X and Y: the future of the paid workforce

In the current economic climate, it is more vital than ever that you have a committed, effective workforce. Recruiting is a costly business, which no-one wants to have to do too often!  The Foresight seminar on the impact of the changing workforce looked at the ways the VCS could address this, examining the external trends and forces that can change the shape of the workforce, and the impact these might have.  As highlighted in the seminar, awareness and planning is key to attracting and retaining a workforce that will enable organisations to realise their full potential, and to support and develop a happier working life for people.

The seminar aimed to help VCOs explore some of the opportunities and challenges that a changing workforce would present, focusing on two age groups; Generation Y, and the older workforce.  The emphasis of the seminar was on preparing for changes ahead through better, more strategic planning and thinking. Here are a few key findings from the seminar:


Chair: Janet Fleming, UK Workforce Hub. Listen to her introduction.


The Older Workforce:

Download the slides or listen to the presentation (password: foresight)

Richard Worsley from the Tomorrow Project talked about the older workforce and implications for the VCS.


Generation Y:

Download the slides or listen to the presentation (password: foresight)

Jo Causon of the Chartered Management Institute talked about recent research into what drives young managers (Generation Y).

Implications for the VCS:

Download the slides or listen to the presentation (password: foresight)

Elaine Smethurst from the UK Workforce Hub examined what these changes in the workforce might mean for the VCS.


A very strong message from all presentations was the need to value people based on their skills and abilities, not on their age.  There are already many initiatives looking at intergenerational work, and emphasising the shared values between people is one of the strongest ways of re-enforcing a cohesive workforce.

Findings from the small group work:

Following interesting presentations from Richard, Jo and Elaine, delegates at the seminar split into small groups to look at opportunities and risks of the changing workforce for their organisations, and ways to move forwards.  The following thoughts developed from these discussions:

Generation Y Opportunities:

  • Harnessing technology; it is second skin to Generation Y
  • Generation Y are focused on values; this offers an opportunity for VCS to market itself
  • Focus on values may offer real opportunity for the VCS; Generation Y work
  • Opportunities for small organisations to gain (or develop) transferable skills; one step in their development
  • Re-create the Obama campaign; people need to believe to engage
  • VCS can promote volunteering if large numbers of unemployed
  • Wealth of new knowledge & questioning
  • Sector can offer meaningful work & fulfilment
  • Opportunity to attract people moving out of the private sector as they are affected by the recession and re-assess values 

Generation Y Risks:

  • Risk of alienation for those not comfortable using technology
  • May be too dependent on technology (value email over face to face or phone); risks losing the personal touch that people associate with the VCS
  • Misconceptions around VCS and what motivates the VCS (think all free and no career opportunities)
  • Generation Y may leave if not managed properly or expectations not fulfilled
  • Slow pace of change in VCS may be viewed negatively by some
  • Organisations that aren’t flexible themselves around working practices / new technologies may not be able to attract or retain Generation Y
  • Current economic climate may impact on motivations to make a difference
  • Not investing in training (only thinking of short-term); often linked to particularly small orgs (saving money, only have short term funding etc) may de-motivate Generation Y 

An Older Workforce Opportunities:

  • Sensory impairments are an opportunity; drives us to modify so that we can all communicate more effectively
  • A good flexible working policy and culture makes a big difference for older people as well as parents
  • Knowledge management; opportunity to tap into knowledge held by older people who have been in an organisation for a while
  • Opportunity to attract people looking to go part-time; perhaps from private sector
  • Second careers have different experiences and expectations; may be more or less certain about what they want
  • Some parts of the sector actively value older workers because they want to reflect needs of service users
  • Experience, wisdom, knowledge
  • When older people are high in a hierarchy they are valued, but others may feel that they are not valued
  • Experience from managing volunteers can be fed into better performance management of older people 

An Older Workforce Risks:

  • Tension; the will is there to attract older workers and requirements to constantly develop skills (for example in the care sector), but this can be hard to sell to some older workers
  • May make assumptions about success factors for motivation and retention of for older workers
  • Salary may become more important for older people as pension values and home prices fall
  • Some young organisations are getting older as cohorts grow up; need to manage this change & fresh and interesting to new generations
  • Some organisations where clients are younger may find older workforce are less empathetic
  • Big cultural shift of thinking from horizontal life stages to vertical (see Richard Worsley’s slides)
  • There is a risk of people feeling left on the shelf; organisations need to make sure all feel valued

Intergenerational Work Opportunities:

  • Collaborate; train together
  • Values and flexibility important to both older people and Generation Y
  • Ways for people to relate (different generations) through work, but creating social relationships (merging work and life)
  • Recession and unemployment could impact positively on people looking for part-time and flexible working opportunities as organisations attempt to cut costs
  • Differences within generations; opportunity for VCS in terms of learning from each other needs promoting (eg via skills exchange & mutual learning)
  • Identifying key issues; funding people / individuals is not about age
  • Need to go through process of getting values through the organisational hierarchy and communicate this
  • Trustees; cultural and generational clash – their decision in setting tone requires expertise
  • More engagement and diverse workforce and age board issues; hold on to talent
  • Investors in diversity; challenges stereotypes
  • Successful organisations already work inter-generationally; communicate between generations & bridge them
  • Mentoring around specialisation, not necessarily age; about sharing experience and expertise

Intergenerational Work Risk:

  • Often in practice organisations are risk adverse when it comes to recruiting part-time / job-share / people without previous experience – need to be more flexible
  • Increase in unemployment could have a negative impact on trend towards more flexible working in the short term
  • Cross-generational teams can be a challenge to manage
  • Stereotyping (for example about Generation Y) can mean organisations miss opportunities within different people
  • Individual support requires time & prioritising
  • Across different organisations technological communications
  • Risk of organisations ‘recruiting in own image’
  • Organisation identity values policy and practice can be distinct; how do you make this a reality?
  • Traditional hierarchy will have to change
  • There may be intergenerational tensions, and managers will have to be able to deal with this

What are your thoughts or experiences on these issues? Where do you see the future of the VCS workforce? Is intergenerational work the way forwards? Join in the discussion by posting your thoughts below.

Last updated at 15:08 Mon 18/May/09.
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I suggest that our lives, workforces and choices are steadily becoming far more individual, far less stereotyped. In the process we need constant support and guidance like never before – a sensible resource, not a sign of weakness, meaning that the following issues will need addressing in the future:

‘Vertical transitions’
We are steadily moving to a new view of the life-course – ending the idea of lifetimes split horizontally by the end of education in our 20s and of work in our 60s to lives comprising multiple ‘vertical’ transitions – between work, caring, parenting, voluntary work, leisure etc. The great difference is that increasingly the transitions are determined by us, not imposed by other people, and are less and less dependent on our age.

People as individuals
The wise employer thinks about individual employees not in categories (older, younger, skilled, male etc) but as a set of individuals, each with his/her own set of characteristics and needs. Assumptions about them based on thinking in categories will miss out on engaging people’s talents and helping them to give of their best.

More older people
There will be more older people in our population, and therefore in our workforces – driven by greater longevity, better health care – and more people wanting to, or needing to work for longer. In spite of the credit crunch we are still witnessing severe shortages of skill. Employers will need to look beyond traditional sources of recruitment (especially young people) to help meet their needs – for example to immigrants, to people currently on the edge of the labour market, and especially to older people. But the pace of this change is still influenced by deeply embedded age discrimination, whose elimination will be driven more by economic pressures (‘we are missing out’) than by moral or legal pressures.

Flexible working
Forecasts that we would steadily move to widespread changes in types of employment contract (much more portfolio, part-time, and temporary working and more self-employment) have not been realised – at least yet. Permanent full time employment remains the norm for the vast majority of workers. But the big changes are in how people work rather than how they are employed: more delegation, more trust, more readiness to switch jobs, greater discretion, less command and control, innovation and creativity bottom upwards rather than top down
Flexibility demands come from two very different sources – from employers needing to provide a 24/7 service and individuals seeking to match their working lives with their private roles. The wise employer works at managing the tension between those two very different demands.

Personalisation, choice and guidance
The consumer revolution has taught us to expect products and services to ‘fit-me-exactly’ –as technology has enabled businesses to offer consumer choice without sacrificing economy of scale. The resultant ‘it-must-fit-me exactly’ mindset spills over into other aspects of our lives – education , health, even party politics – ‘I expect to be able to pick and choose’. Choice (except for the very poorest, who have virtually no choice at all) is taken for granted and can for many be a source of stress. How do I choose? Might I be missing out? How do I find my way through? If I choose one thing, I can’t have another.

As a result, we all need help and guidance, not just when we are in crisis but throughout our lives – and the good employer needs to be one of the guidance providers – through good HR policies of appraisal and career guidance but also in the everyday relationship between manager and employee. Are you a rung on your boss’s ladder to his progress, or is your boss the provider of a ladder for yours?

To access GLIMPSES of tomorrow, The Tomorrow Project’s online database of emerging trends, click here

To join the Tomorrow Network (free of charge) for briefings and invitations to events, email Richard

Kathryn's picture


Third Sector Foresight

Research released yesterday positions the older demographic (in the context of our seminar, the X generation) as an attractive element in any workforce. 15,000 workers were surveyed by Talent Q reveals elements such as 'greater social confidence ' in over 50s, and being more autonomous. The report overall paints a positive picture of the older workforce, and suggests that they will be easier to manage and a stabilising influence on a workplace.

Kathryn's picture


Third Sector Foresight

How will the world of work change this year? Interesting thoughts from Tammy Erickson (Harvard Business Review) on tomorrowtoday, about how she thinks the workplace might change this year. Read about 'communities of adults', and 'competition for discretionary energy'. How do you see this playing out in your organisation?

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How will this affect your organisation? Have you considered it during your strategic planning? Can you share any interesting relevant links?

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