NOT SLACKERS, but so hard to figure out

When I was in school, my parents reminded my siblings and me incessantly (nagging was more like it) to get good grades so that we would find good jobs and enjoy a secure future. We were not allowed to miss school even when we were sick.

When we started work, we were told to work long and hard. We were constantly reminded to report to work on time and not take sick leave unnecessarily. We received no sympathy from our parents for spending long hours at work, even on weekends.

So I could not understand it when a close friend’s daughter did not start working immediately upon completing her university education last year. ‘I have just spent four years studying; I need a rest,’ was her explanation. It did not help that her father was supportive of her decision. Six months passed before her mother began worrying.

A few years ago, I was surprised when my 23-year-old paralegal told me her mother did not want her to work past 6pm. I have since met many other like-minded Gen Y individuals who have made me wonder how and why the values of earlier generations have eroded. If one does not work hard during one’s youth, when does one do so?

Having run a business with Gen Y staff for the last nine years, I sometimes still do not understand Gen Y, their characteristics and attitude to work.

Why is Gen Y averse to hard work? Are they slackers? Why is their work ethic so different from mine? Why do they have difficulty complying with defined work processes? Why are their work methods different? Why don’t Gen Y employees stay in a job long? Why do they need to have friends at the workplace? Why are they distracted so easily at work by their mobile phones and social media?

When I spoke to lawyers of my generation about Gen Y lawyers, they echoed my concerns. I found some insight and answers on the Internet.

Gen Y people are described as confident, independent, ambitious, achievement-oriented and good at multi-tasking. They are technology- savvy, seek a lot of information often from alternative sources and enjoy interactive entertainment.

They care about family. In a survey, ‘Harnessing the potential of Gen Y workforce in Singapore’, the Singapore Human Resource Institute found in 2008 that Gen Y’s biggest fear is losing their family.

Work-life balance seems important to most Gen Y employees. In a 2010 article for Inside Counsel magazine, ‘Mind the gap: Gen Y attorneys enter the workplace’, writer Lauren Williamson says Gen Y lawyers define success in terms of work-life balance and flexible arrangements. They are very family- centric. They are willing to trade high pay for flexible work schedules.

To Gen Y, she adds, success means celebrating the difference that an individual can make to his work and which will distinguish him from the rest of the pack.

The Gen Y lawyers she interviewed had a different vision of workplace expectations than their bosses did. They did not subscribe to traditional work methods. They preferred working from home or at Starbucks. They preferred checking and responding to e-mail with their smartphones and having virtual meetings rather than face-to-face ones.

Though Gen Y are perceived to become bored easily, to not stay long in a job, demand instant gratification, display distrust towards authoritative figures, have a high opinion of themselves and seek rewarding jobs with ample opportunities to move up in their careers, I have found that most are not the slackers they are made out to be.

Unable to achieve their objectives as junior associates in law firms, many Gen Y lawyers in Singapore quit law practice after a few years and seek jobs as in-house counsel, which enables them to do meaningful work and see the results of their efforts quickly.

Legal headhunters worldwide are of the view that it is impossible for employers to adopt the role of parent figure to change the characteristics of Gen Y. Rather, it would be easier for employers to re-adapt their work environment.

Should Singapore employers cater to the high demands and expectations of Gen Y? This generation makes up more than 20 per cent of the workforce and is indeed the future of our workforce. Re-adapting would require customising work solutions, being flexible and accommodating the needs of Gen Y.

Gen Y and their older colleagues must take steps to understand each other. Most Singapore law firms are aware of the need to engage their Gen Y lawyers and to understand the different language they speak.

Gen Y associates expect a lot of their Singapore law firm partners today. They expect bosses to inspire, guide, provide regular feedback and frequent praise, as well as provide fulfilment, allow them to speak their mind and question management.

We can try. While law firms attempt ways to meet the needs of their Gen Y lawyers, one basic and important tenet of law practice remains, and cannot be compromised or changed. For Gen Y lawyers aspiring to rise in the profession, there is no escaping the long hours the job requires.

By Rajan Chettiar
The writer is managing partner of the law firm, Rajan Chettiar & Co. This article is adapted from a commentary that first appeared in the April issue of the Singapore Law Gazette.

TheSundayTimes, May 6 2012 

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