The "what can you do for me?" techno-savvy, so-called Generation Y, born 1981-1999, has been taking recruiters by the horns since the beginning of this century.

Generation X (1965-1980), characterised as independent, pragmatic and results-driven, preceded Gen Y; Gen Z, or Millennials, has yet to arrive in the workplace.

But how relevant, reliable or useful is the notion of generational personality when some of the more academic literature questions the categories, popularised by media and Douglas Coupland's book Generation X: Tales from an accelerated culture.

Kristin Murray, HR director, Presbyterian Support New Zealand, is researching the generations for a PhD thesis entitled, Diversity Management: A Generational Cohort Perspective, through Massey University. Her thesis looks at what each generational cohort values in a job. Murray's research has involved extensive reading and two surveys - done prior to the recession.

Her work, as was the case with most of the literature she said, covered university students, corporate and government organisations. She found mixed (academic) support for the popular literature's depiction of the cohorts and said much of the research had been anecdotal rather than scientific, lacking in systematic and psychometric analysis.

"A lot of people have designed questionnaires based on what the literature is saying and then tested it to see if it is true or not. I wanted to do research independently of the literature and then go back and see what is true."

Her surveys, based on a card-sort methodology, turned up a striking degree of similarities across the generations.

"They weren't necessarily as different as the media had been portraying."

For example Veterans (1922-1945), Baby Boomers (1946-1964), Gens X and Y all wanted roles that gave them quality of life, a supportive manager, job satisfaction and fulfilment.

She said that as people moved through life, their generational personality impacted on how they approached each life stage and that the constructs that were in common with other cohorts might look different to different generations.

"For example having a supportive manager might look different to Gen Y than to Veterans. While their values might be similar, how that manifests in the workplace might be quite different.

"For an older generation, having a good manager might be someone who just leaves them alone to get on with their job. A younger generation might want a manager to mentor and coach them."

Murray said much of the literature supported the notion of generational differences. She suggested generational diversity provided a framework with which to help understand another aspect of individual diversity.

"Armed with this knowledge managers can better understand an employee and what motivates them to gain better levels of employee engagement. However, it should be remembered that like any type of diversity there are individual differences within each group (in this instance within the generational cohort) and any attempt to manage employees using this information should take this into account."

Her cautious approach is backed by Kim Coates, organisational psychologist at Momentum recruitment agency. Coates uses the Gen terms with a caveat not to pigeonhole.

The labels are convenient shorthand that sum up shared experiences and characteristics typical of people born and living at a particular time.

"The generations come with different expectations around how recruitment will be handled. Baby boomers tend to have a more formal approach. Gen X want to know whether there is transparency between what is said upfront and what happens in the office. They like a tour and the opportunity to ask current employees what it's really like to work here. Gen Y want to know what technological gadgets are going to be available to do the work. They often want to make a difference and find meaning in their work."

When organisations restructured and flattened in the late 1980s different generations suddenly worked closer together than ever before. Changes in technology and globalisation also entered the mix. During pre-recession times of high employment some companies took up the challenges posed by what were seen as intergenerational tensions. They also revised policies to meet the needs of up-coming talent and the wider workforce.

Duncan Brown, head of People and Performance, Deloitte says they talk less about generational differences than they did five years ago. The generational framework was a useful tool for educating employees and adjusting some policies and procedures.

"There was lack of understanding of the differences between the generations. People have acknowledged and accepted it so it's just become part of what we do. In the past we would have been less transparent, given less feedback and probably have been less aware of the differences between generations and individuals."

Deloitte recruits many Gen Y's and has made some significant changes to the recruitment process. The material used to attract graduates has widened to a number of choices where they can find information, in print and on the internet, such as dialoguing "live" with the company on Facebook.

"We've also increased our profile on campus throughout the year trying to build that relationship. A lot of Gen Ys say they like to see the frequency, they like the relationship."

He says the company gives regular feedback to employees and has improved their recognition processes and policies.

"We try to be very transparent and genuine in our communications and actions with both good and negative messages and we try to listen - ask for feedback about what we could do better and are continuously improving."

Deloitte is in 140 countries. It has transparent policies around secondments and transfers and "puts a lot more focus on the conversation around people's career aspirations where they want to be and how they actually get there".

Talent is fast-tracked regardless of the generation as it makes good business sense. The company moves people who demonstrate high performance or potential more quickly, identifying opportunities to increase their skills and experience.

"That's a real shift from previously where you probably treated everyone the same and [assumed] they would get their own experience. I think the focus on the generations has made us hone our skills and forced us to get a lot better at managing out talent. [And] engagement has improved."

He says employees are actively involved in issues such as climate change and social responsibility.

Edward Hutchins, 19, comes across as articulate, intelligent, thoughtful and community-minded. He knows in principle what he is looking for in his first job, but is not arrogant about it. He also does a fair stint of voluntary work considering he is completing a bachelor in business systems at Victoria University.

Hutchins searches websites and Facebook rather than print media for jobs and is investigating graduate recruitment programmes.

Career fairs are good, he say, s as students can check out a wide range of employers - and the funkier the better, as he and most of his peers are drawn to lively looking companies wearing bright colours rather than grey suits and ties.

He believes there are differences between generations but also thinks age, life stage and family responsibilities are important factors. When looking for suitable work and employers he is motivated by the chance to learn, but job security is not high on the list as he expects to move around.

He would, however, stay for a while with the first company to hire him as long as there were opportunities to experience different roles and perhaps travel.

"It's nice to know you can grow, and enjoy what you are doing. I look for the opportunity to try out new things, to work with people, and money is important."

At interviews he asks questions about how the organisation works, if there are team activities, mentoring, role rotation and training and development.

What he likes about horizontal structures "is that you can talk to anyone and not be afraid to ask questions. It's more casual now and easier to be happy and to learn in the workplace. For me it is important to respect the person, not just because of their age."