At the February Benefex Forum, delegates were treated to a key note speech on Generation K from Noreena Hertz, economist and author. Hertz spent four years researching the demographic she describes as ‘Generation K’ – those individuals aged 14-21, following the Millennial generation.
The ‘K’ stands for Katniss Everdeen – heroine of the best-selling Hunger Games trilogy. Hertz explains this because, “like Katniss, they feel the world they inhabit is one of perpetual struggle – dystopian, unequal and harsh.”
I imagine I am not alone amongst HR professionals in having given little consideration to the needs and expectations of the generation to follow the widely-discussed Millennials into the workplace. Most of us know (or are) Millennials, we’ve had a chance to observe them at work, and we feel we have a fairly well-rounded understanding of what they are looking for from their employment.
But what about Generation K? What will those teenagers and young adults be looking for when they join our organisations? And, more specifically; what does that mean for employee benefits?
Permanently switched on
To begin to understand the potential impact on employee benefits from this newest demographic to join the workforce, one first needs to go back to Hertz’s research, and look at what it tells us about their characteristics.
Let’s start with technology. Generation K are described as being permanently switched on, au fait from childhood with multi-screening and multi-tasking. So comfortable are they with technology that they’re not simply passively using it, they’re creating with it, keen to produce something themselves and be part of the design process.
From an employee benefits perspective, it means we’re likely to see a continued demand for more benefits powered by technology, alongside the more traditional technology purchase option. But… hold that thought, because if you think that means the employee benefits of the future are going to be all about a virtual experience, you might be very wrong.
Another defining characteristic of Generation K – and one which might surprise you – is the fact that they are actually really rather lonely. They might be rarely without their iPhone in their hand, and in continuous contact with their peers via WhatsApp, Snapchat or Instagram, but Hertz points to the fact that, when asked which activities they most enjoyed, those surveyed prioritised those with an element of physical interaction. The conclusion she draws is that, in a world where virtual communication is the norm, even greater value is placed on those face-to-face interactions, which deliver something stand out and above and beyond the day-to-day.
When we talk employee benefits, therefore, we need to be careful not to make the assumption that the tech-savvy Gen K-ers will value technology and virtual experiences over a more traditional approach. Flexible benefits schemes tailored to Generation K will likely see a blend of those benefits delivered virtually, and those which might take a more holistic approach, combining technology with phone or even face-to-face support and advice.
Keeping it real
Hertz talks extensively of the importance of authenticity for Generation K. When interviewed, their favourite celebrities turned out to be not your traditional pop stars and actors, but YouTubers who have developed followings numbering into the millions, thanks to their honest and open approach.
Employers will need to pay careful attention to this when it comes to how they communicate their benefits offerings and encourage Generation K to engage with them. Corporate speak and anything suggesting a hidden message within the small print must go by the wayside, to be replaced with an open and genuine communication which truly reaches and alleviates the concerns of that generation.
And what are those concerns? Well, Hertz describes Generation K as being “profoundly anxious”. They have grown up in the shadow of economic uncertainty and austerity, stating that they believe unquestionably that their lives are likely to be more difficult than their parents’ were. Seventy percent are concerned by terrorism, with most of them not remembering life prior to September 11th 2001.
Doing the right thing
Going hand-in-hand with this is the fact that they are “deeply distrustful of establishment institutions”. Doing the right thing is hugely important to them, yet only six percent believe that large employers will do just that. If we think about the employer/employee relationship, there is a good chance that many of Generation K will arrive on their first day at work already distrusting their employer to act in their best interests. Your employee benefits offering is therefore one of the earliest opportunities you have to set the scene and show this new demographic of employees that you genuinely care about what matters to them.
Think about benefits which are focused on giving back to the community, the environment, and the wider CSR piece. Whether it’s a charitable giving scheme, cycle-to-work, or paid time off to volunteer in the local community, these could all significantly influence how your Gen K employees feel about their relationship with their employer.
Finally, don’t forget the economic backdrop those in this generation are growing up against. Hertz’s research highlighted that 72 percent of those surveyed worried about debt. The average age of a first-time home buyer in the UK has risen to 30. Just one in five 25-year-olds now own their property, compared to almost half two decades ago. Financial concerns for Generation K are real, and growing.
Organisations can respond by reviewing their financial wellbeing offering and ensuring that it is accessible to those youngest recruits to enter the workplace. Remember, though: to derive maximum value from it, it needs to be communicated in a way which directly speaks to those concerns, rather than seeming elitist and irrelevant. Put down the weighty whitepapers and policy documentation laced in business jargon. This is a generation which demands straight talking.
And, actually, there’s a real opportunity here for us to transform our workplaces for all generations, for the better. When you think about what Generation K are asking for… what’s not to like? Increased transparency. Fairness of treatment. Opportunities for human interaction. Authenticity.
The world of work is changing, and Generation K are going to be the catalyst to much of that change. Rather than being caught on the back foot, let’s be the first to review our benefits offerings right now, with them in mind.
Generation K expect something special from their employers. They want to make a difference in this world. And we have the opportunity to help them do just that.