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Equal Opportunity: Women And The Generation Gap

I can see why female Baby Boomers and Gen Xers might think the women of my generation have an entitlement problem. The women who came before me had to literally convince men they belonged at work; they had to fight for it. It’s never crossed my mind that I won’t be hired just because I’m a woman.

I can see why female Baby Boomers and Gen Xers might think the women of my generation have an entitlement problem.

The women who came before me had to literally convince men they belonged at work; they had to fight for it. It’s never crossed my mind that I won’t be hired just because I’m a woman.

The work environment for women has changed drastically in the last 50 years. A little history lesson may help the Millennials understand why Baby Boomers and Gen Xers find it frustrating when we complain we aren’t being appreciated or advancing fast enough.

Baby Boomers enter the workforce (mid 1960s – early 1980s):

When Baby Boomers entered the workforce, working outside the home was new territory for women. Their mothers may have had jobs, but they’d also been expected to give them up after their husbands returned from WWII.

Until 1964, it was still legal to not hire a woman just because she was a woman. Enter the EEOC, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission formed to punish employers discriminating based on sex. Even with the EEOC, it was difficult to enforce equal employment opportunities for women.

To help protect women, Betty Frieden created NOW, National Organization of Women, in 1966,  a women’s rights group focused on ending sexual discrimination in the workplace.

Gen Xers enter the workforce (early 1980s – turn of the century):

As the Gen Xers are entering the workforce in the early 1980s, for the first time more women than men were earning bachelor’s degrees.

Being educated hadn’t changed much in the eyes of many employers. They still didn’t want to hire women, and they didn’t. The EEOC continued to fight systematic discrimination, and they were busy.

When women were able to get jobs, they didn’t have much hope for advancing in them. In 1997 women accounted for 46% of all managers in the US, however, a 1996 survey of Fortune 500 companies showed that under 3% of the highest paid management jobs belonged to women.

Although many had jobs, women were not paid nearly what men were paid. In 1996 women were making 68 cents for every dollar a man made.

Things were certainly improved from 1964, but discrimination in the workplace was still commonplace and required vigilance and legal action to correct in many cases.

Gen Y enters the workforce (turn of the century – present):

Millennial women inherit the fruits previous generations of women struggled for. We don’t have to fight; we are expected to get jobs.

Gen Y women are fortunate to have something the Baby Boomers never had, many strong female leaders in the workforce to look up to and learn from.

I’m not declaring victory. Women have a long way to go, but we are getting there with many thanks to our predecessors.

It’s no wonder Baby Boomers and Gen Xers think Millennials are lazy. All we have to do is show up and work; it’s expected. It’s no wonder I still hear “You should be happy you even HAVE a job.”

I think it’s fair for Gen X and Baby Boomer women to expect Gen Y to work as hard or harder than they did to continue advancing toward equal rights in the workplace. Maybe Gen Y’s “entitled” attitude will actually keep women pushing up and forward toward gender equality. I think it will.

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.

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