I love the topic of generations, and how they do and don’t get along. Why listen to me? I’ve given dozens of generational keynotes and workshops for corporations associations since 2015, and was selected in 2020 to help inform a National Academy of Sciences workgroup, which also included folks from Pew, Deloitte, the CIA and the U.S. Department of Labor.
How will Gen Z disrupt and improve your workplace? How can generational teamwork boost performance? Let’s take look at how change, collaboration and culture create amazing intergenerational teams.
First, do you know what the unique strengths of each generation are?
Second, how do we flip intergenerational conflict into a solution that brings diverse teams together, creates acceptance, builds relationships, and motivates everyone?
We know from experience that people are different in different decades of life. But there are also generational differences due to what happened in the world as people grew up.
- If there was a recession that affected your family, you end up valuing stability and money.
- If there was a war, you might value safety or heroism, nationalism, or progressive societal change.
- If it was civil strife you may value diversity or tribalism.
Where you grew up, around whom, and what their values were all affect who you become. The extremity of each era evokes values that younger people may love or hate.
These differences create different rallying cries for each generation. They frame the way each sees the world. They shape unique priorities, concerns, and goals for each generation.
Each generation has a different idea of what the main problem is with their society, which can lead to arguments about the highest priority solutions.
- Younger generations are more likely to see what’s wrong than the older ones.
- Older generations tend to be more stable and content, while younger ones crave change and, perhaps even more importantly, they have the energy for it.
- There are always exceptions, but older people avoid change and younger ones move toward it. Older people create stability. Younger people create change.
These differences can create conflict but also can improve society. If change is too fast or dramatic, we may repeat mistakes of the past. The life experience of older folks moderates change, which can keep us from jumping off an unsafe cliff.
Generational conflict drives measurable progress in society.
It’s not a perfect process, and actual change can seem slow to the young and fast to the old, but the balance of old and young influences creates continual innovation and improvement.
Who are the Generations?
You’ll find slight disagreements in the exact years for each generation, but most agree that we have:
- Baby Boomers, born 1947-1964. Think about Meryl Streep, Robin Williams, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Samuel L. Jackson. Those born 1954-1965 are also called Generation Jones (aka The Lost Generation), but this generation is usually grouped in with Boomers.
- Generation X, born 1965-1979. This includes Drew Barrymore, Robert Downey Jr., Kurt Cobain, and Kobe Bryant. (And myself, if you were wondering!)
- Millennials (aka Gen Y), born 1980-1997. Robert Pattinson, Kristen Stewart, Taylor Swift, and Michael B. Jordan are Millennials.
- Generation Z (Zoomers), born 1998-2016. Zendaya, Tom Holland, Greta Thunberg, and Billie Eilish are Gen Z.
At the time of this writing (2023), almost all of the Boomers’ parents (Silent Generation) have left the workplace. And Boomers are already a minority. Gen Z also isn’t fully represented yet. The most influential groups in the workforce right now are Gen X and Millennials.
In my workshops, I always start by asking each generation what’s great about their generation. What values, skills, and character traits make them great? Here’s what they say (and in these lists, I focus mostly on what makes them unique from the others):
- Boomers say they are Hard-Working, Traditional, Experienced, Loyal, and have Life Skills.
- Gen X says they’re Independent, Resourceful, Hands-On, Resilient, and Creative
- Millenials say they’re Tech-Savvy, Collaborative, Idealistic, and Innovative, and value Social Progress.
- Gen Z echoes the Tech-Savvy and Social Progress, adding that they are Competitive, Practical, Do-It-Yourselfers.
You can already see some commonalities between generations, but we’ll get to those in a minute.
It’s important for each person to be likable if you want great teamwork. The more you commit to what others like, the more they commit to you. And that means we need to know what each generation likes and dislikes.
What Are The Complaints About Each Generation
In workshops, people love to talk about what they dislike about other generations (sometimes we’re better at complaining than seeing the positives). Maybe we aren’t getting what we want and see other people as obstacles. So we vent.
What comes out can be a little bit funny… take these with a grain of salt:
People say that Boomers are, “Bossy jerks who take all the money, expected unearned obedience, care more about success than people, and force people to waste time in meetings and phone calls.”
People say Gen X are, “Pessimistic, antisocial, disrespectful rebels who always have to do things their own way.”
People say Millennials are, “Unrealistic, impatient, insecure, needy, disobedient, idealistic, snowflakes.”
People say Gen Z are, “Antisocial, progressive nerds who only care about having fun and being unique and spend more time hanging out than working.”
But wait, there are more complaints. In my workshops, I consistently hear complaints from other generations that:
- Boomers are Set in Their Ways, Hate Change, Out of Touch, Hate Technology, Not Culturally Sensitive and have No Filter (on their mouths).
- Gen X gets called “Boomer Lite”, is Less Creative than they think, also Hate Change, Don’t Know How to Say the Right Things and are Overprotective.
- Millennials have Too Much Screentime, are Entitled, Can’t Take Constructive Criticism, and Question Everything.
- Gen Z sometimes get called Millennials. Listen, old fogey, all young people are not Millennials! Gen Z is seen as anti-social, nerdy, disruptive, lazy, entitled, and too idealistic.
And while we’re immersed in all these labels, I think it’s important to point out that at the National Academy of Sciences Generational Labels consortium I was part, the conclusion was that labels are reductive and off-putting. Nobody wants to be stereotyped. You can’t know someone just by an age range. Sure, there are commonalities, but labels can be divisive. Saying someone behaves the way they do based on their sex or race is prejudiced and destructive- and generational stereotyping is no different.
The way to bring people together is to be curious about each individual. Ask them questions and get to know them. Build a relationship.
What Are The Positive Side of These Generational Negatives?
Now, what’s the good side of each generation? We’ve already discussed a few things, but we can also turn around every one of the above complaints to find generational strengths. In workshops I give a few examples and then have the participants do the exercise themselves. Here’s what I get back:
Boomers may be old, but that means they’re experienced. Their rigidity creates consistency. They may be out of touch with newer things but they have a firm grasp on traditions, not all of which are bad. They may dislike technology, but that means more tech jobs for younger people (and more time fixing your parents’ laptops and phones and copiers and…) They may have no filter, but for good or ill, you know they’re being honest.
Gen X might be “Boomer Lite” but the Lite part is what they have in common with Millennials, and bridges the relationship. If Gen X is less creative than they think, they do have reliable processes. They may hate change, but they’re consistent. No filter? Again, honest. They may be overprotective and pessimistic, but they are always looking for what could go wrong, and when it does, they’re probably ready to fix it- and that creates safety.
Millennials may be on devices too much but they can find you any info you want on the Internet. They may seem entitled but that means they have high standards, and the courage to ask for things. They can’t take criticism? Maybe it’s because they have big, open hearts that you can learn from. They question everything? So do Gen X and Gen Z- and that’s how we’re all creating innovation.
Gen Z may seem nerdy, but they can solve your tech issues. They might look antisocial but they are independent and resourceful, much like Gen X. What they do may seem disruptive but actually be the beginning of innovation. Are they lazy? Maybe they have time to relax because they’re more efficient. And again, entitled? High standards.
Why Values Are Critical To Intergenerational Success
We have to get on the same page with values if we all want to go in the same direction. The team or organization that does this is going to get further than those who never resolve their conflict or support each other.
Too often, though, no one knows what the values are. Or they’re on the website or on a wall somewhere but no one remembers them. They may be out of date and not reflect your current team. Certainly when tough decisions are being made, the values are not consulted.
Values create culture. What kind of culture comes out of ignored or inappropriate values? A culture of conflict, fiefdoms, and, “I don’t care because I got mine.” This is not a culture that retains or motivates employees.
So, the answer is to look at what the people in your workplace value, and then put those values together in a way that serves everyone: leadership, rank and file, and customers.
What Values Do Generations Share?
We do have things in common:
- Boomers and Millennials are optimistic.
- Boomers and Gen Z like stability.
- From Gen X down through Millennials and Gen Z, we question authority, want work-life balance, and want things to improve.
- Millennials and Gen Z specifically want to see more social progress and acceptance of diversity.
- Millennials and Gen Z also want coaching and mentorship, though Gen Z needs less, due to the DIY approach they share with Gen X.
And there are seven values everyone in the workplace shares:
- Feeling respected
- Being listened to
- Having opportunities for mentoring
- Understanding the big picture
- Receiving effective communication
- Receiving positive feedback
- Experiencing an exchange of ideas
I always ask my audiences if there is any one of those seven they don’t want- and no one replies. We all want those things.
What Do We Know About Gen Z
An important note from the National Academy of Sciences Generational Labels consortium I participated in was that we don’t yet know for sure who Gen Z is because of how long it takes to separate generational traits from age-related traits. We had just gotten enough data on Millennials in 2018, when they were 21-38 years old. That won’t happen for Gen Z until 2036. But that won’t stop all of us (and the media) from trying to figure it out and have opinions about it.
We do have a rough approximation of what’s different about Gen Z.
- They crave stability like Boomers do.
- They’re practical do-it-yourselfers like Gen X.
- They want more social progress quicker just like Millennials do.
- Gen Z is the most tech savvy- and that tech savviness is an age-related continuum; Gen Z has more than Millennials, who have more than Gen X, who have more than Boomers.
- Gen Z has more economic concerns, and is interested in adequate pay, which is a challenge in a time of rising prices (especially home and rent).
There are some positives about how Gen Z interacts with older generations in the workplace. Gen Z has some commonalities with other generations, so on certain things, they get along, on other things they don’t.
- Boomers may not like addressing some of Gen Z’s social progress issues, and may not understand technology as well, but they both crave stability and both are competitive.
- Gen X may not like may or may not want to mentor Gen Z’s, but they share common ground in terms of being resourceful, independent do-it-yourselfers.
- Millennials like to be more collaborative and idealistic than Gen Z but they both get tech, question authority, and want social progress.
How Can You Prepare for Gen Z’s Impact on the Workplace?
How business leaders can prepare for Gen Z’s influence on the workplace:
First, understand Gen Z. There are certain things leaders need to accept- and as with all new generations, the leaders who do will be able to create win-wins with Gen Z, while those who don’t will struggle, and it will hurt them in terms of staffing, turnover, and productivity. Gen Z is different, and your organization’s culture needs to change to accommodate that. When you fight newer generations, your business suffers.
Second, incorporate Gen Z’s values. Every problem in business culture is related to values. Each generation has different values. Conflict over values ensures that your organization cannot have a firm foundation for teamwork and productivity. And most organizations either don’t have clear, prioritized values, or the values they do have are outdated and ignored. With each generation, your organization’s values need to be reexamined and updated. But each new generation possesses the key to surviving and thriving in the current marketplace. If you resist the change, you get left behind.
Third, help Gen Z. Compensation is one of their biggest issues. Understand and be compassionate about the fact that their economic reality is completely different than what you faced in your 20s. The organizations that pay more will attract more Gen Z employees, and those employees will feel more respected, be more engaged, and stick around longer.
Fourth, focus on retention. With both Millennials and Gen Z, the common wisdom is that the only way to get a raise is to switch jobs. Boomers complain about a lack of loyalty, but loyalty is a two-way street, and most corporations no longer provide long-term stability or pensions. Why be loyal to someone who isn’t loyal to you? When you treat people as disposable, they will treat you as disposable as well. No matter how you do it, you need to clearly communicate to each employee what their future looks like with your organization, they have to like that future, and you have to be true to your word.
Fifth, focus on engagement. There are many reasons people disengage from, or never engage with a job, from bad managers to bad compensation to unreasonable rules. Make sure managers and leaders are continually trained in communication, motivating others, and empathy. Many Gen Z want to work from home, and that’s not isolated to their generation. This reality isn’t going away. They don’t care about the commercial real estate contract you’re stuck in, and it shouldn’t be their responsibility. Leaders need to be able to communicate with and manage people via email, messaging, and video conferencing. Leaders should use these technologies as much as possible to get more comfortable with them and see how their in-person management skills translate on these new platforms. Leaders need to be able to care about the people that work for them; listen to them, make them feel heard, be changed by them, go to bat for them.
Now, those five are plenty for you to work on for the next year.
Get to work!