Author Mark Richards

Millennials no longer want the ‘job for life’ their parents wanted – and employers are having to come up with ever-more tempting perks to attract the top talent. But is that necessarily a good thing? Or does it have sinister overtones?

Right now it would be very easy to see the glass as half-empty. In fact, cancel that. Right now it would be easy to see the glass as empty. As we wrote a few weeks ago, the debt problems of young people are getting worse and worse. Inflation has risen to 3% – its highest level for five years – and wages are struggling to keep up. The OECD has said that if we do not reverse Brexit we will be back living in the Middle Ages and negative equity is once again rearing its ugly head in the housing market…

So let me turn my attention to something cheerful. The perks of the job. The increasing tendency for companies to be more and more imaginative with the perks they offer their staff and – with the ‘war for talent’ being fought ever more fiercely – the carrots they dangle to attract the top talent.

The word ‘perk’ is a shortened form of ‘perquisite,’ a word which originated in the 15th Century and meant a ‘privilege, gains or profit’ incidental to regular salary or wages – so in Bob Cratchit’s case, a lump of coal.

And in the old days ‘perks’ followed a strict corporate hierarchy – you would work your way steadily up the ladder – your own space, your own office, an office with a carpet, a corner office, until the great day finally arrived. You were handed the key to the executive washroom. Sadly, it did probably mean that your next ‘perk’ was the gold watch…

What do people want at work?

Accountancy firm Deloittes has predicted that ‘millennials’ – those born between 1980 and 1999 – will make up 75% of the global workforce by 2025. They are the largest generational age group to emerge since the ‘baby boomers.’ But in contrast to the boomers who, as they made their way steadily towards the executive washroom, were motivated only by job security and a steadily increasing pay cheque, millennials want very different things from a job.

Rather than a ‘job for life,’ several studies have suggested that millennials value a good work/life balance: that they want both a job and a sense of purpose. This means that employers are being forced to change remuneration packages and working practices to attract the best people from this generation. “Millennials are known to be more purpose-driven,” said Nathan Blecharcyzk, co-founder of Airbnb. “So we’re always communicating what our values are and trying to be true to those things.”

Here come the perks

…And, in the case of Airbnb, offering some spectacular perks.

The firm was voted ‘best company to work for’ in 2016 and it may be that its very generous perks play a part in that: Airbnb gives its US employees a yearly allowance of up to $2,000 (just over £1,500) to stay in any of its properties around the world.

Foreign travel has long been used as a reward for hitting targets – especially in areas like direct sales and recruitment – but there is one thing that employees might value even more – time.

Work when you feel like it

How about unlimited, paid vacations? This is an idea pioneered by Netflix who say, “Our vacation policy is take a vacation. We do not have any rules around how many weeks per year.”

Networking site LinkedIn offers its staff a similar perk, which it claims gives them “more flexibility and a sense of empowerment.” And when Sir Richard Branson heard about the idea he decided to copy it. Virgin Management – the investment and brand licensing part of his empire – brought in unlimited leave in 2014. Sharon Pomells, the operations director at Virgin, said the idea had – unsurprisingly – received “a great reaction” from staff.

The perks of the job

What about smaller companies?

Only a fraction of the people who work for Virgin – around 180 – work for Virgin Management. The idea has not been rolled out to the rest of the company yet – and following the Ryanair debacle, we can be fairly sure it will never be rolled out to the pilots…

And most of us are in a similar situation. We work for companies where unlimited time off and paid-for holidays are simply unrealistic. That does not though, mean we cannot enjoy more flexible working and the ability to work from home – something which millennials emphatically do want as they look for that elusive work/life balance.

Maybe we should all bring our dogs to work? Dogs are a regular feature in the office for 8% of UK employees, with tech firms and pet-food companies the most likely to offer the perk. Dogs in the office apparently reduce stress and encourage co-operation. Google is famously pro-dog and even mentions the fact in its code of conduct. “We’re a dog company, so as a general rule we feel any cats visiting our offices would be fairly stressed out…”

But is there a downside to all these perks?

Dr Sandi Mann is a senior psychology lecturer at the University of Central Lancashire. “I have spoken to people whose companies provide amazing perks,” she said. “Meals, healthcare, even alcohol if they had a party at home. But the downside is that they feel ‘owned’ by the company. They start to have less and less of a life ‘outside’ and work can become all-consuming.

And unlimited holidays sound wonderful: almost too good to be true. Writing for the World Economic Forum, Dr Travis Bradbury said, “Freedom gives people such a strong sense of ownership and accountability that, like many business owners, they may end up taking no holiday at all.”

If you think this has eerie echoes of The Circle – the recent book/film about an all-powerful tech company – you might be right. Nathan Blecharcyzk of Airbnb also said, “We’re constantly trying to create an environment where our employees can be totally comfortable and where they actually want to hang out after work.”

The italics are mine. I am not a senior psychology lecturer and I am not the billionaire boss of Airbnb, but there have to be dangers in an employer taking over your life. Is offering to freeze an employee’s eggs – as Facebook and Apple do – really a benefit?

Common sense suggests that employees also need a life outside work. “Too much of a good thing,” as your Grandma used to say – whether it is the perks of the job, time in the office or some slightly Orwellian medical benefits…