Most employers agree: retaining talent is at the top of their list of HR priorities.

Talent retention is part of the traditional HR approach to people management: ‘resources’ that can be ‘gained, trained, maintained and retained’.  Having established the organisational hierarchy and work flow, the cog that fits in that wheel is able to be determined.  The cog vacancy requirements are documented in the position description and the lengthy process to find the right cog can begin.  Although you cannot always expect a perfect fit, you can ensure the cog is malleable enough to adjust itself, perhaps with a little leadership lubricant as required.  More significant building up of the gaps or filing down of the rough spots may require some training, a process that is more likely to be made available to the cog as long as everyone can see that the right shape, size, fit and movements can be eventually achieved (being able-bodied, with English as the first language, and not too young and not too old are generally good indicators that the cog has potential so they are often more likely to be hired).

Having gone through such effort to create the well-oiled machine, management needs to generate the highest possible returns and this means keeping people in the position for which they have been selected and moulded for as long as possible.  The cost of cog replacement is estimated to be around 1.5 times the employee’s annual salary.  Significant management efforts go to motivating employees to remain as shiny, new cogs.  Little cogs are encouraged to want to learn how to become bigger cogs, or to move to another part of the machine.  Even if they never get there, at least aiming and hoping, is a strong incentive to stay.

But this is ‘talent’ of the old model.  It is not just that the industrial model no longer fits the rapidly changing world in which organisations operate and compete.  It also no longer fits the people who will fill these jobs.  With the ‘Gen Y’ worker now between the ages of 18 and 30, they currently make up approximately 20% of the workforce.  Within ten years this generation, often considered by employers to be uncommitted, entitled, ungrateful, lazy and impatient, will account for close to 75% of the workforce.

Figures often quote Gen Y workers to have an estimated 5 careers and 20 employers in their lifetimes, and so the race is on for employers to find the best of the best and keep them.  This however is just not how Gen Y works, and the problem is not just attitude it’s structural.

The Baby Boomer generation, having survived depression and war were grateful for a job for life.  Mutual employer-employee loyalty was expected and given.  Retiring with a gold watch was more enticing than a new job.  Generation X that followed, living in the post-Vietnam war years and with memories of the Cold War, recognised that they were here for a good time not a long time.  They divorced and remarried at unprecedented rates and learn to enjoy the spoils of an increasingly materialistic lifestyle.  They learned to ‘look after number one’ and ‘greed was good’.  Their loyalty was to their careers.

Generation Y have grown up in an insecure world.  They not only learn of the terrible conflicts from wars and ideologies but they do so in real-time, the internet giving them instantaneous access to not just reports of disasters, wars and revolutions but delivering these in images and first hand accounts spread through social media.  They see thousands of displaced people whether from natural or man-made disasters, they see natural resources exploited to the point of exhaustion, and a world heading towards an environmental disaster.  Closer to home, they are as likely as not to have experienced their parents’ divorce and would have first hand experience of someone who has been made redundant and or suffering unemployment.  They were told that education was the key to a secure future, and the most educated generation ever is a victim to post-secondary degree inflation.

What Gen Y want is meaning.  They feel a greater responsibility than one to the employer they work for.  They have a responsibility to the environment, to social causes, to their peers who are co-survivors.  They have also been brought up by parents who considered them their peers; they were the centre of the household, consulted for their opinions and supported at a very close level.  They were told that they could do anything.

Gen Y were also brought up with the internet.   They cannot remember a time without email and mobile phones – both of these now old school anyway.  They don’t think knowledge is power because with their smartphones and mobile devices knowledge is everywhere and it is everyone’s.

To Gen Y their first loyalty is to their lifestyle.  There is no such thing as work/life balance, it’s life/life balance.  Personal goals mesh with professional goals.  They simply do not understand a workplace that will not allow them a six month leave of absence to build a school in India or save the elephants in Africa.

Being both highly (if not hyper-) encouraged and protected from birth, they prefer to work as part of a team, to be self-directed, to be allowed to innovate and to take risks.  Work that offers them freedom their preferred environment, will see Gen Y will work hard and drive towards their goals.  They are also used to taking their friends everywhere and being only a status post away.  Working in an office, Monday to Friday, 9 to 5 just because, simply doesn’t make sense to them.

The statistic that Gen Y will have 20 jobs in their lifetime only reflects the jobs of those Gen Y who look for and stay in full-time jobs, and these will be the minority.  An oDesk survey found that close to 60% of Gen Y consider themselves to be ‘entrepreneurial’ meaning having an opportunity-seeking mindset, rather than business ownership.   Gen Y have learned that the internet democratises work.  Anyone can build a business, it may be an eBay store or a single idea that might become another Facebook, or it may be joining in on someone else’s crowd sourced idea or investment.   They can do this at the same time as they hold a regular job – found online of course – or find a gig through Elance or 99designs or any number of marketplaces.  They can have upwards of 100 jobs in their lifetime, which suits Gen Y perfectly because they can come into a job at exactly the right time and only work on their specialist area.  There will be tertiary-educated Gen Yers who will never experience a permanent, full time job.

In light of the changing demographics in the workforce, a radical shift in thinking to the ‘talent retention’ problem is needed.  It’s a catch-22 situation, the machine needs people to stay yet it is the machine that people – especially Gen Y – leave.  Employers need to start thinking of their workers as permanent but their employment as stints, much like universities see their alumni students.  They need to de-construct work so that ‘talent’ is no longer defined as those that fit the box, the cogs.  Instead talent should be what is actually means, ‘innate ability or skill’.  To Gen Y who have grown up mixing and partnering with people of all backgrounds, ethnicities, sexual orientations, appearances and able-bodiedness, they are used to the talent fitting the situation, not the situation deciding the talent.

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