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Monday August 03, 2015

Engaging Millennials and Generation Y in Consumer Product Safety: Developing Your Next Generation of Leaders

Anne Mulcahy, the former chairperson of the Xerox Corporation once said about succession planning in business: ‘one of the things we often miss in succession planning is that it should be gradual and thoughtful, with lots of sharing of information and knowledge and perspective, so that it's almost a non-event when it happens’.


Consumer product safety is a dynamic and ever-changing area of work, bringing together experts from a range of fields including government, law, public policy, business and many more. New and emerging technologies such as 3D printing are developing rapidly; affording businesses with opportunities to innovate, and challenging governments to develop regulatory approaches that protect consumers without stifling innovation.


In addition to planning for the emergence of new technologies, the global community of consumer product safety stakeholders should also plan for their most important future asset – their next generation of leaders. With Generation Y or ‘millennial’ workers increasingly entering the workforce, and older workers contemplating the next stages in their lives, organisations should have a plan to replenish their workforces to ensure a smooth and seamless transfer of corporate knowledge. By understanding the millennial generation, what makes us tick and how to attract and engage us in the workplace; organisations can develop and nurture their future generation of leaders.


Who are millennials and what makes us tick?


Whilst the ‘official’ demographic definition Generation Y is someone born between 1980 and 2000, a useful guide, at least in a work context is to consider an employee aged 30 years or under. One of the keys to effectively managing your millennial workforce is understanding the mix of factors that have influenced our perceptions about work, life, family and society.


Millennials grew up in an age of fast-changing technology, including superfast internet, smartphones and social media, which has exposed us to unprecedented access to information and news at our fingertips. Social media has given us a level of interconnectedness with the world that means we see things from a broad and global perspective.


Dan Zak writing in the Washington Post recently reported that over 70 million square feet of vacant office space exists in the Washington DC region, mainly in suburban ‘business parks’ as organisations respond to millennial workers who seek work in metro-friendly urban city areas. Zak writes that ‘younger generations don’t want to be stranded in a Dilbert cartoon. They want cozy nooks and nap spaces, walkable commutes, the tastes and conveniences of the city1.


A study by the University of North Carolina (UNC) business school in 2012 describes the millennial generation as the ‘collaborators’, whilst the baby boomer and Generation X are described as the ‘cowboys’. The UNC study argues that misunderstandings can arise in the workplace between the cowboys and collaborators as the former have the tendency to take an ‘individualistic approach to life and work’, whilst the latter seek more collaboration and team-based projects, and whose desires and interactions beyond those of the their employer can be interpreted by the cowboys as a lack of dedication or loyalty 2.


Although our childhood experiences may be different to that of our parents, and older colleagues, what millennials seek from their careers in terms of an income, interesting and challenging work, the chance of professional development and a sense of personal fulfilment, are not dissimilar from previous generations’.


Millennials and young professionals in the workforce


Public sector organisations and government agencies will often have reporting requirements on the makeup of their workforces and provide a useful benchmark to consider employment in a broader context. Available data indicates that the proportions of young people employed in public sector organisations generally is falling to low levels; a trend being seen globally.


According to the Wall Street Journal “...the percentage of [US Federal Government] employees under the age of 30 hit an eight-year low of 7% in 2013…compared with about 25% for the private-sector workforce. Back in 1975, more than 20% of the federal workforce was under 30” 3.


In the United Kingdom, a study by McKinsey found that “…the [UK] civil service also faces a significant demographic and workforce planning challenge: almost 40 percent of civil servants are over 50 and less than 10 percent are under 30” 4


Similarly in Australia, approximately 12% of employees in the Australian public service are aged under 30 5.


By some estimates, it is predicted that by 2020, millennials will make up nearly half of the general global workforce.


Engaging Millennials and Generation Y in consumer product safety


In this context, it is encouraging to see a new rigour in the consumer product safety and standards community about the need to identify and engage young professionals. The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) has for example taken a leading role in engaging young people through the ISO Academy, a dedicated hub of resources and materials intended for training up the next generation of standards experts.


Australia’s peak voluntary standards development body, Standards Australia, runs the Young Leaders Program, an innovative and once-of-its-kind initiative which brings together young professionals from different industry sectors. I was a member of the third annual Young Leader intake in 2014/15 and used the opportunity to build not just a better understanding of the issues and challenges of standardisation, but also to build a network of other professionals in the industry.


Consumer product safety can be a complex area of work; inherently involving the management of sensitive matters of policy, risk and relationships. As a Gen Y worker, I’m learning new things every day from my older, more seasoned colleagues; value the guidance and mentoring they provide, and in turn, hope to impart in them the fresh perspective of a Generation Y worker.


When people ask me about my work, I give two simple reasons of what is great about working in consumer product safety:

  • Making a genuine contribution to the wellbeing of society by improving the safety and welfare of consumers and industry; and


  • Working in a career with endless possibilities – in a range of industries working with a range of inspirational and motivated people with unsurpassed international opportunities.


These are two messages which unsurprisingly speak to the core of Generation Y, our values and our professional ambitions – a desire to contribute to the greater society; seeking collaboration, team work and mentoring; and opportunities to work internationally. Such a message should form the key plank of any consumer product safety recruitment pitch to prospective young workers.


Where to from here?


Every organisation has (or should have) a clear workforce planning and succession strategy. Rapid technological advancements are changing the way organisations in consumer product safety communicate, engage and do business. In addition to technological change, organisations should also be prepared for generational shifts in their workforce, as older workers stay in the workforce longer, and younger workers are recruited. The key to effectively managing your millennial and Generation Y workforce is understanding the unique environment and factors that have influenced our views on life and work.


Good transition and succession planning can ensure that years of corporate knowledge does not walk out the door and is seamlessly transferred to the next generation of leaders so that, in Mulcahy’s words, the transition to the next generation is almost a non-event when it happens.



Abhi Suresh is a Policy Officer at the Australian Competition & Consumer Commission (ACCC). In 2015, he was recognised as a Standards Australia Young Leader.


Author’s note: The views expressed are the author’s own and are not intended to represent the views of the ACCC or the Australian Government.



1 See Dan Zak, ‘The old suburban office park is the new American ghost town’, Washington Post, 20 July 2015


2 See Jessica Brack, ‘Maximizing millennials in the workplace’ University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler Business School


3 See Rachel Feintzeig, ‘U.S. Struggles to Draw Young, Savvy Staff’ Wall Street Journal, June 10, 2014


4 See report of Mckinsey & Co ‘World Class Government: Transforming the UK public sector in an era of austerity: five lessons from around the world


5 Statistics from Australian Public Service Commission