Is Generation Y prepared for future challenges in a competitive and disrupted job market?

| December 16, 2015

Which companies will survive on markets disrupted by technology, and how will workplaces change as Generation Y comes to dominate them? At the recent Global Access Partners Jobs Summit speaker, trends expert and author Michael McQueen peered into the future.

A number of once important companies, such as Saab, Blockbuster, Borders and Atari, have disappeared or face oblivion. Sony was once a byword for innovation, while Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak founded Apple in the hope of aping Atari’s success. Blockbuster once dominated the high street, yet was obliterated in short order by digital downloads of varying legality. The arrival of Netflix in Australia may similarly damage Foxtel and cable TV. Blackberry had 43% of the American mobile phone market at the start of 2010, but reaps less than 1% of sales today.

John Chambers, the outgoing chairman of Cisco, has warned that 40% of firms on the Fortune 500 will have disappeared in ten years’ time. Change has always been a fact of life, but its pace is increasing. Over the last hundred years, the average tenure of a firm on the Fortune 500 has dropped from 67 years to just 15. Firms must understand why their counterparts tumble or prevail, if they wish to survive themselves.

Companies are threatened when their markets are disrupted by new entrants, techniques and technology, but they doom themselves by cleaving to the methods which brought them success in the past. The internet and social media are empowering consumers as never before. Consumers have unlimited information and choice at their fingertips and, just as importantly, have been given a voice which can ruin the reputation of any company which offers poor service or shoddy quality. No amount of advertising can compensate for poor reviews on Amazon or a Twitter storm as grumbles which would once have been restricted to family and friends can go ‘viral’ around the world. Specialist sites allow customers to rate Estate Agencies or any other service, and drive or dissuade custom on a significant scale.

The internet allows customers to connect directly with suppliers and reduce the prices they pay by avoiding ‘middle men’. This disintermediation, exemplified by Amazon, has ruined several traditional retailers, and services such as recruitment agencies and travel agents are increasingly irrelevant as companies search for new workers on LinkedIn and people book their flights themselves.

The development of 3D printers may soon remove the need for manufacturers as well. 3D printers are now available on the high street for just $1,100, and a host of materials, from titanium to ceramic and rubber equivalents, can be used, as well as resin. Consumers may soon buy CAD files from an iTunes like repository and print their own goods in their own homes on demand, rather than buy them. Nokia released CAD files for their phone cases, allowing anyone to essentially download the product for free. Customers can now design and print their own cosmetics, while a Chinese property developer recently printed and built a five-storey apartment block in just 24 hours. By cutting out manufacturers as well as wholesalers, distributers and retailers, 3D printing may be seen as the most profound disintermediation of them all.

Although older people may prefer human service, robotics and automation will dominate many areas of employment and the workplace. A study from the University of Sydney argued that almost half the 700 professions it assessed face a high risk of replacement by algorithms, software or robots over the next 20 years. Autonomous cars are on the brink of widespread deployment and have already been tested on South Australian roads. General Motors have announced their latest Cadillac will deploy autonomous safety features at high speed, while Tesla will send updates to their cars over Wi-Fi. Car insurance will be changed, if not rendered entirely redundant, by the widespread adoption of driverless vehicles, as will many millions of people who drive for a living around the world. Uber has already disrupted the taxi industry and is pre-empting its own disruption by heavy investment in driverless operations. Car ownership itself might dwindle if driverless cars can be summoned on demand, while the highly profitable urban parking industry would disappear as well. In 30 years’ time car ownership – and car driving – may be as specialised a hobby as owning and riding a horse.

Modern, trendsetting businesses can be disrupted just as easily. Generation Y’s lack of interest in Twitter means a business which enjoyed exponential growth and intense media interest a few years ago now faces disruption, job layoffs and irrelevance itself. Just as Blackberry rose and crashed in spectacular style, so Twitter could crumble in the face of apps which appeal to a younger demographic, such as WhatsApp, Instagram and Snapchat.

Many businesses, political parties and other organisations struggle with a similar inability to engage younger people, but others do survive for decades or even hundreds of years. DuPont is over 200 years old, while Lego is approaching its centenary and recently overtook Mattel as the world’s largest manufacturer of toys. Disruption is inevitable, but this does not mean that established companies must fall victim to it. Just as Lego has constantly reinvented itself to remain fresh and relevant to new generations of children, so other companies can choose to survive by reinventing and disrupting themselves before others can. Just as a person stranded in a hostile environment should search for water before they grow thirsty, so firms must prepare for the future before crisis overwhelms them. Just as a skilled and experienced sailor can tack into the wind, so firms and individuals can pursue success in the face of adverse and unpredictable economic and social conditions.

Workplaces will also change as Generation Y comes to dominate them. Currently aged 16-34, Generation Y tend to be adaptable, agile and flexible − qualities which are ideally suited to the modern working environment. But while they are innovative, ‘tech savvy’ and natural networkers, they have been raised in a parental and educational culture which has emphasised self-esteem rather than self-reliance. While previous generations were left under no illusions that life is often arduous and unfair, Generation Y expects praise and validation at every turn and can appear fragile and immature to their more resilient elders. Generation Y tend to give up when confronted with the prospect of effort or adversity.

Their expectation that life should be easy and fair can undermine their personal relationships as well as their studies or work. Having been raised to expect things to be easy, they assume a goal or task which becomes hard is not something they should be attempting, rather than trying harder to succeed. The formula they have been taught by example that ‘easy equals right and hard equals wrong’ has led to a 68% non-completion rate at certain TAFE colleges. If they do not blame their activities for failure, Generation Y will turn on themselves, leading to a proliferation of mental health issues and the medicalisation of what were once unremarkable human reactions and emotions.

Accustomed to constant attention and praise at home and school, Generation Y workers can expect similar support at work, rather than accepting that all the thanks they require is in their pay packet. One survey found that 60% of Generation Y workers would like praise from their superiors every day, with over a third saying two to three times a day would be even better. Mr McQueen traced the birth of the self-esteem era to 1979’s ‘International Year of the Child’ and argued the whole concept of parenting has changed radically in recent decades. Today’s children are constantly assured they are unique or special or bound to change the world, regardless of their actual talents or achievements, and so have become dependent on a constant stream of unearned praise.

This barrage of external validation has sapped rather than bolstered their internal resolve, stripping them of self-confidence when left to stand alone. Indeed, Generation Y are so habituated to constant praise, they perceive constructive criticism as a personal attack and may prove ill-suited for an ever more competitive adult world having won a ribbon for every race run as a child. Children are now seen as so fragile that some schools avoid the word ‘fail’ to describe poor test results, preferring terms such as ‘deferred success’.

Many speakers at the summit have called for resilience in the face of adversity and risk taking and courage in the pursuit of success but, as parents, these same people have raised a coddled generation entirely unprepared for the task ahead.

Michael McQueen

Michael McQueen is a 4-time bestselling author and multi award-winning business strategist. He has worked with many of the world’s best-known brands and is a regular commentator on TV and radio. Michael’s most recent book Momentum: How to Build it, Keep it, or Get it Back, is a must-read guide to achieving breakthrough growth, unstoppable vitality and sustained success. It is available in all good bookstores and online at