Look out Australia, the 'me' generation's coming through 

Peter Sheahan

They expect to work 40-hour weeks, have paid leave to travel and be the boss at the age of 25. Welcome to the Y Generation, often described as the most challenging and fickle group with which to work.

Peter Sheahan, keynote speaker at the Charles Darwin Symposium at Alice Springs, tours the world’s boardrooms to educate management on a generation which wants instant respect in the workplace and what he described as achievement without effort.

The 27-year-old Gen Y expert’s experience losing staff while managing a Sydney hotel spurred him to tour the country and interview literally hundreds of young people and staff.

“It got me thinking of a completely different level of expectation I had compared to my staff,” he said.

His research is amusing and startling: Gen Ys, born between 1978 and 1994 consider a car, mobile phone, cable television and internet as essential survival items. Food and accommodation didn’t rate a mention in the US survey.

And one in five Gen Ys researched expected to earn $250,000 by age 28, delusional perhaps, but plenty of 20-something lawyers and engineers were still living with mum and dad.

Preferring discretionary income to independence and tight budgeting, Mr Sheahan argued that Gen Y’s propensity to live at home might be a case of the children actually liking or tolerating their liberal parents for financial advantage.

Baby boomers and many Gen Xers, recalling the early days of their careers building respect at work and gaining independence from renting, may baulk at Gen Y aspirations, but the tight labour market was putting young workers in the hot seat.

Australia’s Gen Y had never known lean times and were entering an economy in overdrive, Mr Sheahan said.

Many industries which ‘let go’ their loyal workers in the 1990s were now dealing with a younger, savvy generation who were not interested in hanging around for a golden handshake.

And he suggested Gen Xers and even baby boomers were following Gen Y’s lead in treating the workplace as a negotiating table.

Loyalty to workplaces was all but destroyed in the lean 1990s when corporate Australia ditched permanent staff and outsourced work. The workplace is not considered a high priority for Gen Y. It came behind family, friends, communities and even co-workers, he said.

Gen Y’s friendships were hard-wired through the internet which, for many young people, was integral to their lives. Banning social sites such as Facebook, as seen in local media, was one way to lose staff.

Mr Sheahan said Gen Y’s current and future workplaces were steeping stones to further work skills, empowerment and self-identity. They wanted to achieve in a short period of time and negotiate every step of the way.

As the ranks of available workers thinned across the economy, companies must adapt to the Gen Y mindset and change the relationship between staff and management.

Or, as Mr Sheahan suggested, build a bridge and get over it.

Australia’s labour growth, already at 1.5% with record immigration is expected to halve over the next five years, causing further shortages.

“If you want to see the effect, go to Perth,” he said, commenting on the high wages and acute shortage of staff in Western Australia.

He suggested the Northern Territory model itself as a gateway to a mobile, transient population, offering educational and career opportunities and a sense of adventure only gained living in the outback.

Promoting the NT’s lifestyle in other states would not be enough to encourage people to move.

“Many regional areas outside the NT already offer great lifestyles so it’s not unique to the NT,” he said.

Mr Sheahan suggested NT communities such as Alice Springs join with regional areas in other states to create an exciting, attractive package based on the motives of young people wanting to work in regional Australia.

Structured 12-month work rotations between regions and clear goals were steps toward appealing to the Gen Y mindset of a fun employment landscape.

And he said if Alice Springs or Darwin were such great places to live, a certain percentage would stay and grow the population.

“I’ve already spoken to a few people in Alice Springs who said they intended to stay for a very short while and are still here and loving it.

“You need to create a space for the next generation of young people in the Territory by asking them for their ideas and only then will you get the results,” Mr Sheahan said.