Generational change. A passing of the torch. A recent Associated Press article points out these terms have been thrown around with frequency as the moment nears for Barack Obama to take the oath of presidential office.
And there's also been numerous references to Obama's relatively young age — at 47, he's tied for fifth place on the youngest presidents list with Grover Cleveland.Obama is technically a Baby Boomer; he was born in 1961. But Obama is a young Baby Boomer, raised post-Vietnam War and coming of age in the 1980s. As a result, he has often been characterized as Generation X (1965-1981) and more often Generation Jones, a name for the generation staddling the Boomers and Generation X.In any case, Obama long has sought to draw a generational contrast between himself and the politicians who came before him. He has positioned himself as a problem-solver and change-maker from the beginning, rather than focusing on the right-left ideology underlying the issues."I sometimes felt as if I were watching the psychodrama of the Baby Boom generation — a tale rooted in old grudges and revenge plots hatched on a handful of college campuses long ago — played out on the national stage," Obama wrote of the 2000 and 2004 elections in his book, The Audacity of Hope.As a result, social analysts, historians, journalists, bloggers, and ordinary Americans alike believe Inauguration Day will symbolize a new era in politics and the passing of an entire generation from power: the Baby Boomer era.It's been a while since historians spoke of generational change in Washington. Sixteen years have passed since Bill Clinton, the first Boomer president, took office. Before that, presidents from John F. Kennedy to George H.W. Bush — seven straight — were part of the World War II generation, also referred to as the Silent and Traditional generation.
And while the average age of the new Congress is 58.2 —the oldest average in history — it is also home to Aaron Schock, the youngest member of Congress and the first to be born in the 1980s. The 27-year-old Illinois Republican is already a political veteran: he won a seat on Peoria's school board at 19, rose to school-board president at 23 and then won two terms in the Illinois state legislature.Plus, the new president is bringing some "Jonesers" with him to the White House. Treasury secretary, Timothy Geithner, is 47. Education secretary, Arne Duncan, is 44, as is Susan Rice, U.N. ambassador. (His apparent pick for surgeon general, 39-year-old neurosurgeon and TV correspondent Sanjay Gupta, is a true Gen Xer.)Of course, Obama is also bringing in veteran Clintonites — most notably Hillary Rodham Clinton, 61, as secretary of state. And his vice president, Joe Biden, 66, and defense secretary Robert Gates, 65, are pre-boomers.But those are the kind of choices — inclusive of other perspectives, embracing rivals — that lead many to call Obama the first post-Boomer president.He's been referred to as "a generational bridge" brilliantly leveraging the communication behaviors of post-Boomers with a campaign waged across the Web, on cell phones and on social networking sites. And never before have we had a president who's troubled about giving up his Blackberry.Will Obama speak of generational change when he stands on the podium to issue his inaugural address? Given some of his rhetoric on the campaign trail, it's reasonable to think he will — just as some six months before Obama was born, JFK pronounced on Inauguration Day that "the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans, born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace."Interestingly, Kennedy is often claimed by Boomers to be one of their own, even though he was nothing of the kind; born in 1917, he'd be 91 now.In the same way, many Gen Xers and even Gen Yers like to claim Obama as one of their own, too.Generational change. A passing of the torch. This is history in the making.
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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