Last autumn I put together a survey of UK managers, testing
their forward thinking in response to demographic and economic
trends. It wasn’t a huge survey – about 250
respondents – but it was big enough to get a feel
for the way managers were viewing the future of recruitment
and employment policies.
Most of the responses were predictable but one finding
surprised me. Asked if they expected the supply of entry-level
employees to increase or decrease in the next 20 years three
fifths of the managers said they thought it would either
increase or stay the same. A minority, some two fifths of
the respondents, expected the supply to decrease.
Maybe the response had something to do with the sectors
in which most of those questioned were working, although
there was a good cross-section of industries. Maybe the
managers were focusing their thinking on graduate recruitment
where demand continues to outstrip supply by some margin.
Had the questioned been asked of managers across the European
Union, where youth unemployment rates are almost double
those of overall unemployment, such a response would have
been understandable. It will take time before this slack
in the labour market is reduced.
But in the UK, at least, the response is contrary to forecasts
issued last year in a report published by City & Guilds.
In the next decade it said, some 600,000 fewer young people
between the ages of 15 and 24 would be feeding in to the
UK labour market at a time that expected employment growth
would be creating a demand for 1.5m extra employees, creating
a potential employment gap of more than 2m.
Yes, some of this shortfall could be plugged by a greater
use of migrant workers, some could be undertaken by people
working longer or returning after leaving the workforce,
and some of the expected demand could be reduced by efficiency
gains and greater automation. Even so, employers cannot
afford to be complacent about the need to ensure that the
next generation arrives within the labour market fully equipped
to make the best of its employment potential.
Chris Humphries, City & Guilds director general, wrote
of imbalances in an education system that “serves
one half of the population – those with strong academic
leanings – extremely well, but singularly fails the
He also made the point that there was a high productivity
return from training low skilled staff, yet employers consistently
prioritised their spending on training among those with
the highest level of skills, not the lowest.
While government initiatives such as the New Deal in the
UK and the Youth Unemployment Programme in Denmark have
made significant inroads in reducing levels of long term
unemployment among young people, employers appear to be
doing very little to understand the needs and aspirations
of the next generation of young employees.
Most graduate recruitment systems operated by large employers,
for example, have become increasingly focused on a narrow
group of graduates – those emerging with higher degrees
from the best performing universities.
The “grow your own” philosophy still exists
but probably more today when focused on graduates than it
is on school leavers. While some companies, such as British
Telecommunications have remained faithful to a strong apprenticeship
system, the commitment among others has waned.
Too many employers appear to be abandoning youth development
to a university system that is ill-equipped to provide high
levels of practical and technical training in a way that
compete with solid on-the-job experience. The Leitch Review
of skills recommended various measures to improve school-to-work
transitions, including more demand-led provision guided
A package of measures to meet deficiencies highlighted
in the Leitch report can be expected in the chancellor’s
spring budget statement. In the meantime, employers could
be doing much more to understand the needs of young people
in the context of changing influences on attitudes.
As Jennifer Deal, a research scientist at the Centre for
Creative Leadership, points out in a new book, Retiring
the Generation Gap, How Employees Young and Old Can Find
Common Ground, the basic values of people do not change
between generations: that is there are more differences
within each generation than there are between generations.
“Fundamentally people want the same things, no matter
what generation they are from,” she adds. What does
differ, she says, is the way that people express their values
in different generations.
One common area of inter-generational conflict she writes
is the question of respect. Typically each generation encounters
difficulty in gaining the respect of the other but usually,
she says, this is more about appreciating respective viewpoints.
Each generation, she says, seeks respect but there is a
generational gap in the way people view age in relation
Young people worry that their views are appreciated less
because of their lack of experience, whereas older people
often feel undervalued because they think their experience
is not perceived as important. Much of these difficulties,
she suggests, can be overcome if people try to look at an
issue from the perspective of the other generation.
She quotes Cicero, who once wrote: “Give me a young
man in whom there is something of the old, and an old man
with something of the young; [in that way] a man may grow
old in body, but never in mind.”
Significantly her research found that no generation, no
matter how young it is, likes to change. Older generations
tend to cling to nostalgic impressions of a workplace that
was better when they were younger. Younger people do not
have the workplace history to voice such impressions, but
this does not mean they are any more enthusiastic about
In fact Ms Deal’s research revealed that all generations
have similar negative views about change. Generally change
is regarded with suspicion since, within the workplace,
it is often associated with doing more work with fewer people.
People perceive that it will be implemented poorly, communicated
poorly and that it will, in some cases, prove to have been
She found that all generations place equal emphasis on
some of the most important areas of employment – respect,
trust, loyalty, the desire to learn and the need for credible
leadership. These things matter to everyone. Companies that
ignore them are storing up trouble.
This means that companies should not view young people
as intrinsically different from others. But they need to
be aware, nevertheless, of contextual differences. Companies
that offer great training packages will be valued by young
people who are hungry for job-relevant expertise that they
are not finding in the education system outside vocational
All age groups will be looking for good pay but often for
different reasons. College graduates are seeking to pay
off their student loans whereas mid-career employees are
probably struggling with a mortgage or the costs of rearing
a family. Older employers meanwhile are worrying about how
they may fund their old age.
The biggest gap facing young people and the workplace today,
it seems to me, is not a generational divide but an inter-generational
divide that says “skills training good, university
better”. Not until this perception of practical education
as the “second best” option for those who do
less well academically is removed - through the injection
of high quality skills training in to the education system
- will the economy produce the consistently high level of
skills that it needs.
*Retiring the Generation Gap, How Employees Young and
Old Can Find Common Ground, by Jennifer J Deal is published
by Jossey Bass, price £16.99
More on this research here: Generational