Future leaders: Viv Benjamin, left, relaxes with Hilary Viney and Lloyd Aiderman.

Future leaders: Viv Benjamin, left, relaxes with Hilary Viney and Lloyd Aiderman. Photo: Simon Schluter

One Tuesday night, 25-year-old Viv Benjamin stood before a group of business heavyweights - board members and chief executives from some of Australia's biggest companies - who were hoping she might solve one of the biggest mysteries facing corporate Australia. What the hell are young Australians on about?

The occasion was a University of Cambridge retreat outside Melbourne where these business leaders were discussing sustainability, not just in terms of the environment or finance, but in how their businesses are organised.

The key question for Benjamin, chief executive of Australia's biggest youth-led activist organisation, Oaktree, was how should big business be engaging with their Gen Y employees. Benjamin heard that Gen Y workers did well in the graduate programs, where they spend time working in different departments, but they tended to leave afterwards.

Beach

Work and play: Troy Ponting, Lauren Trucksess, Jared Bulach and Katie Vincent at Bondi Beach. Photo: Anna Kucera

''The corporations are tearing their hair out trying to keep them in the business, but when the graduates are bedded down to work in one position, there are record drop-offs,'' she said. ''They're offered bonuses, big money, and they still leave.''

Her advice was to make the graduate roles more flexible, more collaborative and with greater opportunity for growth and innovation - and to abandon all attempts to fit them like cogs into a machine.

''I think they were open to ideas,'' she said. ''Later some of them wanted to pick my brain. I felt there was almost a fascination with trying to understand this generation. They felt we are different.''

Understanding Gen Y - and kicking their teeth in - has become an industry in itself, propelled on its own contradictions and hyperbole.

This is the generation born between the early 1980s and 1994 - kids said to be suckled on a diet of immoderate praise, the mind-fouling internet, materialism and an absence of accountability. One school of thought says they have so far turned into narcissistic, lazy, disloyal and needy adults.

The New York Post claimed Gen Y was the worst generation ever; a US academic wrote a book saying they were The Dumbest Generation; the Josephson Institute, a Los Angeles-based ethics-training centre, described them as workplace thieves and a footwear company named them as our most prolific liars.

A report from the Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth released last year found the majority of young people were either earning or learning and data from Galaxy Research released this month found that 67 per cent of Gen Y volunteered during 2013 compared to 62 per cent of Gen Xs and 64 per cent of of baby boomers.

''I remember at school being told we were lazy and gave up on things too easily … and I am a classic Gen Y in that I do start a lot of things and decide they're not for me and quit them,'' says Melanie Falkiner, 23, who so far has studied theatrical make-up, begun and abandoned a social work degree, travelled the world for a year, worked taking calls for a cab company and is now a client adviser for a sexual and health reproduction service.

''The fact is, we were encouraged to pursue things we liked at school,'' she says. ''We were told to try a lot of different things, but when we gave up on them, we got chastised. Now, as adults, when we want to move on, we move on … where the older generation would stick it out because that's what they did.''

Stanmore student Alex Lachsz, 22, does not consider herself to be lazy. She is studying law full-time at UNSW, works part-time in administration to support herself and volunteers for the Australian Youth Climate Coalition as well as mentoring students from lower socio-economic backgrounds.

''I find the perceptions about young people sad more than irritating,'' she said. ''It just shows how quick people are to make negative assumptions about young people.''

So, it is not all about selfies and endless hours on Facebook and Instagram?

''Well, we do take selfies and spend a lot of time on social media but that doesn't mean we're not interested in the wider world,'' Lachsz said.

Millie Anthony, 23, of Balmain, also volunteers for the AYCC and believes it is the over-consuming baby boomers who have a case to answer. ''We are not apathetic; quite the opposite,'' she said. ''We are the future leaders and we are responsible for making huge changes. It's the baby boomers who have failed us.''

But Melissa Davies, a 21-year-old hotel guest service agent from Bondi, believes her peers are perhaps not as socially conscious as they claim to be.

''I agree with the stereotype, I think we are very lazy,'' she said. ''We see problems all around the world but we don't witness them first-hand. A lot of people are comfortable with their lives, especially a lot of my Australian friends.''

Pyrmont 27-year-old Lauren Trucksess rejects the idea Gen Y is overly materialistic. She works in marketing and public relations but says she has taken lower-paid jobs simply for the enjoyment factor.

''I've never chased money, I absolutely loved teaching,'' she said.

Her friend Troy Ponting, a 27-year-old health services manager, agrees that his peers are cautious with their money.

''Trying to get a deposit together for a house is a big challenge, especially when you're still paying off your HECS debt,'' he said.

''Many of us are still just out of uni so we take what we can get when it comes to a job.''

Job loyalty is a foreign concept to these employment nomads, according to 29-year-old Bondi man Ryan Berich, who works in sports management. ''People tend to move around,'' he said. ''I wouldn't work somewhere where I wasn't happy.''

Eamon Waterford, the 27-year-old policy director for advocacy group Youth Action, believes employers don't show much loyalty to young people either.

''Young people are expected to work for free as interns or as casuals, look after their own super and their own sick leave,'' he said.

''That precarious employment makes it hard for them to plan for the future or live independently.''

Lauren Molan, a 25-year-old print journalist transitioning to video, is also weary of Gen Y bashing.

''I resent the fact that Gen Y are constantly being referred to as lazy and narcissistic,'' she said.

''I don't know many people from my parents or grandparents generations who have been expected to work for years on end for free as 'interns', while living out of home and supporting themselves.

''I think all the generations need to put the 'who did it harder' argument to one side,'' she said.

''Every generation faced totally different obstacles and had totally different windfalls.''

with Daisy Dumas, Rachel Browne