Any truly meaningful renewal of the public service will, by necessity, involve recruiting and engaging younger populations. To do so will require a deeper understanding of young people, not only by generation, but also by their life-stage.
The benefits of this are simple, but have important ramifications. There is an opportunity to build a more compelling value proposition for the public sector that helps attract the best new talent and builds loyalty, engagement and satisfaction among new and existing employees. All of these efforts can be directly linked to a higher quality public service.
What do we mean when we talk of generations and life stages? Generational models involve defining populations based on the specific environment in which they grew up. Much has been made about how different formative experiences create attitudinal and behavioural differences between generations. It will be important for the public sector to understand the particular formative experiences of today’s younger generations – their learning environment, their family relationships, their social and cultural moments – in order to understand their workplace goals and aspirations.
It is also important to understand the life stages and key transition points of younger populations to better identify their aspirations and behaviours. Life stage is a period of time in an individual’s life characterized by a particular set of concerns or motives. We see three main life stages as being relevant to the emerging workforces:
- young independents (single, couple with no kids)
- families (with kids living at home).
Between each of these life-stages, we encounter key transitions points that mark major shifts in our attitudes and behaviours, both within and beyond our careers. A person goes through a series of important emotional and intellectual changes when leaving home, completing college or university, looking for a first professional job, living with a partner, buying a house, or having children. Young people at all life stages – students, young independents and young families – are key to future public service renewal efforts.
DECODE has conducted several studies that explore how this segment sees the world of work. Contrary to stereotype, the public sector is seen as attractive to many young Canadians. The annual From Learning to Work studies (2004-present) show that the public sector is usually the most desired employer among young Canadian post-secondary graduates. More than half of the 27,000 respondents we surveyed said they sought a career in government, whereas large and medium-sized companies were favoured by about forty percent.
When we asked those interested in working for government about the most important factors in job decision-making, the top five responses were: “advancement and promotion,” “work-life balance,” “good training and development,” “good people to work with” and “job security.”
These responses have a fairly simple explanation. Two-thirds of post-secondary students use some form of financial assistance, either through a credit card or student loan. For recent students, worried about debt and anxious about stable employment, the public sector is indeed attractive for the security it can provide during a time of great instability.
Reasons we usually associate with public service, such as “opportunity to have a social impact,” “opportunity to have personal impact,” and “challenging work” were far less likely to be cited.
It is tempting to attribute these findings to a kind of generational malaise. But by looking at the characteristics of the student life-stage one can see how a long recruitment process might serve to create disincentives among those with more active and dynamic career goals.
For those about to graduate, the transition between school and work is characterized by high anxiety. The typical recent graduate will apply for more jobs during this period than at any time in their career, and are far more inclined to start earning sooner to cover off debts and meet payments. In this stage of life, many students will take the first real job offer they get. As young hires, students do not often have the experience or personal confidence to challenge the status quo.
Students, however, are not the only youth population relevant to the public sector. Young people who are already in the workforce represent a tremendous pool of talent and professional experience that could provide additional value, yet few public sector organizations have strategies to engage this group.
DECODE’s Young Independents DNA explored the attitudes and behaviours of young Canadians 18-29, and the similarities and differences between students, young independent professionals, and young parents.
Young independents, for example, were far less likely to cite “work-life balance” as being a key factor in what jobs they choose, and most likely to prioritize the “people they work with.” Young independents are more likely to care less about working hours and place greater emphasis on working with the right people. They are also more likely to move around between different jobs and sectors. They’ll be more likely to push for change or look elsewhere. Compare these findings with those of many students who want to work in the public sector: what are the implications of these findings when it comes to true public sector renewal?
Young parents represent an interesting opportunity for the public sector. Like young independents, they likely bring job experience to the table. But unlike young independents, they also crave security and stability. Young Independents DNA found that young parents are most likely to prioritize “health and benefits” in their career decisions, and the stable nature of public sector employment will make it attractive to them. While they may seek change, they may also be less likely to move around in their careers.
How the public sector engages the young employees they hire is also worth exploring from the perspectives of generation. The public sector is notoriously hierarchical. Young Independents DNA found that students, young independents and young parents all look for opportunities to advance in their careers, on average within one-and-a-half years of their first job. This may well be an unrealistic expectation. But it clearly needs to be managed on the part of public sector leaders.
So how should public sector organizations use the concept of life stage in their efforts to renew public service in Canada? We see the following activities as being highly valuable:
study the attitudes and behaviours of potential hires and younger members of your workforce;look at data though a variety of life-stage perspectives to enable greater depth; andmap the key transitions in a public service career to help better manage expectations of employees.
The topic of public service renewal has been part of the public sector discussion for many years. Given the coming retirement wave, and the current economic climate, it is becoming clear that the public sector will be in need of the fresh perspectives of a new and emerging workforce. How it chooses to engage these perspectives will be critical to the success of the effort.
Robert Barnard is the founder of DECODE (www.d-code.com). Samir Khan is a moderator and researcher at DECODE, specializing in policy, media and culture.