Gen Y: the need for flexibility

Written by Sterling Content
July 2, 2015

Written by Sterling Content
July 2, 2015

Cross-generational working can raise challenges in the workplace, and perhaps particularly so in Japan – a fast-ageing society. Young workers no longer expect to spend their careers in just one company, and are seeking alternatives to long working hours, which are still a fact of life for baby boomers in the world’s third largest economy. Meanwhile senior leaders and staff are often unsure how to respond to these shifting attitudes and demands for change.

On June 16, the BCCJ brought together industry experts to discuss recent findings from global research on “Generation Y” or “Millennials” – those born between 1982 and 1995 and who now account for 21% of the world’s population – to consider how Japan in particular could begin to bridge its workplace generation gap.

Moderated by Suzanne Price, Representative and Founder of Price Global, the session began by asking the audience to consider what challenges companies are facing regarding cross-generational working, why these challenges exist, and how they can be overcome.

To identify the challenges, EY recently invested in a study Global Generations, which surveyed approximately 9,700 adults aged 18-67 in full-time employment across a variety of companies globally – including Japan. Two-thirds of EY’s global workforce is aged 34 or under – with an average age of 29 – compared to the global average which is 46-47. Karyn Twaronite, EY Global Diversity & Inclusiveness Officer, visiting Japan from the US, explained: “We want and tend to keep ahead of trends so that our practices and policies are as modern as possible. Having a young workforce keeps us on our toes, and forces us to adapt to the needs of our people on a regular basis. We need to invest in the leaders of the future, and that is why Gen Y research is important.”

Other firms are placing resources in similar surveys to allow a better understanding of younger workers. Gen Y and the World of Work is a series of Hays global external research projects to explore the needs and aspirations of this young talent pool. Speaking at the BCCJ event, Ken Takai, Business Director in Japan, Hays, referred to their recent global study of 18-30 year olds, with a particular emphasis on findings from Japan.

Gen Y: the need for flexibility 

The objective of EY’s Global Generations was to understand what employees seek in a job and why they quit, why they stay and how this differs by generation. While “stagnant wages” were cited as the top reason full-time workers quit their jobs, half of the top factors were due to workplace flexibility challenges. The audience was reminded that young workers in the 21st century have different wants and needs to their older counterparts. “Most are leading organisations to gain better flexibility”, says Twaronite.

Twaronite was quick to point out that young workers are not seeking to work part-time but rather have control over their schedule. “They want to work where and when they want.” 

In Japan, the EY study found that 44% of full-time employees found managing work/family/personal responsibilities more difficult (2nd country after Germany). Workers in Japan were least likely to report working on a flexible schedule (30%).
In terms of retention, the top 5 reasons why millennials quit in Japan: excessive overtime hours (73%), limited access to mentors and sponsors (71%), a work environment that does not encourage team work (71%), minimal wage growth (69%), lack of opportunity to advance (66%). Twaronite says it’s interesting to note that many other countries, millenials reported minimal wage growth as reason number one to quit.

Traditionally, in Japan, workers have less access to flexibility or the ability to come and go. “Even though workers in other countries such as Germany and India work more, their firms still offer the option of flexi-time”, said Twaronite.

And, there is still a stigma associated with being out of the office – particularly in Japan, even when companies are offering staff flexibility. Twaronite says, “Workers around the world want the option to work flexibly — without penalty”.

It was pointed out that excessive overtime and lack of mentors and role models were other reasons for leaving an employer, “This is something that we could really work to address in Japan” says Twaronite.

Findings from the EY global study show that millennials globally – likely to be dual-career couples – are facing a perfect storm of increased professional responsibilities while simultaneously embarking on parenthood. 

Given the rising number of women in Japan’s workforce, and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s plan to entice more women into the workplace, it is not surprising that 37% of Hays respondents say that flexible working hours are important.

What’s expected of managers?

Traditional ways of working and managing however are not gone for good. Takai stressed that Gen Y is not a homogenous group; there is a clear split in the demographic covered by the Hays Japan survey. Some young workers continue to be influenced by the strong traditions that have shaped the country’s workplace for decades with 35% preferring some kind of hierarchy and 50% looking for managers to be more decisive and confident. Takai pointed out that Gen Y is the first generation where both parents were certainly born after WWII, which could help explain their differing mindset and “give them a different set of values to previous generations.”  The fact that Gen Y “has not experienced economic growth”, may in some way explain why safety and security ranks highly. Takai also pointed out Japanese companies are good at retaining staff who want and enjoy structure. 

Still, other young workers are less conformist and value change as much as their global contemporaries: 39% of Hays respondents  said that they desire autonomy at work.

Retaining talent

Across the board, according to both the EY and Hays research, younger workers, who are generally ‘plugged in’ 24-7, need to feel appreciated and valued by their leaders, and enjoy being communicated with. The nature of the work matters for Gen Y, with 64% of respondents saying that “interesting work” is an important factor for attracting and retaining young talent like themselves. Gen Y thrives on fun and social interaction according to the Hays report.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, money was cited as a top priority in both studies. 

Price noted, “Flexibility, high compensation and fun at work may sound like a tall order to the ears of many employers. And yet, in order to stay competitive for talent, they need to figure out what this means and how to address as a business issue.”

Managers of Gen Y, it seems, have a lot to live up to.

Gen Y: ambition

Both the EY and Hays reports conclude that Gen Y workers are interested in being developed at work, and therefore must be given tools to advance on a regular basis. This includes having access to regular feedback from their managers and leaders. Takai agreed: “Provide explanations so they understand exactly how their work fits into all-company projects”. This is a substantial investment that companies need to make.

The younger apprenticeship model, investing heavily in young talent, has worked for EY, said Twaronite. Many highly-skilled EY people go on to work for global corporations and other organisations. “We source and grow not only for our own shops, but for other peoples shops too.”

Slightly alarmingly, 44% of respondents to the Hays survey in Japan said they had no interest in taking on overseas assignments. Takai said that working abroad was a solid way for firms to develop the next generation of leaders and crucial for globalisation of Japanese companies. He said lack of role models who have benefited from overseas experience is one issue facing Gen Y in Japan.

Price jokingly rounded up the session: “Perhaps Gen Y in Japan need to be shown examples of how working overseas can give them interesting and flexible working opportunities and experience that leads to more favourable compensation.”

Twaronite concluded by saying that EY research shows Millennial women are the most ambitious of all groups and that Gen X had been identified as the best managers overall.

BCCJ encourages firms to implement diversity assessment programmes to help them understand Gen Y and bridge the gap between this talent pool and their more senior colleagues.