Cutting through Gen Z

March 5, 2021

Let’s roll up our sleeves to create a youth-friendly employment landscape

By: UNDP Maldives Accelerator Team - Fernando Galindo, Research and Innovation Lead, Khadeeja Hamid, Head of Solutions Mapping, Fathimath Lahfa, Head of Exploration, and Hussain Rasheed, Head of Experimentation. 

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The Digital Natives

Born between 1995 and 2012, today’s young adults, or popularised as Gen Z members, are increasingly touted as a new breed of labour or radically different from the previous generations, owing to their attitudes towards work, life, leisure, and how they view each other.  Gen Z members are also referred to as digital natives because they have little or no memory of the world as it existed before the revolution brought on by the internet and the advent of “smart-technology” and the world wide web. They are coming of age in a time when information is becoming increasingly freely shared and where one-click online purchasing and social media omnipresence are taken for granted, at least in industrialized countries. Moreover, others are coming of age during a pandemic exposing them to uncertainties unimaginable during their parents’ or grandparents’ time.

The 2014-2054 Maldives population projection study undertaken by the UNFPA and National Bureau of Statistics, shows increasing and high numbers of young population among the working-age population. In 2020, the Maldivian youth population aged 18-34 (considering the nation’s definition of youth) was forecasted to account for 43 percent of the total population while the same figure for the youth aged 15-24 (considering the UN’s definition of youth) was 17 percent (National Bureau of Statistics, 2020). Therefore, the role and the impact of Gen Z on every sphere of life will be imminent in the coming decades.

In this blog, we bring you the insights from our exploratory sessions with people who have been working in Human Resources (HR) and recruitment for many years.

How are employers catering to Maldivian Gen Z?

Understanding the ‘tech-youth’

Aminath Shaly, who has been in the tourism industry for more than twenty years and is also an HR professional, recalled a very unusual moment in her encounter with a Gen Z interviewee very recently on a recruitment day. “The first question that the individual asked was if there was free Wi-Fi in the resort for staff that could be accessed from mobile phone.”

A single question like the one asked by the young job seeker to Shaly can signal multiple signs for reflection. The concern of this job seeker goes beyond free and convenient access to wireless digital networks. It is about the inherent inseparability between the digital and the social. The role of the employers in synchronising their HR policies to the attributes of the digital natives was very well echoed in Azza Ali Rauf’s words who heads the HR department of Waste Management Corporation Limited (WAMCO)- she says “today’s young employees are the tech-youth and employers must genuinely provide opportunities for these young people to use and interact with technology in the work environment.”

It is more than just a handsome salary

WAMCO was exemplary in the way it transformed waste collection in the capital city of Male’. Before taking over the waste management function of the Male’ region, waste collection and dumping were taken care of by expatriate workers who loaded up their bicycles with domestic waste and transported the waste to the dumping ground for a small fee.

Today Azza can proudly say that more than 80 percent of waste collection workers are locals with more than 35 percent of them being young people aged between 18-35. Across the country, the story of WAMCO’s local waste collectors was seen as an exemplary success story.

Azza made it clear that when it came to long-term staff retention, a handsome salary alone did not do the trick. Instead, what worked was innovative HR policies. “If you want your organisation to thrive, you need to evolve with the society and the young generation brings with them a new outlook to the conventional notions of employment and the workplace,” Azza explained.

Azza also delightfully explained how the youngest employees are using technology in their work and how the management supports such self-initiatives. “Our young waste collectors in Hulhumale’[1] actively engage with mobile applications to navigate the shortest routes and to create their combinations of neighbourhoods to achieve the daily target within the shortest time. We continue to encourage such productive use of technology and do not fuss about how they spend the time-saved, be it indulging in casual chats with co-workers or grabbing a coffee with their friends during the working shift.” 

Employers need to evolve with Gen Z

Shahida Ahmed, who has been in the HR field for more than 15 years and heads the HR department of Maldives Water and Sewerage Company (MWSC) talked about the urgent need to tackle toxic workplace practices like general hostility towards creativity and flexibility that de-motivate young employees to thrive in an organisation. She alluded to the steps taken by MWSC to accommodate flexible work arrangements like work-from-home modalities and flexitime even before the COVID-19 pandemic. Shahida highlighted the positive effects on working mothers who were able to make the best use of these arrangements to balance their jobs and domestic responsibilities. For her, these reforms open many opportunities for the organization by being able to retain key female staff and providing them with the motivation that they need to be more productive. Shahida also talked about the internship opportunities provided by MWSC that help build work experience and skills needed to become better employees in the future.

Shaly also expressed her concerns about the lack of innovative HR policies and visionary long-term human resource planning in the tourism sector. She acknowledged the increased opportunities for education and training in the field of tourism, however, within the industry, especially in tourist resorts, there is a lack of effective succession mechanisms for locals to progress in the job structure. Shaly also directed us to the lack of initiatives to facilitate flexible work modalities in the tourism sector. According to her “there are certain jobs in resorts that can be done remotely, however, there is a general lack of commitment to facilitating remote working and other flexible work arrangements. There is both the need and potential for innovative workplace practices if we want to increase young people’s, especially young women’s participation in the tourism sector.”   

Some things cannot be taken for granted

At this point, it is worth incorporating some insights that foregrounded areas where Gen Z is falling short and therefore cannot always be taken for granted. For Shaly, Gen Z is confident, opinionated, clearly expresses themselves on what they want, and they actively seek information by digital means from multiple sources. However, sometimes they fall short in areas like professional presentations in the work environment, time management, are too fast or too ambitious and they live online. Drawing from her experience as an educationalist and as a recruiter, Mariyam Shifana, believes youth today needs vast improvement in resume and cover letter writing techniques, interview etiquettes and resilience at the workplace. For her, the role of educators and the education system are seminal in enhancing these skills and techniques in young people. The continuing impacts of COVID-19 on a rising remote workforce and subsequent shifts in the ways that we work with each other have called for renewed efforts to develop and enhance soft skills.

This impact was highlighted by the Rapid Livelihood Assessment, commissioned by the Ministry of Economic Development, and the Government of Maldives, with support from UNDP Maldives: the impact of COVID-19 on employment was immediate and widespread, with the tourism sector being the first to absorb the economic shock from the crisis. Moreover, groups most vulnerable to facing early employment loss included young people. “It is critical that young people and women are not kept out of businesses or opportunities for future jobs, as a result of the COVID-19 impact,” said Akiko Fujii, UNDP Resident Representative in the Maldives.

Photo: Shan Ahmed

Walking hand-in-hand with Gen Z

As the country is watching with trepidation to see how the pandemic unfolds, it is crucial that the stories of Gen Z members are heard and measures are taken to ensure that they are supported, guided, and empowered to sustain their livelihoods. Only then, can the country extract their creative might and unleash the intellectual curiosity in them. The post-lockdown reopening of the borders has created an exciting and unique opportunity to revive the Maldivian economy. Therefore, the time is ripe to explore policy suites that increase the motivation and confidence of young job seekers through systemic interventions in the employment landscape. Future interventions that seek to build a motivated and industrious young workforce will be futile without genuine efforts to build and maintain core skills that can help in the work environment, throughout one’s life. Holistic approaches that create, develop, and enhance school-based, out-of-school, and workplace-based interventions to promote developing soft skills among adolescents and young adults are necessary, more than ever if we are to empower our youth.

A big thank you to Aminath Saliya (Shaly) Chief Human Resources Officer, Human Capital Support Maldives (HCSM), Shahida Ahmed, Manager-Human Resource, MWSC, Azza Ali Rauf, Manager-Human Resources, WAMCO and Mariyam Shifana, Director, EQUIP Learning Academy.

[1] The city of Hulhumale’ was developed through the conjuring up of land from a lagoon situated in Hulhule’, the international airport of the Maldives. As Hulhumale’ was reclaimed and developed as an extension of Male’City, located in Hulhule’ lagoon, a combined name-Hulhumale’ was coined.