Expectations of a 21st Century Employee: Part I

As a result of new technologies and an increasingly connected world, today's talent has a fundamentally different set of expectations than previous generations of workers.

Organizations around the world are coming to the realization that employees today have a fundamentally different set of expectations than previous generations of workers. There’s no singular reason for this shift, rather, it’s a result of a confluence of several factors: an increasingly connected and globalized world, changes in the way people process information and communicate spurred by the proliferation of the internet and social media, and the immense world-wide economic growth of the past 30 years - a rising tide that has lifted over 1 billion people out of poverty.

The consequences of these changes are manifested in the desires of the 21st century worker, who wants not only a job that pays the bills, but one that fulfills deeper existential (perhaps one could even call them spiritual) needs: a sense of purpose, a feeling of connection to something larger than themselves, and the freedom to contribute to that larger entity in a way that doesn’t conflict with their own beliefs or sense of self. Overall, they expect to get meaning from their work, and for the entire experience to be individualized and unique to them.

This is the first installment in a series of articles that will explore this shift in employee expectations and its ramifications for organizations and leaders.

Ch Ch Ch Ch Changes

It’d be hard to overstate the significance of the sweeping changes that have occurred over the past several decades across the globe - socially, economically and politically. It’s been a time period characterized by stabilization and globalization on a scale never before seen. As a result, the world is far more connected than ever before, metaphorically, but very much literally as well. Political and economic unions (the EU being a prime example) have guaranteed the free movement of people, goods and services across what used to be heavily guarded borders, bridges spanning massive waterways have connected what used to be distant land masses, and the miracle of modern commercial aviation has made easy and affordable journeys that used to be potentially deadly and cost a life’s savings.

One can see this increased connectedness quantified in a variety of metrics. For our purposes, a particularly interesting number to look at is the number of expats - people living in a country other than their country of origin - globally. As the world “shrinks” and it becomes easier for people to move abroad for work, family and other reasons, we’d expect to see more people doing so; and indeed we have. From 2013 to 2017, for instance, the number of expats globally rose from 52.8 million, or just about 0.75% of the total global population, to over 60 million, or 0.90% of the global population. That’s an annual compound growth rate of 5.8%. According to an analysis conducted by global market research firm Finaccord, this growth rate should continue and the number of expats globally should reach 1.13% of the total population by 2021.

As the world has shrunk, the range of opportunities available to workers (specifically skilled workers) has expanded. International travel has never been easier, safer or cheaper. Likewise, speaking with someone on the other side of the world has never been so simple. Workers can now confidently look beyond their own country or even their own continent for positions and organizations that offer them the most appealing opportunities.

Because they have such a myriad of options that a connected world affords them, these workers can be significantly more picky about the kinds of jobs they’re willing to take. Moreover, this privilege of choice changes the way in which they are likely to frame their expectations about their job and the criteria they use in order to choose one over the other - it shifts from something that’s measured almost entirely by its economic utility (how well it provides the resources necessary to live) to something that’s measured, at least in part, by the value it adds to their lives.

New Technology, New Behaviors

One can’t thoroughly discuss globalization and a connected world without exploring the role that technology has played. Beyond question, the proliferation of the internet has dramatically accelerated this increased connectedness, and for quite obvious reasons: never before has it been easier to meet, communicate and share information with people from all corners of the earth. As of June 2018, just over 55% of the world’s population is on the internet. In other words, over 4.1 billion people.

But the internet has done far more than simply connect people; it’s had a striking effect on the ways in which they communicate, consume information, and even think. Many argue that the instant gratification the internet affords us has led to dwindling attention spans and an overall lack of patience. On the flip side, there are also quite a few studies that have shown positive effects on the brain stemming from habitual internet use. More than that, it’s easy to argue that whatever detriments stem from its use, the positive effects of the internet far outweigh them.

One can draw a straight line from the instant gratification and personalized experience the internet affords users to the modern employees' desire for more frequent feedback, recognition and individualized progression plans.

The question of whether the internet and its effects on us are a net positive or a net negative, while fascinating, is not within the scope of this article however. What concerns us here, is how these specific changes are affecting employee expectations. In that regard, one can draw a straight line from the instant gratification and personalized experience one becomes accustomed to from frequent internet use to the desire for more frequent feedback, to be recognized often by their leader and for a more personalized progression track.

Social media in particular, has the effect of conditioning its users to expect recognition from others almost immediately. Make a new post on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram and other users like, comment or share in a matter of minutes. Indeed, they’re expected to. Studies have even shown that one of the reasons these platforms have proved to be so compelling, is because getting recognition over them, such as a like, actually releases dopamine in the brain. Moreover, they allow users to create a highly personalized experience. Don’t want to see the posts from a particular person or company? No problem, you can simply remove them from your feed.

The same goes for content platforms such as Youtube and streaming services like Netflix and Spotify. In a bid to win over customers and create the best possible user experience, they have gotten better and better at allowing users to control what they see and don’t see, as well as using algorithms to suggest content “suited” to their unique preferences. In an age when so many are spending so much time with these platforms and setting the experience they provide as a new baseline, it’d be unreasonable to imagine those expectations wouldn’t extend into the other facets of their lives.

A Hierarchy of Needs

The final factor to explore in relation to the shift in employee expectations is how global economic development has played a part. As mentioned at the beginning of this article, over 1 billion people have risen out of poverty in a matter of a few decades, and in the same time period, countless others have risen from just above the poverty line into the middle class. This means that billions of people that used to struggle with the most basic elements of survival - food, water, shelter - and saw their work as simply a way to secure those elements, are now able to direct their attention to other, higher concerns. This then has the effect of changing the way they think about their work and motivates them to want more from it.

A survey of 2000 American workers found that 9 out of 10 were willing to trade a large portion of their income for more meaning at work.

Thinking about this in terms of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, we can say that they moved up from the very bottom of the pyramid and into the middle and top sections. For those unfamiliar with Maslow and his hierarchy of needs, in short, he created a framework, exceedingly popular in psychology and the social sciences, for classifying the universal needs of humans in society represented by a pyramid. The most basic needs are at the bottom of the pyramid and the higher needs are at the top. Maslow used the labels "physiological," "safety," "belonging and love" or "social needs," "esteem," and "self-actualization". For him, this was the foundational hierarchy of needs, and in order for humans to find motivation at the next level, each subsequent level has to be satisfied.

So, as the basic physiological and safety needs are satisfied for more and more people across the globe, they are motivated to satisfy higher, psychological needs. A study that surveyed over 2000 American professionals found that 9 out of 10 were willing to trade a percentage of their future lifetime earnings for a more meaningful work experience - on average, they were willing to give up 23%. That's hugely significant. As the article cleverly points out, the average American spends 21% of their income on housing, a basic need. So what this means is that the need for meaning, in monetary terms, is equal to, if not greater than, the need for shelter. And because the need for shelter, along with their other basic needs are satisfied, workers are motivated to fulfill their higher needs.

Creating Meaning

The convergence of the factors we’ve explored result in the shift we’re seeing in what modern workers expect from their job. In the simplest terms, they expect to get meaning from it. But meaning doesn't just exist in the world independently, it's created - we create it. It's created through human-to-human connection, recognition from others, a feeling of shared purpose.

It's incumbent on leaders to drive this - to build a feedback culture, to foster an environment that encourages employees to focus on personal and professional growth, to connect their daily tasks and projects to the broader pursuits in their life. But knowing this, the real challenge now is to support organizations and their leaders, managers, and coaches in a way that empowers them to do this, and do it effectively. We’ll explore that in detail in the next installment.


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