If you’re thinking “enough about the five generations in the workplace” you’ll be wise to think again (and again) about how you can prepare and thrive as Gen-Y (Millennials) and Gen-Z replace retiring Baby Boomers. Ignoring differences in generational expectations and preferences is no longer an option. Strategically developing a culture and policies that embrace the best of what each generation offers is the obvious, and only, path to success. There are a number of ways to do this, and I have some thoughts to share. But first it helps to have an understanding of what’s coming down the pike.
The fact is that what has worked in the past will likely fall short of what’s needed for the future. Although there are a few Traditionalists still working, it’s mainly Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers who manage organizations at the moment. There are certainly some differences between them; however up to now, generations have lived the basic 9-to-5 (or often 7-to-7-plus weekends) American work-life—and have held a similar work ethic. To say that the new “basic” is changing dramatically is clearly an understatement.
Millennials (1980-2000), who will represent 75 percent of the workforce by 2025, have certainly made some waves. They’ve driven us, often kicking and screaming, toward more use of technology and greater flexibility. Now, we need to make way for the even larger population of Generation Z (post 2000). Millennials were considered the first digital natives, but with Gen-Z entering the workforce, we’ll discover what that term really means.
Defining Gen-Y and Gen-Z
It’s important to note that there are things all youthful generations have valued. Haven’t we all dreamed of finding interesting jobs where we can contribute in meaningful ways? The opportunity to grow and advance and to be recognized along the way? And haven’t we all wanted to work with people who treat us with respect? These are values and ideals we have in common—but what defines our youngest workers today and what more do they want?
Millennials want to work in the way that suits them best, which is not based on “outdated” traditional policies and practices or on rigid hierarchies. They crave frequent communication and feedback, depend on technology, and expect instant results. They want flexibility and independence as well as connectivity to co-workers. They are socially conscious in the way they live and buy, and want their organization to make a social impact as well.
Two things define Millennials more than anything else: one is a desire for work-life balance, which means more vacation time and less willingness to work overtime. The other is their positive view of themselves, giving them unrealistically high expectations for their early and continuous development and advancement.
We don’t know exactly how Gen-Z will be in the workplace since they are barely getting started, but here are some of the traits that are emerging. According to a recent NY Times article by Alex William, Gen-Z is even more astute technologically than Millennials. They may be less able to think critically, but more able to easily solve complex technological problems. Gen-Z doesn’t take criticism well and will feel entitled to large salaries and perks without earning them. They will take more risks and either succeed or crash quickly. They want instant everything.
Gen Z is thought to be conscientious, hard-working, collaborative, pragmatic, socially conscious and willing to help others. They take in information instantaneously and lose interest about as quickly, and are more private and cautious than Millennials.
A culture for the future
There is no getting around it, Gen-Y is driving two seismic shifts in business cultures and practices, which will only accelerate with Gen-Z: One, their universal adoption of new technologies and social media is increasing transparency in all things related to business. And two, workplaces are evolving into more democratized, collaborative spaces where ideas are often more important than experience and decision-making is shared. Every generation should be able to get behind this new transparency and collaboration, creating an excellent foundation for change and opportunity.
Here are some specific and cross-generational ways to build on that foundation:
The bottom line is that failure to adapt now to the needs and expectations of the overwhelming numbers of Gens Y and Z who are in or about to join the workforce creates a major opportunity cost for your organization. Embracing both change and the best each generation contributes to the whole will put you so far ahead in so many ways, you’ll never look back. And, really, you have no choice.