Society

Wireless And Fancy Free, “Generation Y” Shakes Up The French Business World

Members of the so-called Generation Y look very differently than their elders at working life and careers. This creates new challenges for traditional French firms, which must find ways to keep young talent in their ranks.

Young business school graduates differ from their parents when it comes to careers and work habits
Young business school graduates differ from their parents when it comes to careers and work habits
Laurance N'kaoua

They both have blue eyes and graduated from the same European business school. Their résumés both contain numerous top positions. But they are father and son, born 27 years apart. Emmanuel Le Portz is a 56-year-old consultant who climbed the corporate ladder to become commercial manager for Unilever Europe in the Netherlands, and then division head for Rentokil Initial, a major British services group. "I entered a multinational to make a career for myself," he explains.

This mentality is light years from his son, Alexis, a member of the so-called "Generation Y." At 29, Alexis is the co-founder of a startup called Clubdeal. Before this project, he had already worked for three different employers, including one in London.

Alexis works far outside the protected environments of the world's leading companies. He does not always have an office, but is well-equipped with Internet tools like Skype, Wiki, and chat rooms, allowing him to work with partners scattered all over the world. "I have never worked like that, but for him it is the only way," writes the senior Le Portz in a new book he co-wrote with his son.

Emmanuel is confused. And he is not the only one. Young graduates disrupt the habits of the big firms that are forced to try to woo them in search of new talent. And if younger generations have always disorientated their elders, it seems that as the 2008 crisis appears to finally be ending, the gap between young people and traditional companies has widened. The specter of unemployment, endless internships and financial crisis have disabused them of any prospect for a linear career path.

"At school, we were told that graduating would guarantee us job security. This is not true anymore," says Alexis Le Portz. "Whether or not a company is prosperous, redundancy schemes, reshuffles and changes are bound to happen."

These disappointments have led young people to stop associating "being an employee in a firm" with "peace of mind." "Most young people see working for a big company as a career springboard," explains Alexis Le Portz. "But none of them dream of working forever in a firm. Many want to be their own boss. All the more so since it is now possible to launch a business at lower cost."

But most of all, this economic context completely changes young people's perception of time. "Our parents waited for retirement to enjoy life. Nowadays, young people know that retirement will arrive much later," explains Nathalie Choux, human resources director at the computer engineering and maintenance company Micropole. "They are eager to enjoy life right now."

But this rush also characterizes the way members of Generation Y manage their careers. The resulting dynamic creates a whole new set of challenges for the companies themselves. "It often happens that young employees consider they have learned everything there is to learn from their job after six months. After that they often refuse to listen to us when we try to tell them that a few months are not enough to really know your job," says Danièle Quantin, head of world R&D for ArcelorMittal.

Anik Chaumartin, a partner in charge of human resources at PricewaterhouseCoopers France, says that recent graduates already aspire to another job before they had the time to consolidate their previous experience. "Before, you needed three to four years of experience to reach management positions," says Chaumartin. "Previous generations accepted unrewarding tasks to learn."

The danger that they might leave the firm is real. "This is a global game. French companies need to be more competitive in the labor market, otherwise young graduates know they just have to cross an ocean to become, for example, the manager of a video-games studio in Brazil," points out Alexis Le Portz.

Missions therefore need to be implemented in the long term. Especially when the firm bets on high flyers with potential that need to develop with time. "A third of these high flyers will not stay more than three years," says Philippe Tramond, CEO of the consulting firm Pilotis.

The Bull group well understood that and created three different career paths: for young graduates, for 40-year-olds and for seniors. "The probability for a young employee to still be here in 15 years is very low. For a 50-year-old employee, it is close to 100%," notes Stéphane Duret, vice-president in charge of human resources and organization at Bull.

Knowing all that, how is it possible to hold on to talented recruits who don't believe in long-term contracts? The appeal of the position is crucial. "I can't stay behind a computer screen all day without doing anything," declares Elodie Moissonnier, a 25-year-old technical project manager at Bull. "My task needs to be comprehensive."

According to a Towers Watson study, learning is one of the top three job priorities for young people. "Before, you learned everything you had to at school and when you entered a company, you already knew what to do. With new technologies, Generation Y learns constantly," observes Marion Marchal from Towers Watson. Young people tend to attach less value to holidays and free time. "It's not because I'm at home that I'm not working. Indeed, we sometimes relax at work," says Elodie Moissonnier.

So, what is the ideal boss for a member of Generation Y? "He needs to be a driving force, not a dictator. He is a coach, who knows what it is to make mistakes, and is not afraid of testing us," states Alexis Le Portz. This is so true that ArcelorMittal has launched a coaching program with its world company directors for its elite young professionals. As Nathalie Choux explains, "They want the company to teach them how to build."

Read the original story in French

Photo - Boklm

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