We're quick to question authorities", said Nina (19). This quickly takes place, she stated, when bosses invoke their authority without having proven their "standing" on a daily basis. Her fellow student Amira, 22, added: "I want to be challenged and supported – in the long run I need personal added-value in my job."

Yanik's response was along similar lines: "To me, it's the job and not the employer that's decisive." Nina stated: "I'm not shy and I want to prove that I can do something." Amira, too, emphasized the following: "I give a lot at work and want to get something back in return."

Just these handful of statements make it clear what companies should be aiming for today, namely the thing that is more important to Generation Z than anything else – meaning. This now is becoming the real benchmark for success, and not the old trappings of promotion such as high salaries, large offices and company cars. 

With this attitude, Generation Z shows a high similarity to Generation Y which preceded it. But there are also clear differences, which Prof. Christian Scholz (Saarland University) has worked out. He distinguishes between three areas:

Working-time models: Generation Y is more interested in flexible working hours than Generation Z, which wants clear structures – for example through fixed working hours and a clear separation of the job and leisure-time spheres.

Digitalization: Generation Y is characterised by a high level of IT competence, as it is permanently online (24/7). The picture when it comes to Generation Z is somewhat different. It uses social media rather selectively and can also be described as "digitally naive", because it has only limited skills in digital media.

Architecture: Generation Y prefers flexible office concepts including desk-sharing, with the home-office now also becoming the norm. Generation Z prefers its own territory, and own desks and workspaces have a high value.

Questioning formal authority

Another way in which Generations Y and Z differ, is that, although they have no problem with authority as such, they do have a problem with formal authority. This means, anyone who exercises power through an office but does not do this competently and authentically will not be viewed favourably by Generations Y and Z.

That is why recruiting specialist Regina Bergdolt in her book "Führung im Unternehmen" ("Leadership within companies"; C. H. Beck) calls for a "new" way of thinking. "It is dangerous to impose the leadership and value concepts relating to one's own generation onto everyone. Then you remain trapped in the 'thinking' of your own generation." This, according to Beck, has a negative effect on collaboration. "Who wants to be told how to think? Employers also need mature and thoughtful employees." Her conclusion: "Instead of fighting the demands of Generations Y and Z, this energy would be better invested in an appreciative leadership style." 

This includes, among other things, high-quality feedback that goes beyond formalised target agreements. If conversations only take place as rehearsed rituals, the needs of many digital natives will be ignored. Why? Because they want authentic communication that helps them orient themselves in the complex world of work. For example, constructive feedback is absolutely necessary, because it also triggers processes of self-reflection. Although this form of introspection is often not a babyboomer strength, it is indispensable for the development of an appreciative corporate culture and must be demanded of all generations.

The changing values of the generations

This leads to an exciting interplay: The digital natives hold large mirrors in front of the babyboomers that reflect their traditional ideas about the working world: no absenteeism, constant overtime, a linear career and uncritical acceptance of hierarchies.

The same applies to Generations Y and Z: "Job security is clearly at the forefront of professional expectations", says Prof. Dr. Klaus Hurrelmann.1 Secure employment is regarded as the basis for job satisfaction, "presumably because in insecure employment relationships an independent existence can only be built up to a limited extent (...)", says the youth researcher.

But this question highlights another difference between Generations Y and Z: Youth unemployment is declining, and Generation Z is under less pressure on the labour market than Generation Y was. Hurrelmann: "Young people no longer have to beg for jobslike their predecessors, and instead can choose. More and more it is the companies that have to compete for them as future employees."

The consequence for HR managers: With every job interview they are promoting the company. However, if a candidate is rejected, they will undoubtedly share their experience among acquaintances on social-media platforms or employer-rating portals. The goal should therefore be to strengthen the employer brand with every contact and to leave a positive image even if the applicant is rejected (employer branding) – an approach largely unknown in the past.

1Hurrelmann, Klaus (2017): "What do young people expect from working life? The needs and wishes of generations Y and Z", in: https://www.bildungsketten.de/_media/BK-Konferenz_Vortrag_Hurrelmann.pdf dated 13.07.2018

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