From Boomers to Millennials and more, each generation of workers has a unique point of view. These groups differ not because humans have “evolved” but because they each grow up and grow old in different time periods with varying opportunities and challenges.
Generational categories represent a shorthand for describing attitudes, interests, beliefs, and experiences that certain groups of people are likely to have in common. They are not absolute statements about what all people of a certain age think or feel. There can be a lot of variation within and across generations, especially when you consider other demographics such as race, nationality, and class.
From an HR standpoint, the are four generations that have the most impact on work today. These are:
- The Boomers
- Gen X
- Gen Z
It’s this most recent cohort, Gen Z, that fellow People Scientist Myra Cannon and I presented research on during a one-hour webinar. Gen Z represents more than 20% of the overall U.S. population, and with the eldest now graduating college, workplaces need to be ready for them.
Understanding the boom and bust mindsets among generations
Important events and their repercussions shape the generations who live through them and those who merely read about them in different ways. For each generation, these and other aspects of the political, social, and economic landscapes define how they look at the world and what they expect their future to be like. You can think of it in broad terms as Boom and Bust Mindsets.
Generations with Boom Mindsets expect to thrive as adults. They believe:
- Jobs are plentiful and within reach
- Parents have significant resources to share
- Crime, exclusion, and conflict are waning
- Success is determined by their own efforts (competition is not a threat to success)
Generations with Bust Mindsets expect to struggle as adults. They believe:
- Jobs are rare or difficult to get
- Parents have limited resources to share
- Crime, exclusion, and conflict are growing
- Success is limited by circumstances (competition is a threat to success)
Given this framework, we can think of the flow of generations as follows:
Boomers: Bust to Boom. The parents of Boomers sought to give them better lives after WWII, and their entry into adulthood corresponded with significant advances in manufacturing and materials technology that provided a wide array of jobs across the economic spectrum.
Gen X: A bust generation. Their childhood events were associated with images of frustration and failure, with the most recent recession hitting just as they were entering their best earning years. Few held out high hopes for the so-called “Slacker generation.”
Millennials: A supposed boom generation. Millennials were expected to change the world, thanks to what appeared to be a healthy economy and an explosion of new communications technology. Then, the recession blocked their access to the jobs they had invested significant time and money preparing for, leaving many in debt. As a result, Millennials have been misaligned with the reality of their times, feeling betrayed by false promises, and are frequently blamed for not living up to their potential.
Gen Z: A bust generation (with a caveat). Children of Gen X, the Gen Z group, have witnessed a number of failures in government, education, and the economy. Raised by a generation that is mostly forgotten and financially challenged (and observers of the collapse of the Millennials’ lofty expectations), Gen Z is a bust generation preparing to survive, a stark contrast to the Millennials' starting expectation that they would be able to easily thrive.
This mindset difference helps to explain why Boomers and their children, the Millennials, are so frequently at odds, while research suggests that Gen X and their kids in Gen Z often have more collaborative relationships. Millennials expected to reap the benefits of the Boomer’s experiences fighting for greater gender parity in the workplace, flexibility, and some degree of meaningfulness in work.
On the other hand, Gen X is a generation that has struggled both culturally and financially. Never large enough to be a focus of marketing efforts, they’ve been left to mostly fend for themselves and have conferred those expectations onto their children. A lot of the research on how Gen Z is planning out their future and how they interact with their parents reflects this shared perspective.
How to prepare your company culture for Gen Z
Given this context, the results of studies looking at Gen Z in the workplace take on renewed importance. They’re more than interesting tidbits – this research provides a meaningful understanding of likely behaviors and preferences for the latest generation to enter the workforce. We discuss these insights and how companies could respond in four categories: economic insecurity, coaching vs. managing, mental health and wellness, and workplace design.
As noted earlier, Gen Z has had a childhood marked by deep uncertainty around money and career, especially the value of college and its connection with a reliable future.
As a result, we see statistics emphasizing Gen Z plans for self-determined careers with a significant wariness of debt. For example, a quarter of Gen Z respondents believe they need to get through school with no debt, and 63% want to study entrepreneurship in college.
Perhaps most telling is that 42% of Gen Z respondents expect to work for themselves one day (this is about 4x higher than the actual percentage of self-employed Americans). This becomes more extreme when you account for race/ethnicity, with about 60% of African Americans and Hispanics expecting to work for themselves compared with only 31% of White respondents.
Gen Z is expecting to go it alone – they are not planning on how to be the best employee but rather how to survive as a freelancer or a competitor.
Implications for companies:
- Gen Z is primed to respond to benefits and perks to avoid or reduce debt or provide training and education at reduced prices.
- They are also more likely to have a more developed understanding of how they might start their own businesses – making the most talented members not only flight risks but potential competitors, especially in industries with low startup costs.
Diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts could be especially hard hit if marginalized employees are more likely to consider entrepreneurship, pulling that talent into new startups. You may have to plan career paths that allow people to step out of rigid tracks and explore independent efforts (either between gigs or simultaneous to full-time employment).
Coaching vs. managing
Generation Z reports that they are used to being trusted by their parents, and while they frequently consult parents for advice, they expect to make independent decisions. Requests for consultation from Gen Z may be misinterpreted as requests to be absolved of responsibility, especially by newly minted Millennial managers who expect more from authority figures.
So Millennials and Gen Z will present opposite problems for their managers. While Millennials will err on the side of being passive, expecting leaders to solve their problems, Gen Z will err on the side of being too active; trying to solve problems outside their skill set and failing to ask for help when needed.
Implications for companies:
Leadership training will need to take this distinction into account – focusing more on coaching than managing behaviors to get the most out of Gen Z and avoid overwhelming their leaders.
- This means teaching Millennials to sit down and discuss options but then letting employees follow their own best judgment and holding those employees accountable for results. Otherwise, Millennial leaders may end up taking on too much while Gen Z gets frustrated at not being trusted.
Mental health and wellness
Over the past 30 years, the Higher Education Research Institute has reported declining mental health scores among college students, with women showing some of the lowest scores. To illustrate this growing demand for mental health support, the Institute reports that in 1985, 7% of first-year students intended to seek personal counseling. By 2015, it had doubled to 14%.
Colleges have tended to provide enhanced support for mental health issues, helping students with such concerns succeed. This means more of them are making it into the workforce with the talents employers want but also with an ongoing need for mental health support.
Gen Z sees itself as a generation of master multitaskers seeking to stay connected to all the communication channels. They also tend to display a weak sense of personal boundaries, comfortable making and receiving calls at all hours. They take pride in being available to help a friend at any hour (and expect similar responsiveness from their leaders and professors).
While these might sound like great traits in an employee, studies have frequently found that there is no such thing as multitasking. In reality, people switch between tasks at varying speeds and with varying levels of efficiency, losing some focus and energy with each swap. This inclines Gen Z to cut corners to stay on top of all their communication channels and responsibilities.
Implications for companies:
- EAP and mental health benefits will be attractive to many talented Gen Z employees who are able to be successful when they are embedded in a reliable support network.
- Organizations should expect to have generous personal and sick leave policies, be well-versed in the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and include discussions of mental health in both their diversity and inclusion and well-being discussions.
- Gen Z is very likely to engage in excessive and inefficient task-switching, requiring managers to help them prioritize and order their work so they can improve efficiency and quality. Managers should provide significant clarity around deadlines and time management, and identify which corners should not be cut to make for solid work.
- Gen Z will likely need work-life support through coaching them to identify what is important and manage the anxiety of letting go of things that are more distractions than goals.
The growth of open office spaces aligns with Gen Z's expectations. Studies show that fewer Gen Z members (28%) than Millennials (45%) embrace traditional office spaces. Hotelling (where employees don’t have fixed seating in an office) may be more comfortable for employees who have grown up in the midst of sharing economies.
However, there is a potential downside, as open offices have been shown to be noisy and distracting. Given Gen Z’s penchant for wanting to multitask, they may have difficulty being maximally effective in these open spaces.
Implications for companies:
- Easy access to private spaces will be essential to allowing Gen Z to tune out all the additional conversational channels available to them in an open office.
- Foster a sense of pride among Gen Z (and other generations) for their ability to engage with fluid workspaces rather than the loss older employees may feel when they lose their office space.
- Break the link between shrinking physical spaces and organizational status (e.g. the corner office for senior leaders). If status and opportunities remain tied to being physically present and controlling more physical space, Gen Z may still end up more frustrated than enamored with novel office space designs.
How to use generational demographics in employee surveys
Culture Amp’s platform is well designed to provide real-time data on multiple different demographics, making it easy to collect, understand, and act on employee feedback across generations.
Whatever your employee feedback strategy, there are several things to keep in mind when doing generation-based survey research in your own company.
Collect data from all generations
Often generational differences represent a slow but ongoing change in culture over time. Differences can seem much bigger if you skip a generation. Gen X is often right in the middle of Boomers and Millennials, showing that the changes have progressed gradually over time. Remember – we work in a multigenerational workforce, so design an employee experience that considers everyone.
Don’t let one generation become your baseline
This leads to framing your questions and interventions in terms of fixing what’s wrong with some generations to make them more like another. This approach creates resentment that makes your job harder. Instead, use the average of all employees as your baseline and work with populations that fall below this benchmark.
Don’t be tied to conventional generation cutoffs
Generations are generally viewed as 15-year cohorts, but those terms are not representative of fixed, objective boundaries. For example, Xennials (e.g. Gen X-Millenial) are "a special micro-generation born in the early 1980s that are comfortable with both analog and digital forms of communication." Because of these fluid boundaries, you may find that your data makes more sense if you use different cutoffs, especially if you are mixing different demographics (e.g., diverse nationalities, ethnicities, educations, etc).
Consider generations as one (among many) explanations for an issue
Don’t forget that people’s behaviors are also affected by department, education, and other demographic and organizational categories. Generation sometimes lines up with these things but isn’t always relevant. For example, Gen Z is currently in entry-level roles. If they’re all more engaged than other employees, it may have more to do with their recent onboarding experience rather than just being part of Gen Z.