A golden age for civil servants: How Generation Y will change government

In 2008, there were 20,082,000 U.S. citizens drawing paychecks from a state or local government, according to Governing’s Sourcebook. In 2006, the average, median age of state and local employees was 36.8 years – ten years older than the first wave of Generation Y.

As Generation Y enters the workforce, they do so with a different set of values, a different concept of work ethic and a different global perspective than preceding generations. Deloitte Consulting’s Leah Reynolds has been mapping these differences with a set of surveys, the latest of which focuses on the public sector.

Generally, the survey found that Generation Y’s technology skill set could be a huge asset for the public sector, and managers should take advantage of these future-oriented, ready to contribute now, opportunity-driven individuals. It also found that factors such as personal growth and job location mattered more to those Gen Yers in the public sector than in the private sector. So perhaps in this area too, state and local government stands to benefit.

CivSource spoke with Ms. Reynolds about why new talent has looked towards the public sector for employment, how government can attract and use Generation Y workers and how agencies can initiate a meaningful knowledge transfer from one generation of workers to the next.

When asked how significant the economy has been in driving new, young talent to the public sector, Ms. Reynolds said it was a factor, but the more significant factor was that Generation Y was not enamored with big business. “Wall Street has lost its luster,” Ms. Reynolds said in an interview. “Gen Y has had a lack of trust in big business. This is the generation that witnessed the collapse of Enron and watched businesses implode due to incompetence, scandal, mergers, and divestments.”

“Part of the attraction of government is that it’s fairly stable,” Ms. Reynolds continued, “It’s not really a job security issue, as much as a sense of longevity, and the idea that the institution has been around for a while. Gen Yers are practical. They understand that government jobs might not pay as well as private sector, but their responsibilities could be greater in the public sector and there are real opportunities to stretch and grow, leaving them with meaningful career experiences.”

deloitte-blackberryAnother reason Generation Y workers are looking to the public sector, according to Deloitte’s survey, is a sense of altruism, mixed with a more developed sense of where they fit within a global context. “It has started with Generation Y, and I expect it will continue with those who come of age under the Obama administration, but it seems that more workers have an awareness of a greater good. They don’t see their education wasted by applying it in ways other than Wall Street. In addition to the ‘service influence,’ Generation Y sees a maturation of the United States in terms of placing itself in a more realistic context globally. They are coming to grips with the areas where we need to be more competitive and to embrace what it means to be in a global economy.”

Ms. Reynolds believes the next group that comes of age under the Obama administration will come into organizations with truly global perspectives. “It would be a shame if some of them didn’t go into business because that perspective is badly needed.”

Some of the challenges facing the public sector lie in keeping up with Generation Y expectations, Ms. Reynolds said, especially when it comes to organizational structure and technology acceptance.

“The public sector will have to work on technology investments to be able to keep pace with what Gen Yers expect,” according to Ms. Reynolds. “They expect to have certain tools in order to work collaboratively. Their view of how to maintain connectedness is seamlessly integrated with technology, not separate from work and leisure functions.”

Generation Y workers also have a preconceived notion of how internal organization should be structured and how they think about career development. Traditional government agencies were founded on the corporate ladder way of organizing, which is drawn from a military style of organization. And Generation Yers are asking for a lattice structure – one that allows them to move laterally, or even down, if a move will lead to greater career development.

“The ladder concept is baked into so much of how we think about roles and responsibilities, protocol issues, who has what info, who makes decisions – and the traditional thinking about entry level workers being at the bottom rung will start to be questioned. 21st century reality will dictate a rethinking of the ladder assumption,” according to Ms. Reynolds.

Perhaps the greatest challenge facing government in the 21st century is a problem that has plagued institutions of every size for decades – the problem of transferring knowledge from the senior staff to the newcomers. Ms. Reynolds believes the culmination of a recession, a record number of Baby Boomers readying for retirement and a massive influx of young, motivated people has produced a “perfect storm” for government.

Boomers are not retiring in record numbers (as was once predicted) due to the recession, and what Ms. Reynolds believes will begin to happen, is a trend where, “retiring employees are not ready to fade into the sunset. They would still like to be actively engaged, but maybe in a nontraditional role. At the same time, young people are clamoring for a new kind of career development. So, think about that as an opportunity; put the two ends of the spectrum together – experienced workers who still want to contribute, but to a lesser degree, could welcome and mentor the youth.”

“Government has a golden opportunity right now,” says Ms. Reynolds, but it will “require a rethinking of career development strategies and how we reward people. We’ll need to reward for giving away information and knowledge. Ultimately, it will require a rethinking of how people end and begin their careers.”

Leah Reynolds is a specialist leader in Generational Strategies and Reward Communication at Deloitte Consulting. She develops people and change strategies for organizations during talent and rewards strategy re-designs, mergers and acquisitions and shifts in corporate culture.