The workplace of the future, a Gen Y perspective

Organisations are built by people for people. They are shaped by the generational values of the time and are built on partnerships between employees and employers. Whether you’re starting your own market research agency or preparing for your next career move, understanding what motivates employees goes a long way in building a successful business or career.

Often these professional partnerships bring together multiple generations in the workplace. Anecdotally inter-generational misunderstanding has been with us forever. A quick google search on generations in the workplace returns articles titled “Workplace Warfare” “Can Baby Boomers and Gen Y just get along?” and “Gen Y vs. Boomers Workplace conflict heats up”.

According to social researcher Hugh Mackay, the way to analyse each generation is to look at what its formative influences were. Through this perspective we are given clues as to how the workplace may be shaped by Gen Y values.

Same values, different expressions

Some examples of what most people want to get out of work are security, flexibility, mapped progress and loyalty. In our current workplaces, which have been shaped by the Baby Boomers, the traditional understanding of these values is job stability, work life balance, an annual performance review and years of tenure.

Let’s have a look at the same values of security, flexibly, mapped progress and loyalty and see how they are expressed by Gen Y.


Security as Mobility: Everyone wants security. For Gen Y career security depends on career mobility. We know that technologies are going to rapidly change. We know that our careers will likely outlive the organisations we are part of. If we don’t have mobility, we’re on unstable ground.

Flexibility as Work Life Integration: Working late or bringing work home used to be seen as a sometimes necessary infringement on work life balance. That’s why we have things like RDO’s, penalty rates and over time. These were the rewards for sacrificing work life balance. Today’s younger generation is more comfortable blurring the lines between work and home. Work does not need to be restricted by place or time and it’s not mutually exclusive with our personal lives. What we choose to do is homogenised. Not compartmentalised into my job, my family, and my friends. I choose for my work to be important and my family understands that that sometimes I have to make concessions because of that choice. But in the same way, we expect our employers to also appreciate the importance of aspects of our lives outside of work and make similar concessions. Because that’s a partnership.

Mapped Progress as Real Time Feedback: It’s a fast world. We want to be proactive, we want to be responsive, and we need to keep the momentum going. So we want to be able to correct and improve in real time. Not in historical terms. Mapped progress may once have been about sitting down in an annual performance review saying “I did this, I did that”. Now it’s all about “I’m doing this, I’m doing that, and how am I doing?”

Loyalty as Shared Meaning: Future employers may need to prepare for higher staff turnover, because Gen Y needs mobility. But that doesn’t mean we’re fickle. We can take the achievements, values and guiding principles of an organisation we were once part of and wear them like a badge of honour – because we shared in that. In her recent Sydney Morning Herald article on leading Gen Y employees, Gabrielle Dolan expresses that Gen Y are looking to be inspired by authentic leadership – “the key to becoming an authentic leader is firstly to discover what you stand for; what you are passionate about, what you value and what you are prepared to advocate.” Great employers won’t measure loyalty in years of service but in years of advocacy. Great organisations build great alumni.

So how do the ways we express these values shape the market research organisations we build? And how will our organisations respond to a changing business environment?

How will organisations respond to a changing business environment?

This pyramid below shows a traditional market research agency. The pyramid was highly effective and has produced great businesses and great leaders. The structure was exactly right to serve those values of job stability and loyalty through tenure.

org structures


But the fixed and permanent structure doesn’t work for employees of the 21st century. The pyramid restricts mobility; it limits work/life integration.

Moreover, Gen Y will have to reshape the skills, tools and structures of market research to fulfil changing client needs. If one of the fundamentals of 20th century business was building economies of scale, the mark of 21st century business will be adapting to rapid change.  We live in an era where we don’t have to visit a bank to fund a new business idea, we can turn to Kickstarter. We don’t need step foot in a university to learn about Art History, we can complete a MOOC. We live in an era where we embrace a sharing economy, leaving our taxi and hotel industry in protest.

Instead of the traditional choice between qual and quant, clients will face an increasing selection of solutions from the research toolbox. Clients will demand specialised skills and agencies may become more niched as a result. If that’s the case, young researchers will likely end up in organisations that offer a core competency and partner with other disciplines to meet client needs.

The specialised market research agency of the future may be flat, collaborative and networked.  A typical career path may see us moving horizontally across an organisation, in different roles, acquiring new skills and specialities along the way. Organisations could even become vehicles for alliances, rather than just serve the purpose of a centralised location for work.

What does this mean for Gen Y?

If you‘ve started your career in the last few years you probably have a tertiary degree. If your studies included maths or stats, you’re probably in a quant role. If your studies covered social sciences or communications you’re probably starting your career as a qually. But you’ll soon discover that this will only get you so far in market research today. Young researchers will have to learn a lot more and keep on learning. Ongoing professional development and life-long self-education will be necessary to meet the complexity and diversity of tomorrow’s marketing challenges.

And for employers of Gen Y?

Understand that we want the same things from work as you. We all share the same values, even if we express them in different ways.

(Elements of this article were first presented at AMSRS Conference 2015 by Teri Nolan & David McCallum)

Author: Teri Nolan

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