How can HR managers today anticipate tomorrow’s young people entering the labour market?

Lawyer Filip Tilleman invited trendwatcher Tom Palmaerts for a talk about the new generation of young people who will be entering the labour market. What are their concerns? What is their outlook on work? And how can HR managers prepare? Palmaerts paints a picture of a generation that falls back on old recipes, but completely reinvents them… 

Who are those ‘young people’?

“When hearing the term young people everyone thinks of millennials”, says Tom Palmaerts, who has been researching trends among young people for years, “but the oldest millennials are already 39 years old”. Apparently, today’s young people are referred to as Generation Z. They are the new generation, which will enter the labour market over the next few years. Palmaerts clarifies that generations always evolve in intervals of approximately fifteen years. Generation Z is followed by children who were born after 2010 and those who will be born in the next few years. For now, they have been called Generation Alpha. They are, in fact, the first real generation of ‘digital natives’. This talk is mainly about the shift from the millennial generation (also called Generation Y, editor’s note) to Generation Z, and the impact of this shift on our way of working.

What is the millennials’ attitude to work?

Palmaerts has noted that important changes are going on. According to him, HR departments today are very good at dealing with millennials. A lot has been said and written about this generation. “In summary, it is a generation of dreamers, but one that shows little courage to actually realise those dreams”, Palmaerts says. He immediately adds the nuance that this is obviously a generalisation, but he maintains that there is an element of truth in it. A lot has to do with the parents of this generation, the so-called baby boomers. This generation of baby boomers has been very lucky, says Palmaerts: “a bigger car, a larger house and more sex & rock ‘n’ roll than their parents”. They have told their children that anything is possible: working and travelling, working and having kids, making money and enjoying life… And this is precisely the problem millennials are facing: in order to find a balance, they need to make choices. “They have learnt from their parents that anything is possible, but they are stuck and searching, and they will never find a balance or their passion if they do not dare to make choices”, Palmaerts concludes.

What is Generation Z’s attitude to work?

Generation X comprises the parents of Generation Z. They have also told their children that anything is possible, but that you need to work hard to achieve it. According to Palmaerts, the result is that Generation Z takes much more responsibility, takes initiative and is better at making choices. This may be the most important change between millennials and Generation Z, the trendwatcher says: “much less focus on values and balance, and much more focus on doing instead of talking”. Generation Z will only respect people who actually achieve things. This also applies to their bosses and business managers. “As teenagers, Generation Z grew up in almost constant crisis, and they realise that they will have to make do with less and work hard for it”, Palmaerts explains. According to him, this also explains why this generation is much more individualistic: “you have to work for it yourself”. This results in quite a challenge for HR managers and trade unions, Palmaerts thinks: “Generation Z will not easily accept that work is stopped because of a few individuals. They also expect personalised solutions from companies, and if these are not provided, they will just look elsewhere”.

The advance of Asian culture.
Palmaerts advises HR and marketing managers to try out the social medium TikTok. “While Facebook is a blog and Instagram is photos, this is the first online app that is essentially video first. TikTok is also artificial intelligence first, whereas with LinkedIn and Twitter you can only have an impact once you have followers, so they are network first. This means that someone who does not have any followers on TikTok can go viral with a video if it is chosen by artificial intelligence.” TikTok is in Chinese hands. This Chinese culture is already clearly embedded in what occupies Generation Z, Palmaerts claims. He has observed that ten to twelve-year-old children use Chinese characters in photos and videos to communicate with each other. “Those who want to recruit employees in five years from now and understand Generation Z need to learn to use TikTok today”, Palmaerts warns. He gives a few more examples: K-pop (Korean pop, editor’s note) is music from South Korea that is popular with young teenagers today. Palmaerts expects that the influence from Asian culture will only increase over the next years. This no longer involves only copying western successes, but also setting new trends, for instance in fast food, retail, music, technology… 

Working in 2030: huge challenges.

According to Palmaerts, trends and innovations often start in popular culture. In his opinion, this is visible today in the worldwide robotisation of the labour market. Ten years ago, robots were mere gadgets, today they are workers in companies, hospitals and universities. Robots are also increasingly being used to combat loneliness, he adds. One of the biggest challenges of the coming years. “Studies show that more than fifty per cent of young people in their twenties in Belgium feel lonely sometimes. They have hundreds of friends on social media, but they lack a sense of security. And if to this you add the isolation of working from home, you get problems”, Palmaerts states. According to Palmaerts, research also shows that open office spaces do not work. In his opinion, the same occurs when nearly all communication at work takes place via e-mail and apps. “We will change our views on this”, Palmaerts thinks. “Furthermore, in cities like Antwerp, in 2030 three quarters of all newly hired employees will be of foreign origin, both from our neighbouring countries and from further away (also read this, editor’s note). This leads to huge challenges for companies’ HR departments”, Palmaerts says. He gives a few more examples that appeal to the imagination: right now, one in three young people worldwide are Muslim, the age difference on the shop floor in Belgium will be more than fifty years (between ages 16 and 67, editor’s note), the number of vacancies in Belgium will exceed 500,000, and for each job that disappears due to technology, 3.7 new jobs will be created, the exact content of which we do not yet know (source Agoria, editor’s note). “How should we handle this?”, Palmaerts asks himself. He sees HR managers as the new business managers who hire the right people and retain them by involving them in a story. “HR managers are tomorrow’s leaders, because everyone is concerned about personnel matters”. 

HR mission: making people feel good again.

According to Palmaerts, one of the greatest challenges for companies, and hence for HR, is well-being. By this he does not only mean mental well-being, but also more concrete aspects, such as air quality. According to Palmaerts, workplaces will become the healthiest places in the city. “Bringing nature into the office by means of healthy bacteria in air conditioning, air purifying carpets and plants is already possible today. In the area of acoustics and mental rest, we will also see a lot of progress. And of course tasty and healthy food in the cafeteria.” Palmaerts predicts that people will again finish work on time, because they want to spend time with their family or work on their start-up. “Do not expect people in their early twenties to answer at the weekend or late in the evening. They want some rest and to be left alone, because they have many other priorities”, Palmaerts explains. In the area of mobility Palmaerts sees the same evolution: people are no longer willing to be stuck in traffic jams every day to go to work. Teenagers and people in their early twenties are already moving though the city in different ways. “Today you can see a sharp increase in the popularity of e-bikes in companies”, Filip Tilleman knows. “Sometimes it even seems that an e-bike policy has become more important than a company car to keep employees happy.” In Palmaerts’ view, this fits into the picture of feeling good: free choice, healthier living, greater comfort… Palmaerts thinks that companies will need to cater to these needs by providing the necessary infrastructure. In his opinion, there is room for much more collaboration between companies in this respect, in the areas of well-being, training, catering, etc. “Belgium is an SME country, but many SMEs could join forces to create campuses or develop large-scale initiatives”, Palmaerts thinks. 

How do working hours fit into this picture of the future?

According to Palmaerts, companies will need to remain attractive in the midst of the coming trends. “This could be achieved via branch offices and flexible working hours, for instance”, he thinks. “But legislation and views on working hours are lagging far behind in our country”, Tilleman states. “For example, the current legislation on working hours dates back to 1971. This still mentions professions such as stokers and equerries! Working hours are always considered in a purely collective manner, because they are assumed to be only of collective interest. But why should someone not be able to work from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m.? Of course, there should be some limits, but these change. For some employees, different hours are just more convenient for certain reasons. Today, employers do not recognise this at all. As an employee, you are not free to choose to work on Sundays. But why shouldn’t you, if this really suits you for personal reasons?”, Tilleman concludes.

Back to the future?

Palmaerts thinks that in certain aspects we have gone too far: permanent availability, working from home for long periods, only working together online, open offices where anything is possible, etc. “There is no need to turn back the clock, but we do need to organise the positive aspects of the past in a better way for the new generation.” He is mainly thinking of shifting the focus back to giving personal attention. This also means developing personal solutions adapted to the worker’s needs. HR managers will need to sit down with Generation Z and talk. “Love is… switching off your mobile phone”, he laughs. HR managers will need to focus strongly on really listening and making time to keep Generation Z employees on board.”

Young people will be recruiting companies, not the other way round.

Recent research by Agoria shows that Belgium will have more than 580,000 vacancies by 2030. Companies will need to fight to bring in talent. “Employment agencies will no longer be on the companies’ side, but on the side of young people looking for work”, Palmaerts predicts. According to him, this is already visible today in certain niches, such as programmers, but it will extend throughout the labour market. “For instance, who is going to find young people willing to work in the textile sector?”, Palmaerts asks himself. In his view, “job applicants will no longer be in their early twenties, but much younger. Companies with a strong brand will look to fifteen or sixteen-year-olds. Preparing young people for the labour market will no longer exist. Every few years the labour market will look completely different anyway. For example, we do not need to train large numbers of programmers by 2030”, Palmaerts warns. “Programming will be done automatically, because programming codes will already exist.” According to Palmaerts, training will also play an even bigger role, but not in a school context. As an example, he refers to the many DIY videos on YouTube that explain how you can learn things by yourself.

Bringing people together is the key.

Hotels, airports, campuses, etc. are all potential locations where people could work together. Getting people on their feet and bringing them together is what will make the difference between companies, Palmaerts thinks. According to him, this is what Generation Z looks for, even if they need to go abroad to get it. Palmaerts draws the parallel with Belgian professional football players, popular music bands and DJs who have long stopped seeing Belgium as their primary market. “Today it is big news when a well-known Belgian band or DJ performs in our country during their world tour. Twenty years ago this was completely different: back then, we were happy when a Belgian act was able to tour abroad.” Therefore, according to him, the challenge for companies is how to attract and retain Belgians and new Belgians. And in this context, what will be the meaning of a company, employee commitment or nationality? 

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Website: www.tompalmaerts.com