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Opinion: Young Canadians prefer in-person and hybrid work, according to a new report

The stereotypes around young people only caring about being online are rampant but they are worth questioning — or at least being put in context.
A new report from the Youth & Innovation Project at the University of Waterloo sheds light on how young people (15 to 35 years of age) view their work environments.

There is no shortage of hand-wringing about young people and the hours they spend in front of screens. From the U.S. Surgeon General’s recommendation to add a warning label to social media to psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s recent book about the link between time spent online and mental health, concerns about the amount of time young people spend online are at a fever pitch.

Some have made the assumption that, since young people are addicted to their screens, this will translate into their work preferences. If this generation of digital natives prefers screens to real life, then they must want to work remotely too, right?

But our new report from the RBC Young People and Economic Inclusion Longitudinal Study provides a different perspective on how young people (15 to 35 years of age) view their work environments.

Our team at the Youth & Innovation Project at the University of Waterloo found that 37 per cent of 15 to 19 year old Canadians prefer to work entirely in-person, a higher percentage than any other age group.

In addition, 70 per cent of those between the ages of 20 and 24 have a preference for hybrid work — a significantly higher percentage than those older than 24 years of age or younger than 20 years of age.

Studying the employment experiences

Our six-year study (2022-2028), developed in partnership with the RBC Foundation, aims to reveal the trends that are shaping the employment experiences of young Canadians.

As of May 2024, a total of 23,319 young people have opted into this study. However, we have not yet surveyed the vast majority of these people, which means the data presented in this report represents only a small first cohort and is not yet longitudinal.

The data presented was collected between May 15 and Aug. 30, 2023, during which time we received 713 responses from young people.

In order to ensure the study was representative of the Canadian population, we compared the demographic characteristics of the respondents with the respondents of similar age in the Statistics Canada Labour Force Survey.

We found that the first cohort of the longitudinal study is fairly representative of the Canadian population. However, it lacks sufficient participants from Québec, the Northwest Territories, the Yukon and Nunavut. Future efforts will focus on better understanding the youth employment context in these regions as the longitudinal study progresses.

Young people’s preferences

While our study has not yet dug into why young people might prefer to work in-person or hybrid — we will do that in coming years as we begin conducting interviews — our research team has some theories about why this might be the case.

One potential explanation is the isolation students and parents felt during online schooling during the pandemic. Lingering frustration and a resulting continued sense of isolation could be fuelling the desire to return to work in-person.

In coming years, the longitudinal nature of our study will allow us to examine if this trend will continue among new cohorts of young people who were not affected by the pandemic during high school or university.

However, young people’s desire to work in-person might be more than just a reaction to the pandemic. Young people recognize that many important aspects of their early careers, like training and mentorship, can’t be effectively done virtually.

Early jobs teach young people important lessons, like understanding what “business casual” attire means and what topics are appropriate to discuss in meetings with supervisors. These lessons are difficult to learn through a screen and are best learned by being around more experienced employees and being immersed in office culture.

Additionally, it’s also much harder to make friends and form relationships with mentors virtually.

Building successful workplaces

As the world adjusts to a post-pandemic reality, employers who assume young people prefer screens over real-life interactions will miss out on the unique skills of this cohort. In order to fully leverage the abilities of young people, we recommend that employers consider the following:

1. Make in-person work meaningful

Many young people want to work in-person, but that doesn’t mean they want to go into the office to sit on Zoom calls all day with their colleagues who are working from home. As our colleagues at the Work-Learn Institute explain, young people value mentorship and friendships at work.

They want opportunities to have an impact. Employers should ensure that when young employees come to the office, they can take part in meaningful activities they could not accomplish from home. This could include activities like a team brainstorm session for a new project or program.

2. Engage young people in decision-making

Our report also found that Canadians between the ages of 15 and 35 are optimistic about collaborating with decision-makers in the workplace. However, only 28 per cent of them reported having such opportunities.

There is a huge opportunity to engage young people in decision-making in the workplace. What they have to say about what they need to be their most productive selves might surprise employers.

3. Engage young women in professional development and on-the-job training

Lastly, our report found that 53 per cent of female participants only received on-the-job training and professional development for more than 10 hours per year. In contrast, 61 per cent of male participants received training for more than 10 hours per year.

This result is statistically significant, indicating that female participants are receiving less on-the-job training and professional development then their male counterparts. To close this gap and better engage young people in-person, employers should ensure young employees have access to quality in-person professional development and on-the-job training.

In addition, employers should empower young women to advocate for themselves and ask for the support they need to advance their careers.

Questioning stereotypes

The stereotypes around young people only caring about being online are rampant but they are worth questioning — or at least being put in context.

Many young people understand that building relationships, making meaningful contributions and engaging in decision-making at work happens more easily in person. These aspects of work are crucial for personal and professional growth, and young employees highly value them.

It will benefit employers to ditch stereotypes about young people and, instead, make young people an ally in their return-to-the-office strategies.

Ilona Dougherty receives funding for this longitudinal study from the RBC Foundation.

Amelia Clarke receives funding for this longitudinal study from the RBC Foundation.

Ana Ferrer receives funding for this longitudinal study from the RBC Foundation.