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Millennials and the changing world of work

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What will the world of work look like in the future? More flexible and less stable, experts say. Charla Jones / Globe and Mail

Getting your foot in the door has never been easy – at least according to long stories from almost everyone I’ve ever asked. But while millennials aren’t the first generation to have a tough time landing their first big job, they do face a different kind of work world than their parents.

I contacted some employment experts to find out how the work world is evolving – and what I can expect in a career.

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Here are some of the ways that work might change in the future:

It might be more flexible

This is a nice change. According to Ruth Wright, a researcher with the Conference Board of Canada who has studied millennials in the workplace, work-life balance is very important to this age group.

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This doesn’t mean that millennials are lazy. “They are very focused on career,” said Wright.

“What we got from individuals is that they’re prepared to work hard, they’re prepared to work well above a standard 35 hour work week, but what they wanted was a quid pro quo around flexibility. To be able to take the time you need to do to deal with personal, family or whatever.”

What this means is that people might have the ability to take a long lunch to go to the gym or log off for two hours to pick up their kids, and then log back on in the evening for a couple of hours to finish work from home.

As boomers start to retire, she said, Canadian companies will be competing to attract young talent. And one of the ways they might be able to do this is by offering more flexible work hours, as well as more choice in medical benefits.

“The real mantra is flexibility and choice. It’s not so much that you need to throw out more salary dollars or spend more on benefits. It’s more about having choice so that people can access or select those things which are of value to them,” she said.

The workplace culture is also important. “This driver and desire to grow and develop, to constantly be moving forward is a very powerful engagement driver,” said Wright. If a workplace offers training and advancement opportunities, it becomes a much more appealing place to work.

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It might be more temporary

This is the flip side of flexibility – flexibility for the employer.

“We’re also seeing a change in employers’ attitudes: They have this view they don’t want to tie themselves to a position,” said Wayne Lewchuk, a professor at McMaster’s School of Labour Studies.

“I think that’s less and less the view, now, of management. It’s, ‘Let’s maximize the amount of flexibility we have.”

Employers are being “more structured” about how they organize their workforces, said Wright. “I think what we’re seeing is employers will have a core workforce, and a contingent workforce.” In this scenario, the contingent workforce would handle all the tasks that can be outsourced, or would be temporary hires to work on a specific project. This gives employers the flexibility to dial their workforce up and down as necessary depending on their needs, while maintaining a much smaller permanent staff.

This isn’t a big change if you’re on the inside, part of the core. It’s tougher if you’re kept on the outside.

“I do think that the employment relationships are shifting so that it’s hard to break into an employment position where you’re part of that core workforce. You have to earn your stripes,” said Wright.

This could mean a lot more temporary work, which presents certain financial challenges.

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This shift is already happening, albeit slowly. In 1997, the earliest year for which these statistics are available, just over 11 per cent of employees were working in temporary positions. In 2014, that number had grown to over 13 per cent.

“What’s really been increasing is the insecurity of jobs,” said Lewchuk.

MORE: Canadians want work. Why have so many stopped looking?

“Individuals are likely going to have half a dozen or so different positions in their lifetime,” said Scott Hannah, president and CEO of the Credit Counselling Society. “They may work in a number of different industries. So unlike the past, there’s a real need to continually upgrade their skills so that their skill sets are still sought-after as opposed to being caught.”

Lewchuk thinks that training will present a problem in the new economy. “We need trained people, but fewer and fewer employers are providing that. And they’re certainly not providing that to temp workers. If you’re a temp, you may still be doing some training but it’s on your own dime.”

And, dealing with periods of unemployment between temporary jobs requires a cushion, otherwise known as an emergency fund, which should be between three and six months’ worth of expenses.

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“All I control is myself, so therefore having some financial goals, putting money aside for emergencies, is critical when I have those periods when I’m not working,” said Hannah.

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“It’s not a question of will it happen, it’s when’s it going to happen and how often it’s going to happen.”

But stable, predictable income is still important

Constantly shifting, temporary employment doesn’t really jibe with the way expenses currently work, though. You have to pay a mortgage or rent every month in order to have somewhere to live. And it’s hard to sign a lease or a mortgage without proof of employment.

More than that, it’s hard to save for the future when you don’t have a reliable paycheque.

“What do we do about it? We have a whole set of institutions based on the 1970s labour market and we don’t have a 1970s labour market any more. … Employers are just not willing to play that role anymore,” said Lewchuk.

He argued that we need to create a mechanism where people who work multiple short-term jobs – and the people paying them – contribute to a pension plan that’s transferred along with the employee, so that when Gen Y reaches retirement they have something built up.

Wright isn’t sure how the employment relationship will turn out. “It’s evolved a lot and will continue, but we still have basic economics where individuals do need some stable and predictable and high incomes to be able to afford housing and so forth,” she said.

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And stability is important to millennials too. “What we see with this generation is for the most part they want stable employment relationships and careers,” said Wright.

That’s right – people still want stable jobs with a predictable paycheque. Millennials aren’t so different after all.

Tell us your story. Have you had to move into more temporary employment? What do you hope the work world will look like in the future?

Note: We may use your response in this or other stories. While we may contact you to follow up, we won’t publish your contact info.

With files from Anna Mehler Paperny