Generation Y
Self-determination as Status Symbol

Kerstin Bund
Kerstin Bund | Photo (detail): © Jakob Börner

How the young, well-educated Generation Y wants to change the work world. A contribution to the debate by Kerstin Bund, born in 1982 and author of the book “Glück schlägt Geld. Generation Y: Was wir wirklich wollen” (ie. Happiness Beats Money. Generation Y: What We Really Want).

For some personnel managers we are a nightmare: they think we are spoiled and narcissistic. Instead of working on our career, they say, we prefer to knock off early or even take sabbatical leave. We here is my generation. We are called Generation Y because we were born after Generation X, between 1980 and 1995. Moreover, in English “Y” is pronounced like “Why”, and we question much. But are we really the “Generation Wimp” that many mock us as?

Studies show the opposite. Sociologists have observed that virtues such as hard work and ambition have, since the mid-1990s, gained tremendous importance amongst the younger generation. The 2010 Shell Study measured a higher motivation amongst twelve to twenty-five year-olds than ever before. We are not lazy. We want to work – just differently. We won’t let ourselves be enslaved at work, but if we are convinced of something we give our all. We look for meaning and demand time for family and friends. We want a new work environment, because the old one was pervaded by frustration: 67 per cent of those employed in Germany work by the book, 17 per cent have inwardly already quit. This statistic emerges from the 2013 Engagement Index of the consulting firm Gallup. In many companies, rigid working hours and compulsory presence are still the rule. Too often performance is judged by how many hours an employee spends in the office and not by what comes out in the end.

“We want to be master of our own time”

So what do young employees expect? In any event, no company car with all the extras, no private parking place in the company garage and no big office with a view. We have little use for the old insignia of power. We are driven less by incentives such as salary, bonuses and chunks of stock than by the prospect of a job that we can enjoy. This doesn’t mean that money is unimportant to us. But a decent wage alone fails to give us satisfaction. Happiness for us means rather to be master of our own time. Self-determination is the status symbol of my generation. A job that is bound to a place and time is a relict of industrial society, in which there was still a clear separation between work and leisure. The contemporary business world is changing more and more into a creative and knowledge economy, in which many jobs can be done from any location having an internet access. So why not leave the office at four o’clock to continue working at home in the evening?

Home Office, flexible working hours, arrangements for young families: we are demanding employees. But the greater autonomy on the part of the employee pays off even for the employer. Studies have shown that employees who have the choice of where and when they work are more productive, creative and efficient. If you are allowed to find your own rhythm, you may feel that work is not only work but also an expression of your control over your own life.

A phenomenon of Western industrialized societies?

But the members of my generation not only demand plenty; they also have plenty to offer: we are the best educated and most internationalized generation on the labour market. In addition, we are the first generation that has grown up with the internet. This makes us competitive in a world economy where it is the best idea that matters and the next big thing increasingly emerges in social networks.

Generation Y is of course not only all those born after 1980. It is above all those who grew up sheltered and relatively affluent, who have a sought-after university degree or good career training. Is Generation Y therefore a phenomenon of Western industrialized societies? Certainly the desire for self-realisation and striving after goals beyond mere money is more pronounced in wealthy than in poor countries. But Generation Y may be met with more and more in other parts of the world – in China, in Argentina, in Singapore. Thanks to social media and globalisation, the life styles of young people have increasingly come to resemble each other. Together, we will change the work world noticeably.