In Defense of Non-Engagement

“Young employees do not care about business these days,” said a panelist at a business luncheon I recently attended. “They only care about their free time, their vacation, and their friends. They are not engaged in business. They are only engaged with online chit-chat.”

I knew I needed to respond, but I needed to get my facts straight first.   I disengaged for a while from the discussion and texted my friend, “Wow, I need data.”

According to the 2009 -2010 Gallup’ State of Global Workplace Study (2010) conducted among 47,000 employees in 120 countries, almost three quarters of global workers are not engaged and 11% of them are actively disengaged.  Gallup determines engagement by series of questions aimed at understanding how employees relate to their workplaces.  Even though there are regional differences, the results reveal the pattern of engagement, or perhaps lack of engagement, employees well being and outcomes of economic activities that holds across geographies.  Why should we care about those who do not show passion for business? Because in the limited pool of global talent, engagement predicts productivity, growth, development, creativity; engaged employees predict success for the business.

Does that panelist have a point about disengagement?

Let’s dig a bit deeper. When it comes to decoding demographics, the subsequent 2011 Gallop survey data offer some insight.

As perhaps expected:

  • Less education is correlated with less engagement
  • Females tend to be more engaged then males (33%/27%)

What is less expected when it comes to engagement is:

  • Analyses by income show no straightforward correlation: both low-earners,  among them young, starting employees,  and high earners are more engaged than their middle-earners counterparts;
  • Analyses by age reveal another non-linear relationship. The most engaged employees are those over 65 years old at 44% followed by the youngest employees, 18-29 years old at 32%. The youngest employees are actually more engaged then their mid-career colleagues.

In response to the panelist, I submit that there is far more than simply the age of employees that determines engagement in business. Younger employees can be and are more passionate in business then their more experienced colleagues. They may express their views in less traditional ways, but they can be far more avid supporters of what matters to them.

A lot matters to these young workers, but perhaps not in a traditional worldview.  Companies as Toyota or Starbucks have figured out what excites young employees, what releases passion and commitment.  And such companies thrive on this energy. These companies grow faster than their counterparts, actually four times faster as well documented by Earning-per-Share analysis of Gallop Global Workplace study.

Among values that matter to employees all around the world are respect, significance of work and dignity. Although results of the Gallop Global Workplace differ somewhat geographically, the trends are the same for developing and developed counties.  The quality of the workplace is often more important than company policies.  A quest for dignity, respect and hope universally define engaged employees.

And yes, young employees care about the big 3S values: about Sustainability, Social Responsibility, Ethical Sourcing.  Business acknowledges that by offering young consumers more 3S-frandly brands such as sustainable fair-trade coffee to electronic gadgets manufactured according to fair-labor practices to environmentally friendly cars.  Academia acknowledges the 3S values: t oday just about every business school has a sustainability program.

Triple bottom line is not any more a synonym of “cooking the books”.  Sustainability classes are being introduced into curricula of engineering, fashion design, construction, liberal arts and just about any field of academic or vocational studies.  Employers, looking for talent and energy, create for young employees working environment that underscores meaning of work, positive impact on person’s well being, on environment and community.

But – watch out, young, sometimes naïve employees, value not the business slogans in the company policy statements, but the actual work experience that reflects these values:  meaningful tasks, authentic concern for the environment, and honesty in dealing with people.   They evaluate daily the real impact of their job on their personal development and on contributions to their communities. As much as pay matters for young employees, their decisions are driven by factors beyond weekly paychecks.  And yes, they disengage at an empty policy statements level.

If we can learn to look past the myth of disengaged young employees, we’ll see the extent of their passions. We’ll be surprised by the strength of the messages in their texts and tweets. Perhaps this generation only appears to be disengaged from the system because the system wants to confine them into rigid structures and behaviors that they do not accept.

There is a wealth of talent and creativity that is waiting to be released from today’s so-called disengaged young employees. There is an abundance of energy that waits to be properly channeled. As this young cadre is assuming management posts in global corporations, they are forcing these corporations to reflect upon how their corporations can make the world a better place.  This slogan has a real meaning for young employees, more so then to those, more experienced, those who have been changed by the system.

We do not want these young people to be changed by the system.  We want them to change the system. Young professionals are just doing that, and we should celebrate their progress.

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