In the next week, thousands of people will start work for the first time – their first real jobs post school or university. And we’re going to need to make a whole lot of space, because they’re more than ready.

For the last few months, we’ve been working on the future of work, creating Strategic Workforce Plans to ensure some really cool clients are ready. Not ‘we need people with soft skills’ or ‘we need more tech skills’ platitudinal sort of ready, but actually getting really thoughtful beyond skills, and looking at culture (including leadership) and the actual structure of work and the way its organised.

Amongst those plans, we’ve dug deep with the next generation in the workforce and listened intently. Every time we interviewed, or focus group’ed, or asked, the next generation what they expect of work, we’ve heard the same things, and it’s really got us thinking.

Who is the next generation?

This is the group that we’ve always referred to as ‘digital natives’, and laboured some stupid old anecdote about how ‘my ten year old helped me set up Netflix’ or build a website. But beyond the ‘tech’, as a generation, they’ve experienced a whole lot more as shared experience, and it’s creating a very different – and very impressive – set of expectations.

You see this generation, isn’t familiar with the old ways of working, so they don’t seek them and they certainly won’t miss them. If we had to narrow down the big shared experiences that are shaping them into something very special, it would be these things:

  1. Big problems, and a determination to solve them
  2. A finely tuned ‘spidey sense’ for seeking truth
  3. A sense of humour when dealing with things that aren’t real
  4. An extraordinary capacity for ambiguity and flexibility
  5. A pragmatism that it may, in fact, be up to them, and if so, they will need to be ‘all in it together’

Let’s look at them one by one, and think a little about how each will impact work.


  1. Big overwhelming problems, and a determination to solve them


This generation has only known big problems. Born post September 11, the climate crisis is the probably the biggest challenge, but they equally only know a globally connected world where ‘patriots’ (under any number of flags) are trying to ‘unglobalise’ their specific branch of the global family, despite it clearly be impossible to ‘fence off’ (or wall off) your share of the world’s oceans or atmospheres. They’ve only known massive wealth divides, and had gazillions of data points at their fingertips to understand every issue.

What does it mean to work and expectations?

It means they intend to do the things that need to be done. Even the really hard stuff.

We asked one young environmental scientist, “What do you want to achieve in your working life?” The answer – “I want to fix a forest or a river system so that my children can enjoy nature”. How’s that for an ambition!

We asked a film-maker the same question. The answer – “I want to tell a story that connects people and even if just two people see my film, one of them will feel it”. And most impressive? The environmental scientist looks at the film-maker and says “You will so do that!” and the film-maker without hesitation says “Maybe it will be about your forest”, and they both smile. When you’re solving big problems, you get that Art and Science and Humanity are all part of the same solution.


  1. A finely tuned ‘spidey sense’ for seeking truth

I can’t remember how old she was when my daughter scoffed at me ‘googling’ and taking the top answer. “Mum, really! The top five answers are all just paid ads. Go down the page a bit for more real research papers, and proper thinking”. (I think she rolled her eyes).

And there’s the shared experience. They’ve only known big tech, selling data, and big media, selling ‘eyeballs’. They’ve only known social media being manipulated by algorithms and social networks that promote their own members to prominence. So, they rarely watch the news on TV, read mainstream papers, or take ‘Twitter’ seriously.  Instead, they have alerts on research announcements. They cross-reference ‘facts’. They ‘don’t trust’ until they’ve done their own homework.

 What does it mean to work and expectations?

Well, the PR machines that run so many corporate brands, may be in trouble. Any speech a leader makes, will need to backed up by ten pieces of behaviour demonstrating its not just a speech. First impressions will be doubted, until they’re proven. Trust will be earned, not granted.

And that’s a very different type of leader. Charisma is fine, but authenticity over time, will patiently build trust.


  1. A sense of humour when dealing with things that just aren’t real.

This generation has heard all the news about business and AI and how everything automated is amazing. And they’ve also sent out two hundred resumes, and never got a single response. If you want to see them laugh out loud, ask them how ‘recruitment really works’. They know you get jobs and opportunities by hassling, hustling and who you know. They don’t need anyone’s research paper on the flaws of meritocracy, because they never thought it was real anyway.

And this brings us to memes. Want to connect a generation globally? Send them a meme that mocks ‘big’ anything. Power, built purely on scale, is so unimpressive. It’s all about purpose and impact.

What does it mean to work and expectations?

There’s a robustness to meme humour. They share a common human experience and they’re ok with a lack of perfection. In fact, its perfection that gets them laughing out loud. Talking about your ideas for a diversity strategy, or your social responsibility will be pointless unless you’re actually making a difference and the impact is genuine. If not, expect a meme, or ten, to head your way.


  1. An extraordinary capacity for ambiguity and flexibility

This generation has only known change – large scale, fast and constant.

There’s a comfortableness with ambiguity and a very open conversation around anxiety and how to best support each other. There’s an expectation and an acceptance, and very little frustration, that things are often grey.

What does it mean to work and expectations?

There’s a perspective around change, and comfort with massive change, that may well mean that any over-managed change plan (e.g., rules about how office space works, or who can sit with who for collaboration, or how many days are week are the policy), will have a very hard time getting cut-through. Give people the facts, let them know where you’re headed, and trust that they’re resilient and open enough to get themselves to a better space fast. Don’t over-manage or manipulate people. After all, they are very very used to change. It isn’t a big deal.


  1. A pragmatism that it may, in fact, be up to them, and if so, they will need to be ‘all in it together

Everyone in this generation wants to play a big game. To solve big problems, adjust to big change, deal with complexity at scale –and they’ll need to.

You often hear people scoff about ‘overconfidence’ or ‘being too big for their boots’, but they’ve got to be.

Anyone who is playing a small game – or worse still, trying to look bigger by diminishing or restricting others from being their best, will find themselves alone. Good teams are about everyone being great – lifting each other up. This generation has been working in teams and learning in teams all their lives.

What does it mean to work and expectations?

From Day 1 every person will be ready to step up and be trusted to play their role. They appreciate they’re just one person, but they know that every person will need to be on their game to get it done. They like hanging next to people who are playing big too.


And so…

From next week a group of these newbies will arrive to work with you.

They’re purpose-driven, ready to solve big problems, comfortable with extraordinary levels of data and information, expect ambiguity and flexibility, and are excited about playing their role.

Have you made enough space? Are you ready to rethink the way you’ll work together?

I’ve got a sneaking suspicion that ‘all roles flex’, hotdesking and diversity cup-cakes might not get it across the line.