Aims and objectives
The EYES report on the thoughts of international youths highlighted a distrust of the corporate world and a series of concerns shared around the world. In light of this, we wanted to go further in our exploration of young people’s relationship to work. The following three-part study presents several findings and draws some lessons for the various actors concerned.
1. Young people and work – one reality?
In part one, examining the validity of treating “young people” as one homogeneous reality, we first demonstrate the irrelevance of using the concept of “Generation Z” (“Gen Z”) to understand how young people see the world of work.
By distinguishing between the open and closed job markets, we then highlight the existence of a hierarchy of needs relating to the work environment. The reality of such a hierarchy (or pyramid) actually explains why young people in North America and Europe make personal happiness their priority, whereas those living in other parts of the world are more concerned with achieving success, and particularly professional success (Higher Education for Good Foundation, 2023). Without some degree of security (financial, contractual, etc.), environmental, social and governance considerations become secondary when looking for work. These elements support the idea that, despite facing structurally distinct economic realities, the youths of different countries are nonetheless comparable: once the hierarchy of needs is taken into account, it becomes possible to detect common fundamental aspirations.
Far from being completely foreign to the concerns of previous generations, these expectations reflect the spirit of the times. Thus, across all age groups, the current employment model is becoming less and less appealing and reinforcing the feeling that the “social contract of work” has deteriorated. It needs to be reinvented. The conclusions reached with regard to the need for meaning, to individualism, to the distrust felt toward the corporate world, and to the mercenary relationship it would seem young people now have with companies, are undoubtedly hasty when these characteristics are attributed to their age alone. Moreover, contrary to what has been claimed, young people do not seem to be spontaneously more receptive to the new forms of work popularised after the COVID-19 pandemic (flex office, co-working, etc.) (Poirel & Coppola, 2021). Many factors suggest that young people’s demands, when it comes to employment, are the expression of broader latent social dissatisfactions that public and private decision-makers have failed to address.
And while it is true that the younger generations have embraced job hopping (French Senate, 2021), they do not seem to be calling into question the corporate model per se. The distrust expressed by young people is part of a crisis of confidence in institutions and in the future, believed to have begun in 2007-2008 in the wake of the international financial crisis (OECD, 2020). In fact, the specialists we interviewed wondered whether the successive crises that have since marked our times might have led people to develop a greater aversion to risk than before.
In any case, since work is clearly at the centre of a global societal evolution, the issues raised cannot be dissociated from considerations regarding the quality and standard of living of the population as a whole.
2. What can be done to meet the employment aspirations of young people?
The aim of the second part of this report is to present the options available to the stakeholders involved (institutions and companies) to re-establish a relationship with young people and, in doing so, make a positive contribution to changing their attitudes toward work. Generally speaking, the first step for these stakeholders is to lower their barriers to entry. Where institutions and public authorities are concerned, it is important to work toward an effective and efficient representation of young people in decision-making bodies. This is true for the development of public policies in general, not just for those relating to employment. As the OECD puts it: no trust without participation (OECD, 2020). To render societal norms acceptable, every individual must have the opportunity to take part in their production.
Where companies are concerned, they must first and foremost ensure that their actions are consistent with the values they proclaim and the promises they make in terms of responsibility. Young people undoubtedly pay special attention to idea of exemplariness and to its inspirational dimension, given the waning of authority in our contemporary societies.
In addition, companies should lower their expectations in terms of the professional experience required to be considered for a position, in order to clearly signal their interest in the potential of candidates and thus foster a relationship of trust with employees. Continuing professional development thus appears to be an important tool for attracting and retaining talent.
In order to meet young people’s demand for meaning and avoid sparking incomprehension among employees if a discrepancy is noticed between management decisions and their effects, companies should also focus on translating their extra-financial objectives and their raison d’être into concrete individual missions and achievements. Managers have a crucial role to play here, since they are the ones who must make the work of employees fit into a coherent narrative aligning strategy and operations, to make daily work meaningful by showing everyone how they contribute to the collective goal. Moreover, it is up to managers to inspire a sense of psychological safety (Gallo, 2023) in their team members. The well-being of individuals must therefore become a performance indicator for middle managers, in the same way as financial metrics. Here, the attitude of young managers (under 35) reveals the paradox they face: while they are better at incorporating the issues mentioned above in the performance of their duties (for example, by asking for more training in psychosocial risks), they nevertheless feel less legitimate than their elders in carrying out their role. Indeed, young managers do not seem to give themselves enough time to acquire the skills they need (Alan & Harris Interactive, 2023).
Finally, to contribute to reinventing the social contract of work, which is currently seen as being in a state of decline, companies need to encourage the intergenerational transmission of knowledge and know-how. It may seem counterintuitive, but renewing collective support for salaried employment first requires accepting the individualisation of the relationship to work.
3. Technical and societal developments and the expectations of young people
To assess the potential impact of these developments on young people, the third and final part of our report analyses two salient trends in the world of work: (1) the emergence of the green economy to address environmental challenges, and (2) the digitalisation and automation of jobs through artificial intelligence (AI). Young people are on the front line of these changes.
Not only is climate change having direct and quantifiable effects on the world of work, but the working poor and those in the informal sector, two groups in which young people are over-represented, are particularly affected. In the face of these phenomena, the development of the green economy – which aspires to result in “improved human well-being and social equity, while significantly reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcities” (UNEP, n.d.) – and its 25 million new jobs can seem like a boon to young people in search of meaning. However, besides the knowledge gaps identified by the ILO (ILO, 2022) (lack of technical knowledge, financial management skills, etc.) as obstacles preventing young people from benefiting fully from this dynamic, it is the risk of informal work – its insecurity, its instability – that threatens this new field of work.
Similarly, in addition to offering unequal opportunities to young people depending on their geographical location and national affiliation, the digitalisation of occupations, and more specifically the introduction of AI into organisations, is jeopardising job security. Goldman Sachs mentions the possible automation of the equivalent of 300 million jobs in the USA and Europe (Goldman Sachs, 2023) thanks to generative AI programs, which have been likened to a “high-end intern” (Verma & De Vynck, 2023). Assuming that this does not lead to pure destruction but simply to a drastic transformation of occupations, the fact remains that, in the immediate future, the growing use of AI will result in a massive elimination of tasks that once required skilled labour, and in the simultaneous creation of a huge pool of click workers available to index and catalogue vast quantities of textual, audio and visual data. In other words, the development of AI – and generative AI in particular – is currently associated with a rise in job insecurity, to which young graduates are particularly exposed.
Furthermore, since AI “is by nature unpredictable, because it is self-learning” (Benhamou, 2022), it seems necessary for companies to embrace a learning dynamic themselves and make efforts to preserve the diversity of their employees’ skills, since together the latter must combine technical know-how and multi-disciplinary knowledge to be able to maintain objectivity and exercise critical thinking when deploying and managing this technology.
Our study shows that, now and in the future, the main risk young people aspiring to enter the job market face is informality and job insecurity. The absolute priority in the face of the technical and societal changes presented above must therefore be – as the ILO suggests – to promote the formal economy and guarantee decent working conditions. In a changing environment, the business and employment model of the past often proves to be outdated, but the model of the future has yet to be invented. We are currently in an “in-between” situation, a source of frustration and misunderstanding.
In order for young people to be able to express their aspirations calmly, and for organisations to be in a position to provide a real solution, their primary needs must be met. Since stable, formal employment is seen as a driving force for life goals enabling greater participation in the social and political spheres, this is the only way that young people will be able to regain confidence in the future. The reinvention of the social contract of work must therefore be underpinned by non-negotiable minimum guarantees concerning wages and job security. Hence, these should be better integrated into regulations. What remains to be determined is the level – national or international – at which these standards should be established and adopted, and the degree of constraint – voluntary or mandatory – that would enable them to be most effective.
At the global level, in the face of labour laws that are sometimes non-existent and employers who prefer deregulation, the ILO could, for example, develop a set of standards with which member countries would be required to comply, along the lines of its Maritime Labour Convention 2006, which constitutes a global labour code for seafarers, guaranteeing them decent living and working conditions (French Senate, 2012).