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Alex Newton: Young people - when does a label become unhelpful?

Monday 13 March 2017

Alex Newton, Senior Adviser and Collective Conciliator at Acas discusses engaging with young people in the workplace.

Alex Newton Alex Newton

Alex Newton is a Senior Adviser at Acas. He helps employers and employees with work-related issues by providing advice, training, conciliation and mediation services.



Eighteen months ago, towards the start of her presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton had a 'young people problem'. Too many millennials simply weren't enthused by her candidacy. To start addressing this and engage 'the youth demographic', she famously tweeted 'How does your student loan debt make you feel? Tell us in 3 emojis or less.'

The response wasn't pretty - and I'm not talking about grammar pedants bemoaning the use of 'less' rather than 'fewer'. Of the thousands of mocking responses that followed, a general theme emerged - yet another corporate attempt to engage young people had backfired. As one commentator quipped, 'it's like when your mum tries to be cool in front of your friends and it just fails'.

Many employers may sympathise. Better engagement with young people is a strategic priority for businesses and managing younger workers is a 'hot topic' in the world of HR. Yet too often all this translates into in practice is exhortations to use social media more. Or perhaps, if blue-sky thinking is the order of the day, a suggestion to build a company app (readily agreed to by all present, of course, and quietly dropped by the wayside later).

I recently met with a business that was having problems retaining younger staff, resulting in high turnover. Exploring the issue further with senior management, we quickly moved away from the idea that there's a magic formula needed to engage younger workers. Their problem was far more fundamental: the performance management system wasn't motivating anyone, young or old. It was just that those nearer the start of their careers were less likely to accept this.

It made me wonder how much analytical purchase the concept of 'young people' really has. In this case, giving general advice along the lines of extra direction young people may need would not have been helpful - so should we by default talk about groups as if they have essential characteristics? An Acas policy paper 'pdf icon Older workers and the generalisation game [180kb]', highlights the perils of stereotyping any age group and found that most labels simply aren't true anyway.

Employers do of course need to segment their workforce to see how they can support different groups and assess their overall diversity, as the Acas booklet on pdf icon Employing younger workers [378kb] makes clear. Without labels, this task would be impossible. But these labels should not act as a screen to what is not working well in a business and there is a danger that - if used uncritically or by default - they can be downright condescending.

From my experience, a more holistic approach is needed. Just because one group - such as young people - are disproportionately impacted by an organisation's general failing doesn't necessarily mean extra support for them is the right answer. Instead, why not address the general failing? For example, isn't it best to ensure all employees, younger or older, have comprehensive inductions when they start work, rather than defaulting to platitudes about what each group may require?

Some of the best organisations I've seen don't think 'we've got some new young people - that means they'll need X'. Instead, as practised in a small charity I visited a few months ago, each new starter gets a full induction and two 'buddies' to help them through the first few months.

How helpful labels are overall is, though, a tricky issue. From an Acas perspective I'm constantly wondering how we can better support organisations pondering these questions and how best to support younger workers. So do please let us know your thoughts - ideally in three emojis or less.

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