Since 2002, I have studied generational trends and I have long predicted the passage of the era when the Baby Boomers reigned supreme. In the course of my work, I’ve been accused of age discrimination, ignorance, arrogance, and simply being a Boomer-hater who just wants to push her elders out of the way.But as a former journalist, I’ve just been reporting the facts all the while and urging associations and businesses and non-profits to prepare for the exodus of our nation’s leaders.It’s just that people can get emotional about aging, and protective of tradition — all which is understandable.Nevertheless, I’ve been reading with great interest articles that predict 2008 will mark the final year of reign for the Baby Boomers, and it’s hard not to say ‘I told you so.’A CNN commentary by Marian Salzman, chief marketing officer and a partner at Porter Novelli Worldwide, states:
“Rarely has there been a year when so many things went out of style in such a short time: not just investment bankers, gas-guzzling vehicles, corporate jets, conspicuous consumption and political polarization, but also a whole generation. After strutting and tub-thumping and preening their way across the high ground of politics, media, culture and finance for 30 years, baby boomers have gone from top dogs to scapegoats in barely a year.”
Salzman says that ‘cuspers’ — those who straddle the divide between Boomers and Xers –have long lived in the shadow of the Boomers and will now be recognized as a generation in their own right because Obama’s election marks the rise of a new generation.An article in the Toronto Star points to the rise of the new generation in the White House, referring to it as a “new generational-tilt”. Michael Barone, senior writer for US News & World Report and principal co-author of The Almanac of American Politics, wrote:
“This is the third time in a century that we have seen such a generational change in the White House. … John Kennedy’s inauguration marked the departure of the World War II commanders who occupied the White House for 28 years; Bill Clinton’s the moving on of the GI generation after 32 years. Obama’s will mark the passing of the boomers after only 16.”
The Business Spectator reported in August 2008 that some of Australia’s biggest blue-chips responded to challenging circumstances by breaking with tradition and installing younger chief executives.The commentary states:
“Generation X has emerged in a far more volatile, dynamic and global environment than its predecessors. Those born in the mid-1960s and beyond take it for granted that their environment is both global and fluid. As a broad generalization, they appear more comfortable with uncertainty than those who grew up within far more regulated, stable and insular settings. …“Maybe that’s a generational thing. Or perhaps it is simply a coincidence that three major organizations, after considerable thought, chose to by-pass a generation and give massive responsibility to men might have been considered too young in other eras. …“Other boards developing succession plans will, however, look at the decisions taken by three blue-chip boards after highly structured and disciplined processes and ponder whether they, too, ought to expand their horizons and consider whether their younger talent might be more suited to the times.”
Like it or not, in 2009 a new generation will begin its ascent to power; a generation angered and battered by war, a plummeting economy, floundering government, and a polluted environment. A generation that has always lived in another’s shadow and is anxious to take the reigns and lead.And that’s not age discrimination — it’s reality.
In many ways, it’s symbolic that Generation Z is named after the last letter in the alphabet because their arrival marks the end of clearly defined roles, traditions, and experiences. After all, Gen Z is coming of age on the heels of what has been referred to as the most disruptive decade of the last century. America has become an increasingly changing and complex place.
Members of this generation have undoubtedly been shaped by crisis and disruption. This generation will largely be responsible for confronting the aftermath of the Great Recession, high youth unemployment, the effects of climate change, terrorism, energy sustainability, and more. These dark events have undoubtedly made this generation more cautious and pragmatic, but they have also provided this generation with the inspiration to change the world – and their grit will likely allow them to do it.
Coming of age during disruption means that most Zs will be comfortable being the disruptors. While Millennials tend to be collaborative and innovative, this generation tends to be sincere, reflective, thick-skinned, and self-directed, and will likely approach work in much the same way.
In the era following World War II, Boomers (1946-1964) were born and eventually became the wealthiest, most prosperous generation in history. Raised to aspire for the American Dream, this very large generation moved into positions of power and influence, and served as the workforce majority for 34 years.
With the American Dream alive and well, Boomers had no reason to teach their children, mostly Millennials, about competition. Instead, they taught them to focus on academic achievement and to be team players because if everyone works hard, everyone can win.
Enter Generation X (1965-1981). In contrast Boomers, Xers came of age during a time when change and economic and political uncertainty began to take root. They have lived through four recessions, struggled with debt and economic decline most of their lives, and watched the best educated and accomplished generation of all time (Millennials) graduate during the Great Recession and become the most debt-ridden generation in history.
Gen Xers can be defined by their independence and anti-status quo approach to life, and they have taught their Gen Z children to be competitive, believing only the best can win. They have encouraged their children to be realists, finding something they are good at and aggressively pursuing it.
Xers have raised their Zs with an intense focus on competitiveness -- in academics, sports, and other activities. This approach to parenting has many implications, but one stands out in terms of business: Gen Z is likely to lead.
Millennials in the workplace created and aggressively advocated for collaborative work environments. In fact, their aversion to leadership has been so strong, some Millennials sought out companies that boasted boss-free or team-managed workplaces.
In contrast, Zs have been raised with an individualistic, realistic, and competitive nature. They have been taught the skills to successfully defy the norm. This means we’re going to see the pendulum shift away from collaborative workplaces towards a widespread demand for, and pursuit of, leadership development.
While Millennials have been criticized for their “delayed adulthood”, Gen Z is showing signs of “early adulthood”. Educators and parents often describe this generation as being more serious and contemplative about the world. Zs are thinking about their career paths and exposing themselves to career training at an earlier age than Millennials. It’s probable that some of this early onset of adulthood is caused by parents, who are pressuring their children to be competitive and successful and to avoid the debt that plagued both the Gen Xers and Millennials.
The numbers from our global research found 46% of Gen Z said they know what career to pursue and 51% have taken a class at school focused on their career interests. Forty percent joined an extracurricular program (team, club) based on their career interests.
Zs have been shaped by the aftermath of the Great Recession. They watched Millennials become debt-ridden and are concerned about falling into the same trap. XYZ University’s survey results show 66% of Zs said financial stability is more important than doing work they enjoy, which is the exact opposite of Millennial survey results. Also, 71% of survey-takers have a paying job.
When presented a list of leadership traits, Zs ranked positive and trustworthy the highest. While Millennials and Gen Zs both value trust in a leader, Millennials usually cite collaboration and vision as most important. In other words, Millennials focus on the outcomes leaders inspire, whereas Zs are more likely to consider leaders’ attitudes and personalities. To Z, what leaders encourage others to do isn’t as valuable as how they make them feel.
Both Millennials and Gen Zs place a very high value on feeling challenged and appreciated in the workplace. However, according to our survey results Millennials rank appreciation slightly higher than challenge, whereas Zs rank feeling challenged slightly higher than appreciation.
Time will tell how Zs go down in history, but we know this generation’s influence on history will be unlike any other.
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Sarah Sladek is CEO of XYZ University. Our generational intelligence can assist you with engaging and retaining young talent and members.
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