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Generation Y
Generation X
Generation Z

Boomers: Peace Or Pandemonium At Work?

Watch out below! Just when we thought the workplace was free from intolerance, today’s young professionals are bumping into age discrimination on their way to the top. For years we heard about women hitting their head on the metaphoric glass ceiling, never able to move higher on the ladder to success and get ahead of their male counterparts in the business world.

Watch out below! Just when we thought the workplace was free from intolerance, today’s young professionals are bumping into age discrimination on their way to the top. For years we heard about women hitting their head on the metaphoric glass ceiling, never able to move higher on the ladder to success and get ahead of their male counterparts in the business world. Today we’re hearing about the gray ceiling as a result of the massive numbers of Baby Boomers who consume most of the senior-level positions in today’s businesses, making it increasingly difficult for the under-40 performers to move up.Consider the stories of these three young professionals I heard from just this week:

  • After being named a salon’s top revenue-generator for two years in a row, the Gen Y stylist approached her Boomer manager about moving up into a new position within the company. Instead of promoting her, the manager gave her a $150 bonus and told her there was nothing else that could be done. The stylist left the salon to work independently and a considerable number of customers left with her.
  • A Gen X school administrator interviewed teachers for an open position. An enthusiastic Gen Y applied and so did a Baby Boomer. The Boomer candidate stated in her interview that she didn’t want the job, but was taking it so she could collect a salary for the next few years prior to retirement. Nevertheless, because this teacher had considerably more experience, the school administrator was advised to hire the Boomer.
  • A Gen Xer was hired to re-energize a foundation’s programs and outreach efforts. The youngest person on staff, she reports to management and a board comprised of people twice her age. When she approached her superiors about hiring other young professionals for the purpose of succession planning and building a diverse workforce, they shot her idea down saying they had hired one Gen Xer and that was enough.

Ouch! Is it possible that gray-ceiling incidents are treading close to reverse age discrimination?I think it’s likely that we will begin to hear more about age discrimination as more Xers and Ys enter the workforce in the coming years, much like we heard about sex discrimination as more women entered the workforce in the 1980s and early 1990s?In August 2006, Fortune magazine published an article titled, Are you stuck in middle management hell?. The article features the stories of many Xers who have been unable to move upward and onward because of Boomer management.One Xer was quoted as saying, “Youthfulness is valued in the workforce because it's seen as with-it and relevant, but it's a paradox. The senior managers in their 40s and 50s are paranoid about keeping their own jobs, so they do everything they can to keep you down.”While it’s hard for me to believe that Boomers are purposely ousting the Xers and Ys, I do believe they are more comfortable ‘sticking to their own kind’. That’s why we’re hearing more about prolonging retirement, and not nearly enough about succession planning and bringing up the next generation of employees and executives.Let’s face it. The Boomers differ from the Xers and Ys in nearly every way. The generations possess different work ethics, values, needs, and interests, so the challenges of working together are evident.And the Boomers have their pride, too. The Boomers worked tirelessly to build the businesses of America. Their generation is the very essence of loyalty and legacies and deserves and wants respect and admiration of younger generations.But herding the Boomers together to create a gray ceiling isn’t going to benefit anyone or any company in the long run.While loyalty and legacies are valuable, important, and very respectable, the approaching retirement wave should be a valuable reminder that succession planning is of the utmost importance.The time is now to focus on a new generation of leaders who will create their own legacies, as well as carry out the legacies the Boomers began. If we fail to focus on the next generation, we fail our businesses, families, economy, and country.Undoubtedly, the Boomers play a key role in our country’s ability to bridge the talent gap. They have wisdom to share, and a workforce to recruit and retain. They are also setting the tone as to whether this is going to be a time or peace or a time of pandemonium in America’s workforce.If the Boomers insist on sticking to their own kind, pandemonium will ensue and Xers and Ys will seek their revenge sooner or later. Right now, they are seeking it in business start-ups and leaving corporate America in overwhelming numbers.Babson Women’s Business Blog addresses this point candidly: “Boomers! You may have paved the way, but the next generation has seen the enemy (er…ceiling) and it is you.”So what will it be, Boomers? Will you extend peace-making efforts to the Xers and Ys and meet their demands for less hierarchy and more opportunity in the workforce?Or will you continue to ignore their pleas and wait for conformity?Here’s some advice: If you want to win the war for talent, give peace a chance.

Zs came of age in an era of disruption

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.

For example:

  • ‍Zs were born into a “modern family era” in which highly involved dads help out at home, and the nuclear family model (two parents, married, with children) represent only 46% of American households.
  • ‍Zs are the first generation to be born into a world where everything physical, from people to places to pennies, has a digital equivalent.
  • From the time they were infants, Zs had access to mobile technology. As a result, their brains have been trained to absorb large amounts of information, and Zs are especially adept at shifting between skills and subject matter.
  • Zs tend to have crystal-clear memories of sitting up for the first time at six months old because they can easily and quickly reference the photos and videos their parents shared on social media or saved in the “cloud”. 

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.

Zs were raised to be competitive

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.

Zs are career-focused.

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 are seeking financial security. 

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.

Zs value leaders who are positive and trustworthy.

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.


Zs want to be challenged.

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.


Does your organization have what it takes to engage the next generation? Take this quiz to find out.


Sarah Sladek is CEO of XYZ University. Our generational intelligence can assist you with engaging and retaining young talent and members.

Sarah Sladek

Concerned about declining engagement in our nation’s membership associations, non-profits, and workplaces, Sarah Sladek founded XYZ University, the nation’s first and only generations-focused training and engagement strategy company, in 2002.

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