How to Attract and Retain Young Talent

When you think about your future, what do you dream of? "A good job," say 43% of Generation Z. But what is a good job for this generation? Many older people look at the younger generation and see them as unmotivated and unfocused – do they even want to work?

Yes, they do. Or, they want to feel that they are contributing to something positive in the world, have an engaging context and learn new things. Performing to a general standard and pursuing some sort of vertical career is not the primary driver for most Gen Zers. Let's take a closer look at what the youngest generation in the labor market finds important when it comes to the activities they do to earn money.  

Work is not the meaning of life 
First of all, we can see that the role of work in creating meaning in life has become less significant among the Swedish population. In the 1980s, 70% of the working population considered their work to be important in giving life meaning. Today, that figure is down to 20%, and young people's responses to the question follow this trend.  

There are several possible reasons for this. Increased opportunities for a life outside work that creates identity and coherence may be one reason why work does not play the same role as before. One's colleagues do not have to be the most important social context, and the professional role does not have to be the most important identity one associates with.  

The days when employment was a commitment of one or more decades are also over. When we asked Swedish managers in a study together with the managers’ trade union Ledarna what trends have made management more difficult in the last five years, "more volatile employees" was high on the list. If the context of one's work is not as important for maintaining a sense of continuous identity, then changing jobs becomes a comparatively less significant transition. The time horizon for evaluating a job is shortened and it becomes important what you can get out of a job right now. In addition, examples on Instagram and YouTube of people creating their own success without working for someone else also encourage young people to feel that they don't need an employer to create their success. 

The "I don't dream of labor" meme and the "quiet quitting" movement have gone viral on the Internet in recent years. "I don't dream of labor" is about young people emphasizing that they are tired of being asked what their "dream job" is.  They quickly respond that dream job is not a relevant term because work is not what they dream of. The "quiet quitting" movement refers to people who stop putting in the extra effort at work and decide to just work their contracted hours and deliver what is in their contract. Both phenomena highlight how young people today do not see work as central to their lives for happiness and meaning. They want fair conditions where they don't give more to the employer than they get back, with a good work-life balance. 

Careers, learning and contributing 
But what is a career for young people? What motivates them to be their best? For young people, a career is not necessarily about climbing a hierarchy. Many don't feel that the pay increase that comes with a promotion is worth the stress. Rather than chasing positions and management responsibilities (which is almost a punishment because it means more work!), they prefer to have more free time and flexible working hours. The preferences described above are consistent with our survey results, which show that only 22% of Gen Zers would prefer to be a manager or executive in the future, while 62% would prefer to be a specialist (16% said they would consider both). A specialist may be seen as having more freedom to manage his or her time, but is still highly valued for his or her skills. 

What motivates young people is the sense of making a difference and developing themselves and their work with others. In our survey of young technical professionals, the top four factors that make a job really appealing are:  

1) Seeing the tangible impact and benefits of my work (49% of respondents) 

2) Working with really smart people (39%) 

3) Developing completely new solutions at the cutting edge of technology (31%) 

4) Working to solve important societal challenges (26%) 

The younger generation is generally pragmatic and focused on making a difference. They want to work in a culture of innovation, learning and collaboration, where people help each other rather than compete. The two cultural descriptions that best describe the organizational cultures in which Generation Z thrives are: "An innovative and open-minded place where people share ideas and explore options for the future," and "A warm, collaborative and welcoming place where people help and support each other." So yes, young people want to learn, grow, and make a difference. But they are not necessarily motivated by the same meritocratic incentive system as older generations.   

Young people's dream leader: the confident pragmatist 
For leaders to win the support and involvement of young people, they must understand the context in which today's young people have grown up. Their childhood and adolescence have been marked by a troubled world where political leaders seem to have created more chaos and devastation than positive development. This has created a distrust of "adults" and their abilities. Young people are therefore attracted to leaders who are decisive, pragmatic and focused. No bullshit please, leaders should have a clear vision of what they want to achieve and show real ambition and ability to get there. 

At the same time, young people today are looking for security. Many are worried that working life will be too difficult and that they will be exposed as cheaters. Leaders who can create an environment of psychological safety will be attractive to young people, giving them a safe platform where it feels okay to make mistakes.  

Creating safety for young people is partly about authenticity and close communication. Young people today want to meet their leaders "as people. This does not necessarily mean that young people want to reveal everything about their personal lives, or that they want to know everything about their colleagues' lives outside the workplace. Rather, authenticity is about feeling that the leader is present, honest, relaxed, and meets them as an individual. Young people are also used to getting quick feedback on their actions in digital environments. There, likes and comments come directly in response to their "performance". Therefore, work situations where feedback is delayed can create uncertainty for the young employee. 

Three tips for attracting and retaining young talent   

  • Understand and respond to young people's views on work. The youngest workers see work less as meaningful and more as part of a larger life context. Organizations should create a work environment that fosters identity and connection outside the workplace. 
  • Focus on flexibility and purpose. Traditional career paths are not as appealing to young people. Flexible work schedules and meaningful work are more motivating than climbing the corporate ladder. Companies should focus on providing meaningful work and a culture that encourages collaboration and innovation. 
  • Teach leaders how to lead young people. Younger employees are looking for leaders who are energetic and authentic. Safety is important, and leaders should create an environment of psychological safety where mistakes are acceptable. Authenticity and regular communication are key to strong leader-employee relationships. 

The presentation Engaging Young People! Generation Z and Alpha
Read more about Kairos Future's presentation on Generation Z and Alpha here.