Generation Y: Do they want to work for you?

Written by
Changeboard Team

11 Feb 2016

11 Feb 2016 • by Changeboard Team

In most GCC countries, Generation Y – those born between 1980 and 1999 – is the single largest demographic group. Take Oman’s ‘youth bulge’ – 32% of its working population is aged between 15 and 24. Yet private-sector organisations struggle to recruit sufficient national talent to meet their needs. The reasons differ: a small indigenous workforce in Qatar means extreme competition for talent; Saudi Arabia is characterised by high unemployment of young nationals with insufficient work skills. Across the GCC, private companies are viewed as less attractive employers than the government sector. 

A case in point is the UAE: only 20,000 (0.5%) of the 4 million Emiratis work in the private sector. 

To maximise national employment, companies need to target Generation Y. Oxford Strategic Consulting’s (OSC’s) research, however, points to a significant disconnect between the motivators of Generation Y nationals and organisations’ employment practices. It is vital that employers know what really attracts and motivates Generation Y and adapt HR practices to reflect these needs.

OSC’s recent research2 highlights significant differences between Generation Y’s motivators and the perceptions of employers. We explore the main findings and implications for companies. 



Employers believe young Qataris are motivated by ‘money’ (75%) and an ‘easy life’ (57%), yet Generation Y members say they are driven by ‘contributing to society’ (46%) and ‘serving the country’ (36%). 

A powerful motivator for Qatari youth is ‘challenge at work’ (48%) and ‘opportunities for development’ (38%), as well as money. Typically, employers respond by providing management training (48%) and development plans (20%), but less than 10% offer technical training, secondments or mentor schemes. One in six fail to provide any development. 

A similar picture exists in the UAE. Both employers and young Emiratis agree that money is important, but employers overestimate its significance (63%), compared with young Emiratis (38%). A quarter of both Generation Y Emiratis and employers agree young people seek an ‘easy life’. For employers, this translates to ‘not having too much to do’, whereas for young Emiratis it means ‘having time to meet family obligations’. However, the top motivator is ‘helping the country’ (41%). Opportunities for challenge and development (37%) are also important. 


Work readiness

Lack of work experience is a major barrier to gaining work in the eyes of employers and students in Qatar and the UAE. A classic catch-22 situation: only 8% of employers in the UAE offer technical training, secondments or mentor schemes to develop young nationals and provide a taste of life in the private sector. Companies can differentiate themselves by offering ‘work readiness’ schemes to help youngsters develop key skills.

Employer value proposition (EVP)

The things that excite high school and university/college students most in Qatar about entering work are increased responsibility (62% and 55%), salary and benefits package (42% and 39%) and seniority of job title (32% and 35%). Professional development opportunities are important to 40% of university/college students.

Employers may be right to think that good packages are important to attracting Generation Y, but they need to provide responsibility and growth opportunities to attract and retain the best. Companies could do more to highlight how their roles contribute to the nation, as well as training and professional development opportunities.

For Generation Y Emiratis, rather than competing with the public sector on short-term salaries, an ‘easy life’ and shorter working hours, employers should emphasise long-term career and development prospects, potential lifetime wealth, and contributing to the country’s economic vision.

Recruitment channels and retention

Generation Y is both e-savvy and relational. Young Qataris and Emiratis use the internet for their job search, but prefer to seek opportunities through personal recommendations from friends, family or key contacts. Employers, however, rely on recruitment fairs and employment agencies. Again, they need to adopt sourcing channels that mirror Generation Y’s behaviours

It is no surprise that employers rely on financial tools to retain young Qataris, such as bonus payments (64%), given their premise that money is a key motivator. But they risk increasing employment costs without addressing the real cause of turnover. Less than 8% of organisations offer professional development programmes to retain people – yet this is a key motivator for young Qataris.

In summary, the influx of youngsters into the workforce calls for an understanding of what Generation Y seeks from work. Organisations must tailor their offering to tap into this talent pool. This need will continue well into the future: Generation Z, born after 2000, is the next largest population in GCC countries after Generation Y.


Sultan Al-Hajji: Vice-president and chief strategy officer, Total E&P UAE

Attracting Generation Y to the oil and gas sector is particularly challenging, due to the dramatic fall in students studying engineering and petroleum disciplines, down from around 10,000 in the 1980s to under half that today. But it is also explained by changing tastes. Al-Hajji explains: “Cyber disciplines are far more appealing to Generation Y. They provide autonomy, empowerment, and the ability to work outside normal workplace confines. They are new and fun.” 

Attracting women remains a challenge. There are more female university graduates than males in many GCC countries, yet women are less economically active. Workplaces have not yet sufficiently evolved to accommodate their social and cultural needs, such as raising a family or offering single-sex environments. Al-Hajji’s view is that part-time working, still rare in the Emirates, could be pivotal in increasing the employment of both women and Generation Y, who want a greater work-life balance.

Core skills development 

Meanwhile, Total works hard to attract and develop Generation Y males who do not want to pursue tertiary education, but need – and want to – work. The Total Abu Al Bukhoosh Academy, established in 2008 and named after one of Total’s oil fields, hires fresh high-school leavers as apprentices each year and develops them in core skills – English, maths, engineering, physics and petroleum disciplines. “After two-and-a-half years, apprentices are ready to become oil field technicians and operators. We’ve had great success. We’re providing a competent workforce to four companies other than Total as part of our contribution to developing Emiratis,” explains Al-Hajji. 

Another Total initiative is Alreyda (‘leadership’ in Arabic). This year the programme encompassed 50 undergraduates, comprising equal numbers of males and females. Al-Hajji says: “Most Arab youngsters are connected only through social media – so we bring together students from across the GCC-MENA for a development programme. We provide coaches and mentors, and access to role models and leaders from all walks of life – eminent academics, business people, even heart surgeons – who share what has made them successful. Students return home with wider horizons and fresh insights, not only into their strengths and aspirations, but economic and social issues, such as sustainable energy sources.” 

Get real with recruits

He believes companies should be realistic about the life span of Generation Y recruits: “The concept of a long-term career in the same organisation is dead. Generation Y will stay with you for three to four years at most. To attract and get the best from them while they’re with you, move them between jobs faster and provide ‘stretch opportunities’ in different disciplines.” 

Al-Hajji states that around 45% of Generation Y do not want to work in traditional, hierarchical companies with command and control management. Rising numbers find greater satisfaction working for small companies or themselves. He continues: “An employee may wear two hats. He may be a junior administrator in the morning while working for you. In the afternoon he may well be chair of his own business. They are entrepreneurs, with talents we aren’t using at work. We need to tap into – and harness – their ideas and creativity. If we pigeonhole Generation Y into rigid organisation boxes, rather than using their strengths, we will drive them away.” 

Al-Hajji concludes: “Generation Y is motivated by personal growth. We’re not training enough. But how can we train people for tomorrow when we don’t know what it holds? The iPhone was not invented by ‘training people’. What an IT student learns in their first year at university is obsolete by the time he graduates. We need to give Generation Y space to be creative and experiment to enable them to excel in the future.”


Mohammed Dubayan: Legal co-ordinator, YJS Legal - UK

A Generation Y Saudi national resident in the UK for the past 10 years, Dubayan explains the challenges his generation faces when starting work. “Many of today’s professional disciplines didn’t exist 20 years ago. Take the digital and e-technology field. Making a career choice about where to specialise can be difficult, especially for students who’ve followed a broad course of study. Academic institutions must evolve to better prepare students for work and accommodate this ever-increasing ‘disciplinarisation’.” 

More people entering the labour market today have degrees than previous generations. “This means both employees’ and employers’ expectations of each other are greater,” he adds. “Many graduates go through intensive academic training at university. They believe they will be welcomed with open arms by employers. They feel entitled to greater recognition, more feedback and better opportunities for progression. Because of this ‘training’, some employers expect more from them than their more experienced, but less academically qualified, co-workers.” 

As for Generation Y’s thirst for development, Dubayan adds: “Many small- and medium-sized organisations do not have the resources to invest in training. They hire experienced people who can get the job done quickly at the expense of growing raw talent. This makes it tougher for Generation Y to get its first step on the career ladder. Larger organisations, on the other hand, will need to maintain mentoring and communication beyond their initial training stages.” 

So what workplaces attract Generation Y? He continues: “Generation Y is less hierarchical. People want a work environment where they can express their opinions and contribute ideas. Being part of a community is important too, preferring companies that offer social networking and development opportunities, as well as addressing wider needs, such as health services and fitness facilities.” 

Dubayan attributes Generation Y’s desire for greater work-life balance to making time to juggle new and different roles: “Women today play multiple roles – home-maker, mother and professional. A couple of decades ago, men primarily had one role – that of key breadwinner. Today they are also ‘hands-on’ fathers. This is down to changes in social expectations and accommodating greater female economic participation.” 

He believes there are differences between Saudi Arabia and Western economies: “In Saudi, Generation Y is more community and family-oriented due to cultural and religious roots. There is also a mismatch between management methods that GCC students are taught at business school and what they may actually experience. The modern business environment is relatively new to Saudi, having emerged over the past 50 years. Private and family businesses still tend to be run on traditional and hierarchical lines, which is at odds with both the business syllabus Generation Y has studied and its desire for greater decision-making, involvement and collaboration. It can also undermine Generation Y’s potential for long-term growth within an organisation. International companies offer modern practices, but they need to do more than just offer larger salaries to tap into the motivators of GCC Generation Y in order to attract them.”