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Generation Y

Gen Y's Failure To Launch Launches Worldwide Chaos

In Tunisia, young people organized the Jasmine Revolution to help bring down a dictator. On February 1, their counterparts in Egypt forced President Hosni Mubarak to say he won’t seek reelection. The young, unemployed, and unhappy have brothers and sisters across the globe.

In Tunisia, young people organized the Jasmine Revolution to help bring down a dictator. On February 1, their counterparts in Egypt forced President Hosni Mubarak to say he won’t seek reelection. The young, unemployed, and unhappy have brothers and sisters across the globe.

In Britain, they are NEETs — “not in education, employment, or training.” In Japan, they are freeters: an amalgam of the English word freelance and the German word Arbeiter, or worker. Spaniards call them mileuristas, meaning they earn no more than 1,000 euros a month. In the U.S., they’re “boomerang” kids who move back home after college because they can’t find work.

Even fast-growing China, where labor shortages are more common than surpluses, has its “ant tribe” — recent college graduates who crowd together in cheap flats on the fringes of big cities because they can’t find well-paying work.

Bloomberg BusinessWeek reported earlier this month on The Youth Unemployment Bomb, explaining that in each of these nations, an economy that can’t generate enough jobs to absorb its young people has created a lost generation of the disaffected, unemployed, or underemployed. This includes growing numbers of recent college graduates for whom the post-crash economy has little to offer.

With no place to go, the largest, best educated generation in history is making its voice heard, creating revolutions, and wreaking havoc worldwide. 

Last year, British students outraged by proposed tuition increases — at a moment when a college education is no guarantee of prosperity — attacked the Conservative Party’s headquarters in London and pummeled a limousine carrying Prince Charles and his wife, Camilla Bowles. Scuffles with police have repeatedly broken out at student demonstrations across Continental Europe. And last March in Oakland, Calif., students protesting tuition hikes walked onto Interstate 880, shutting it down for an hour in both directions.

While the details differ from one nation to the next, the common element is failure — not just of young people to find a place in society, but of society itself to harness the energy, intelligence, and enthusiasm of the next generation.

Here’s what makes it extra-worrisome: The world is aging.

According to Bloomberg’s report: ‘In many countries the young are being crushed by older workers who appear determined to cling to the better jobs as long as possible and then, when they do retire, demand impossibly rich private and public pensions that the younger generation will be forced to shoulder.’

“The older generations have eaten the future of the younger ones,” former Italian Prime Minister Giuliano Amato told Corriere della Sera.

In Britain, Employment Minister Chris Grayling has called chronic unemployment a “ticking time bomb.”

Jeffrey A. Joerres, chief executive officer of Manpower, a temporary-services firm with offices in 82 countries and territories, adds, “Youth unemployment will clearly be the epidemic of this next decade unless we get on it right away. You can’t throw in the towel on this.”

Youth unemployment is tempting to dismiss. The young tend to have fewer obligations, after all, and plenty of time to save for retirement. They have the health and strength to enjoy their leisure.

But the failure to launch has serious consequences for society, as has been observed in recent protests and riots popping up worldwide. 

“Educated youth have been in the vanguard of rebellions against authority certainly since the French Revolution and in some cases even earlier,” says Jack A. Goldstone, a sociologist at George Mason University School of Public Policy.

In a nation with a healthy economy, a burst of new talent on the scene should spur economic growth. Even so, rich democracies laregly ignore youth unemployment. In the 34 industrialized nations in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, at least 16.7 million young people are not employed, in school, or in training, and about 10 million of those aren’t even looking, the OECD said in December 2010.

In the most-developed nations, the job market has split between high-paying jobs that many workers aren’t qualified for and low-paying jobs that they can’t live on. Many of the jobs that once paid good wages to high school graduates have been automated or outsourced. In other cases, employers have a preference for hiring senior citizen or immigrant workers because they tend to accept lower wages than youth and young professionals.

Eventually, the retirement of the Baby Boomers will increase demand for younger workers. But that’s of little comfort to the young people who are out of work now. The short term has become distressingly long. Although the recession ended in the summer of 2009, youth unemployment remains near its cyclical peak. In the U.S., 18 percent of 16- to 24-year-olds were unemployed in December 2010–a year and a half after the recession technically ended.

What’s more, when jobs do come back, employers might choose to reach past today’s unemployed, who may appear to be damaged goods, and pick from the next crop of fresh-faced grads. Starting one’s career during a recession can have long-term negative consequences.

The only surefire cure for youth unemployment is strong, sustained economic growth that generates so much demand for labor that employers have no choice but to hire the young. Economists have been working on microscale solutions, such as training programs to smooth the transition from school to work.

In the meantime, there’s a newfound appreciation for an ancient work arrangement– the apprenticeship–because it greases the transition from learning to doing. In an update on the apprentice idea, countries such as the Netherlands encourage university students to gain work experience while enrolled.

Something similar is catching on in the U.S. AT&T, with almost 270,000 employees and an annual training budget of nearly $250 million, is trying to smooth high school students’ transition to work with a program called Job Shadow that exposes students to the realities of employment. Insight into the minds of American teenagers has made AT&T executives realize the magnitude of the challenge.

Another option: entrepreneurship. With all its guesswork and improvisation entrepreneurship could be the most underexploited means of reducing youth unemployment. In 2008 the University of Miami started an entrepreneurship program called Launch Pad inside its career center to send the message that starting your own company is a valid career option, not just a class to take.

Since then, University of Miami students and recent grads have launched 45 companies.

After Miami’s entrepreneurship initiative caught the eye of Stephen A. Schwarzman, the billionaire head of private equity firm Blackstone Group, the Blackstone Charitable Foundation last year launched a similar program in southeastern Michigan with Wayne State University and Walsh College. On Jan. 31, as President Barack Obama announced his Startup America initiative at the White House, Blackstone said it would expand what it also calls LaunchPad to five more cities, as yet unnamed, devoting $50 million over five years.

Chronic youth unemployment may not be fixable. But there’s evidence it can be reduced through the concerted efforts of government, labor, business, education, and young people themselves.

One thing is certain: All over the world, the NEETs and freeters and boomerang kids are hungry for a chance to thrive. And soon, companies everywhere are going to need this generation to survive. When that time comes and the tables have turned, will your company be the one this generation chooses?

Here’s a hint: If you’ve neglected and continue to neglect this generation, don’t count on them to show up for work tomorrow. They will probably be out causing a revolution, starting up their own company, or working for someone who gave a damn about their future.

Zs came of age in an era of disruption

In many ways, it’s symbolic that Generation Z is named after the last letter in the alphabet because their arrival marks the end of clearly defined roles, traditions, and experiences. After all, Gen Z is coming of age on the heels of what has been referred to as the most disruptive decade of the last century. America has become an increasingly changing and complex place.

For example:

  • ‍Zs were born into a “modern family era” in which highly involved dads help out at home, and the nuclear family model (two parents, married, with children) represent only 46% of American households.
  • ‍Zs are the first generation to be born into a world where everything physical, from people to places to pennies, has a digital equivalent.
  • From the time they were infants, Zs had access to mobile technology. As a result, their brains have been trained to absorb large amounts of information, and Zs are especially adept at shifting between skills and subject matter.
  • Zs tend to have crystal-clear memories of sitting up for the first time at six months old because they can easily and quickly reference the photos and videos their parents shared on social media or saved in the “cloud”. 

Members of this generation have undoubtedly been shaped by crisis and disruption. This generation will largely be responsible for confronting the aftermath of the Great Recession, high youth unemployment, the effects of climate change, terrorism, energy sustainability, and more. These dark events have undoubtedly made this generation more cautious and pragmatic, but they have also provided this generation with the inspiration to change the world – and their grit will likely allow them to do it.

Coming of age during disruption means that most Zs will be comfortable being the disruptors. While Millennials tend to be collaborative and innovative, this generation tends to be sincere, reflective, thick-skinned, and self-directed, and will likely approach work in much the same way.

Zs were raised to be competitive

In the era following World War II, Boomers (1946-1964) were born and eventually became the wealthiest, most prosperous generation in history. Raised to aspire for the American Dream, this very large generation moved into positions of power and influence, and served as the workforce majority for 34 years.

With the American Dream alive and well, Boomers had no reason to teach their children, mostly Millennials, about competition. Instead, they taught them to focus on academic achievement and to be team players because if everyone works hard, everyone can win.

Enter Generation X (1965-1981). In contrast Boomers, Xers came of age during a time when change and economic and political uncertainty began to take root. They have lived through four recessions, struggled with debt and economic decline most of their lives, and watched the best educated and accomplished generation of all time (Millennials) graduate during the Great Recession and become the most debt-ridden generation in history.

Gen Xers can be defined by their independence and anti-status quo approach to life, and they have taught their Gen Z children to be competitive, believing only the best can win. They have encouraged their children to be realists, finding something they are good at and aggressively pursuing it.

Xers have raised their Zs with an intense focus on competitiveness -- in academics, sports, and other activities. This approach to parenting has many implications, but one stands out in terms of business: Gen Z is likely to lead.

Millennials in the workplace created and aggressively advocated for collaborative work environments. In fact, their aversion to leadership has been so strong, some Millennials sought out companies that boasted boss-free or team-managed workplaces.

In contrast, Zs have been raised with an individualistic, realistic, and competitive nature. They have been taught the skills to successfully defy the norm. This means we’re going to see the pendulum shift away from collaborative workplaces towards a widespread demand for, and pursuit of, leadership development.

Zs are career-focused.

While Millennials have been criticized for their “delayed adulthood”, Gen Z is showing signs of “early adulthood”. Educators and parents often describe this generation as being more serious and contemplative about the world. Zs are thinking about their career paths and exposing themselves to career training at an earlier age than Millennials. It’s probable that some of this early onset of adulthood is caused by parents, who are pressuring their children to be competitive and successful and to avoid the debt that plagued both the Gen Xers and Millennials.

The numbers from our global research found 46% of Gen Z said they know what career to pursue and 51% have taken a class at school focused on their career interests. Forty percent joined an extracurricular program (team, club) based on their career interests.

Zs are seeking financial security. 

Zs have been shaped by the aftermath of the Great Recession. They watched Millennials become debt-ridden and are concerned about falling into the same trap. XYZ University’s survey results show 66% of Zs said financial stability is more important than doing work they enjoy, which is the exact opposite of Millennial survey results.  Also, 71% of survey-takers have a paying job.

Zs value leaders who are positive and trustworthy.

When presented a list of leadership traits, Zs ranked positive and trustworthy the highest. While Millennials and Gen Zs both value trust in a leader, Millennials usually cite collaboration and vision as most important. In other words, Millennials focus on the outcomes leaders inspire, whereas Zs are more likely to consider leaders’ attitudes and personalities. To Z, what leaders encourage others to do isn’t as valuable as how they make them feel.


Zs want to be challenged.

Both Millennials and Gen Zs place a very high value on feeling challenged and appreciated in the workplace. However, according to our survey results Millennials rank appreciation slightly higher than challenge, whereas Zs rank feeling challenged slightly higher than appreciation.

Time will tell how Zs go down in history, but we know this generation’s influence on history will be unlike any other.


Does your organization have what it takes to engage the next generation? Take this quiz to find out.


Sarah Sladek is CEO of XYZ University. Our generational intelligence can assist you with engaging and retaining young talent and members.

Sarah Sladek

Concerned about declining engagement in our nation’s membership associations, non-profits, and workplaces, Sarah Sladek founded XYZ University, the nation’s first and only generations-focused training and engagement strategy company, in 2002.

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