Most people think of generational change in the workplace as a diversity issue. Some experts will give employers a checklist or cheat sheet for each generation, outlining how to attract, hire, retain, and manage people based on birthdate.
That’s misguided. Imagine being told to manage people this way based on any other measure of diversity. Now imagine the ensuing conversation with HR.
Our research has taught us this: The real punchline of the Great Generational Shift is that employers must rethink human capital management. Gimmicks aren’t enough to engage and retain great employees of any age. Back-to-fundamentals leadership is what works.
So, why continue to talk about generations at all? After all, even demographers and other experts differ on the exact birth year parameters of each generation, especially when it comes to Millennials and Generation Z. The definitions are always in flux because the boundaries are fuzzy.
Even the parameters of the Baby Boomers are subject to debate: While the general consensus is that the Boomers were born 1946-1964, there are huge differences between those born early in the Baby Boom (who were teenagers in the late 50s and early 60s) and those born late in the Boom (who came of age in the late 70s and early 80s).
Similarly, the great Millennial cohort (whether one marks the beginning with 1978, as we do, or 1981, like some others) simply must be treated as two distinct waves, coming of age in two very distinct decades. But we now define the first wave Millennials as those born 1978-87 and the second wave as those born 1988-1996, with the post-Millennial generation starting with the birth-year 1997, known to most as Generation Z.
Gen Zers were tiny children on 9/11/01. They started high school at the end of the deepest and most protracted global recession (2008-9-10) since the Great Depression and (maybe) attended high school (or college or university) during the disruptions of the Global Pandemic. They are entering the workforce in a post-Pandemic “new normal” of remote and hybrid work, permanently constrained resources, increased requirements placed on workers, and fewer promised rewards for nearly everyone. From day one, they find themselves bumping up against a crowded field of “career delayed” Millennials, not to mention plenty of even older workers who themselves may have faced their own career setbacks. Meanwhile, Gen Zers—unlike any other generation in history—can look forward to a lifetime of interdependency and competition with a rising global youth-tide from every corner of this ever-flattening world.
While the Millennials (especially first wave Millennials) were children of the peace and prosperity of the 1990s, Generation Z are children of the war and uncertainty and recession and pandemic of the 2000s. They have been indelibly shaped by an era of profound change and perpetual anxiety—just as we all have.
While our research has shown us that managing people based on birth year is ridiculous, it has also shown that where one’s life stage intersects with larger accidents of history—such as 9/11 or the 2008 recession—has an incredible impact on how they approach work.
As a whole, Generation Z, and those new young workers who will follow, represents a continuation and perhaps the culmination of much larger historical forces driving the transformation in the workplace and the workforce that will redefine the experience of workers of all ages in the decades to come:
In that sense there is great continuity in the long Generational Shift from the Boomers to X to the Millennials to Z and beyond. After all, regardless of generation, we are all living through these historical changes together.
In another sense, Generation Z represents a whole new breed of worker, who will usher in the final stages of the great generational shift under way in the workforce.
Advances in information technology have made Gen Z the first generation of true ‘digital natives.’ They learned to think, learn, and communicate in an environment defined by wireless internet ubiquity, wholesale technology integration, infinite content, and immediacy. They are totally plugged in—through social media, search engines, and instant messaging—to each other as well as anyone and everyone, and an infinite array of answers to any question at any time. As a result, most Gen Zers grew up way too fast. That’s why they seem so precocious compared to their older colleagues.
At the same time, helicopter-parenting reached a new apex during their childhoods. Partly for that reason, relationship boundaries have blurred: Gen Zers have seemingly grown accustomed to being treated almost as customers/users of services and products provided by institutions and authority figures. Parents and their parenting posses (relatives, friends, teachers, coaches, counselors, doctors, and vendors in every realm) are mobilized to supervise and support the every move of children, validate their differences, and set them up with every material advantage possible.
As the Baby Boomers (especially first wave Boomers) are steadily exiting the workforce, the simultaneous rising global youth-tide of Generation Z and beyond represents a tipping point in numbers, norms, and values.
For Generation Z, customization is the Holy Grail, and it has always been right there within their grasp. From the first day they arrive in the workplace, they are scrambling to keep their options open, leverage their uniqueness for all its potential value, and wrap a customized career around the customized life they are trying to build.
But here’s the catch: They’re not growing up and settling down. Instead, older generations are increasingly behaving like their younger counterparts in the workplace.
The real diversity lessons of the Great Generational Shift are these:
The Great Generational Shift has presented a whole new set of challenges for employers in every industry, employees of all ages, and for managers at every level. Our latest edition of The Great Generational Shift white paper contains our most up-to-date findings based on our ongoing Generational Shift study:
Download the 2023-2024 Edition of The Great Generational Shift here.