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Gen Y idealism will change the way we manage

Students have always been activists. But today’s young people have a louder voice than ever before. This month it is on the streets of Hong Kong that young demonstrators are calling for democracy. They tweet, blog, and evade the Great Firewall of China using apps like Firechat.

Elsewhere in the world, young people step onto planes and into danger, in pursuit of diverse causes, both good and ill. This morning I heard the father of 33 year-old US Ebola victim Ashoka Mukpo talking about his son’s dedication to his work as a photojournalist in Liberia.

All this suggests the hype about ‘Generation Y’ (and Z) may be correct – young people have a great desire to do meaningful work. Some will risk their lives to achieve that. Others will give up half their salary. When it comes to choosing an employer, many will be intolerant of employers who don’t offer them meaning as well as excitement. Unfortunately, employers who respond by increasing their CSR budget are missing the point – like applying lipstick to a pig.

The solution, I think, needs two components:

1. Companies need to undertake genuine reform. I have written many times about companies like Zappos who have abolished traditional management, and Netflix. Now we can add Adobe to the list, with their new ‘Check-Ins’ replacing formal performance ratings. Richard Branson has also decided to offer his staff unlimited holidays. This kind of change must be underpinned by new assumptions. We must create HR based on the majority who want to do their best, not on the unhelpful few. As Lynda Gratton asks, “What would HR look like if it was based on giving?”.

2. In parallel, we must help talented people to change the way they approach their careers, recognising some have inflated expectations. Let’s encourage all to be humble, well-networked contributors. They will probably go further, and will certainly be happier, than their pushy peers. This relies on an attitude of mind, as told in this inspirational speech to graduating students.

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