During busy periods, 22-year-old Lizzy Gaskin might arrive in the office at 8am and leave at 9pm. She is the person who at the end of the day, “when everybody is still swamped with work”, will ask if there is anything she can do to help her colleagues.
Happily Gaskin’s commitment has paid off – after three and a half years at Right Angle, an events business she joined as an admin assistant, she was recently made a director of the company. “Luckily the company I work for really does show appreciation for us,” she says.
Gaskin isn’t the only young person putting in some serious hours to further her career. Flying in the face of age-old stereotypes of young people as lazy and entitled, the 16-to-24 age group is working longer hours than any other, according to a recent survey.
The survey, which questioned more than 1,000 UK office workers on how much overtime they do, found that on average 16-to 24-year-olds clock up an extra seven hours and 22 minutes each week, two hours more than office staff aged over 55. The results also show that 11% of 16- to 24-year-olds work more than 20 hours overtime each week.
“Younger people get a bad press, with many misconceptions about them being workshy with a sense of entitlement,” says Ciaron Dunne, chief executive of Office Genie, which commissioned the survey. “Teens and those in their early to mid-twenties have plenty of get up and go and determination to put in the hours.”
Bev White, managing director of people management business Penna Consulting, is not surprised by the survey results, calling this age group the “always on” generation – they are constantly connected to work through their smartphones and digital devices. “In general it’s more competitive for young people to get jobs. People are trying to prove themselves because of that ‘always on’ mentality,” she says. “That generation more than any other is the most [digitally] connected.”
With employment opportunities for young people still thin on the ground, employees might be tempted to make themselves available 24/7, but this is not necessarily good for business. “In order for us to be productive in our free time, not just in our working lives, we need to have time off,” White says. “It makes good business sense if you have mentally and physically healthier people working in your organisation.”
Proponents of a shorter working week point out that extra desk time doesn’t necessarily translate to better productivity. According to a Stanford University study (pdf), productivity typically drops after 50 hours of work – someone who works 70 hours achieves no more than someone who works 55.
Having a more flexible approach to working hours might help achieve a better work-life balance, says Ingrid Waterfield, a director in KPMG’s People Powered Performance team, which addresses clients’ workforce issues.
“It is important for managers to be given the right training and understanding of what their teams need to achieve across a long-term period. It might be that for certain periods of time they do have to work longer hours, but they need to ensure that individuals have time off,” she says.
This more agile approach could help, especially as “work-life balance is important to this age group”, says Waterfield. According to research by Penna, nearly one in three 18- to 24-year-olds said achieving a work-life balance was their long-term ambition. “It is one of the things they consider as key when they look at the work they are going to pursue and who they are going to work for,” she says.
Young people are likely to feel more pressure to impress, but encouraging your team to take mini breaks throughout the day is one way of making sure they don’t become too tied to their desks. “When you are starting a role and wanting to prove yourself, you are willing to put in the hours,” says Waterfield.
However the world of work is changing, with the younger generation “very comfortable slipping between private and work life throughout their day”, White says. “They have their mobile smartphones and iPads, and they can work anywhere.”
While this makes it difficult for businesses to accurately measure how much overtime employees are working, it doesn’t mean they shouldn’t take steps to ensure they have a happy, healthy workforce.
Smaller businesses may feel they lack the resources to focus on wellbeing, but steps such as encouraging people to go for a walk during their lunch break, or offering a discounted gym membership, will support employees’ physical and mental wellbeing, and encourage them to take time away from their desks.
For Gaskin, being given responsibility early on in her career has proved a motivating factor – her first event was a family fun day for 400 people. Her employers also put her through a course on leadership and management, and before long she was managing a small team.
Gaskin says her work ethic comes from a genuine passion for the job, and thinks it’s time we put ageist stereotypes to bed. “People think [young people] are not going to work as hard as others but it is a stereotype that isn’t true anymore. I would always give younger people a chance.”