South Africa’s ‘Born Free’ generation in the workplace

Wellbeing challenges of Millennials.

No organisation today can claim to be immune to deep shifts in technological, economic, political and the social spheres. One of these important shifts affects the new generation entering the labour market who are eager to have a voice on matters that impact their personal and professional lives. The case is important because literature indicates significant differences in outlook, expectations and work relationships between this and previous generations (Arsenault, 2004; Erickson, 2008; Meister and Willyerd, 2010; Shandler, 2009; Tapscott, 2009). Differences between generational cohorts, among others, include attitudes towards careers, emphasis placed on training and development, and the need for meaningful work (Chartered Institute of Personnel Development, 2016).

In the South African context, this younger cohort is known as the ‘Born Free’ generation (Mattes, 2011) because on one hand they were born after the transition to democracy but on the other, they are also affected by practices of the past. ‘Born Frees’ make up close to 40% of the 56 million people in South Africa, but there is a substantial level of unemployment in this cohort. Among the economically active population only 33% of men and 25% of women have regular employment (Kane-Berman, 2015). One of the consequences of South Africa’s apartheid legacy was an education system that did not provide same levels of quality and access to education across race and class. Horwitz (2013) described the paradox of the South Africa labour market as an overabundance of low skilled employees and a shortage of intermediate and high skilled individuals.

Although the country has one of the highest rates of education expenditures in Africa, around 6.5% of GDP (South African National Treasury, 2015) and, despite gains made in the last 20 years, many pending educational challenges impact the supply of skilled workers to the South African economy necessary to meet the demands of today’s labour-force.

The education system itself is at the root of many problems as it struggles to overcome years of apartheid neglect and dysfunction due to problems with under-funding and poorly trained teachers in racially marginalised sections of the community (Breier 2009; Mattes, 2011).

So today organisations in the private and public-sector face surmounting challenges attracting, motivating and retaining the limited pool of skilled individuals to fill a fast-growing demand for labour. In this environment the participation and contribution of younger high-skilled workers is critical for businesses and organisations that rely on the talent of employees to increase productivity, competitive advantage and organisational sustainability (Lepeley, 2017; Todericiu, Serban & Dumitrascu, 2013). As South African companies are increasingly compelled to become productive to compete in the global economy this implies high reliance on skilled workers able to foster innovation to attain continuous productivity improvement (Lepeley, 2017).

Highly skilled workers in the workplace are a key component to foster national economic development and inclusive societies, and are a condition to meet the national need to compete globally.

However, traditional standards are hard to change. Thompson and Gregory (2012) suggest the management style that influences hiring and retention of this cohort of employee needs to be more flexible to adjust to emerging labour force constituencies to recognise the expectations of skilled young employees entering the labourforce.

This series discusses the challenges of attracting, motivating and retaining graduates of the ‘Born Free’ generational cohort of employees in a working environment struggling with deep change while simultaneously ensuring an organisational culture of encouragement and flexibility necessary to foster wellbeing in the workplace and sustainable development.

Generations in the South African context

Generation is defined as a distinguishable group that “shares birth interval, location and significant life events at critical development stages” (Kupperschmidt, 2000, p. 364).

Mannheim defines the generation concept as, “a cohort of individuals born and raised within the same historical and social context, who share a common worldview” (cited in Lyons et al., 2005, p. 769). Socio-political and cultural events shape boundaries of generational cohorts (Colakoglu & Caligiuri, 2010; Rasch and Kowshe, 2010) and influence attitudes and values of individuals within the group. These values and attitudes affect individual personal and professional lives.

While generational descriptions commonly apply across countries, particular characteristics of generations in developed countries can differ from those of developing countries. South Africa has unique differences due to the apartheid regime that controlled the country between 1948 and the early 1990s because people of different races were affected differently and different generational outlooks exist between black and white South Africans due to different upbringing and experiences.

5. Born Free generation

Table 9.1 shows how Deal et al. (2010) explain differences in generational cohorts in South Africa compared to the USA and the UK (see Table 9.1).

The South African millennials or ‘Born Free’ generation

These terms are used interchangeably in this series.

People born between 1994 and 2000 in South Africa have no memory of the restrictive apartheid structures forced upon previous generations and they live and work without official limitations (Mattes, 2011). While this generation is defined largely as Black due to current demographics, it is believed that young South Africans across the colour line enjoy more in common with each another than previous generations in the country (Martins and Martins, 2010).

As a result of being born outside the limitations of racial segregation, the ‘Born Frees’ cohort is more culturally integrated with others in their generation (Malila, 2015). However, it needs to be acknowledged that the ‘Born Free’ label faces challenges because many think that this name is more aspirational than real and less homogenous than indicated (Maphunye et al., 2014). For the purposes of this discussion, tensions are acknowledged showing this contested term in quotation marks.

Although South Africans in the Millennial Generation have faced a diversity of experiences, they hold similar beliefs around the world, and especially with other individuals in this generation in other developing countries who face similar challenges such as inequality, political instability, financial volatility, high birth rates and similar demography. And from these dimensions they differ from people in the Generation Y in developed countries. For example, a large proportion of skilled employed Black Millennials support their extended families, following cultural expectations. On the other hand, Millennials in South Africa, alike in developed countries, are more proficient in technology than previous generations and use social media collaboratively to solve problems that enable innovation (Burrows, 2013). Millennials are less risk-averse, another factor that may have a positive spinoff for organisations.

Furthermore, in contrast with previous generations, Millennials show a particular proactive attitude towards career paths, emphasising training and development, and need for meaningful work (Kim, Knight and Crutsinger, 2008).

Accenture reports in this organisation young South African employees’ loyalty is selfdirected and they prefer diverse and flexible work arrangements with appropriate salaries (Burrows, 2013). ‘Born Frees’ are more driven by challenging tasks and a desire for new things (Parry et al., 2015). And their diverse approaches to work create new and different challenges with high implications for all kinds of organisations in the private and public sectors.

This series is based on a chapter extracted with permission from the book Wellbeing for sustainability in the workplace, part of the Routledge Human Centered Management series.

Linda Ronnie is an Associate Professor in Organisational Behaviour and People Management at the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Business,

This article appeared in the July 2018 issue of HR Future magazine.

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