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Generation Y

Is Small Town America Becoming Passé?

The impact that Generation Y, ages 13-25, will have on urban planning is already becoming apparent. I’ve read about and observed first-hand the many small agricultural communities reeling from massive population loss, and the mid-size industrial cities dealing with the same issue, as well as struggling with keeping crime under control and selling people on the notion that it is important to rebuild these cities’ urban cores.

The impact that Generation Y, ages 13-25, will have on urban planning is already becoming apparent.I’ve read about and observed first-hand the many small agricultural communities reeling from massive population loss, and the mid-size industrial cities dealing with the same issue, as well as struggling with keeping crime under control and selling people on the notion that it is important to rebuild these cities’ urban cores.Many people might ask why this has any connection with younger generations. Why is it important to invest in cities when its citizens move out to the suburbs? Why is it important to rebuild town centers when those young people fortunate enough to go to college will just move away after school?Because Generation Y, the largest generation in American history, wants to live in the city.Twenty years ago, Washington, D.C. was renowned as the murder capital of the world. D.C. didn’t concern itself with urban renewal because residents were cocooned in the suburbs. The same is true for Minneapolis, once known as ‘Murderapolis’, as well as most large cities.In the late 1980s and early ‘90s, urban renewal spread across the United States. Cities started renovating and rebuilding to include housing, shopping, and entertainment for all walks of life.Author Richard Florida studies the vitality of America’s communities. He was recently interviewed by the Washington Business Journal and explained the move back to urban areas was spurred by social and generational change.In the 1930s, most Americans lived in small farming communities. In the 1940s and ‘50s, the automobile played a large part in travel and exposed America to new landscapes and bustling cities. In the 1960s and ‘70s, racial turbulence and civil unrest during wartime drove families to the suburbs and smaller towns and large cities both faltered.Many Baby Boomers pursued the ‘white picket fence’ dream – building big houses with sprawling lawns to give their children everything they didn’t have.The older Xers followed suit and McMansions were soon being built to accommodate their desire for big houses on their prohibitive, young professional incomes. (Financial analysts would say the Xers’ desire to have exactly what our parents had right out of college is what created insurmountable heaps of debt for our generation.)What will tomorrow’s communities look like?Undoubtedly, there will be a move back to urban areas.Generation Y is pre-disposed to living in urban areas. They grew up with technology, credit cards, and Starbucks. It’s no surprise their focus on community and convenience demands productivity and a short commute to whatever resource they need.Furthermore, Generation X, and especially Y, has placed considerable emphasis on work-life balance. They are willing to forego a large home in the suburbs and the long commute it requires for a smaller home closer to work. Gen Y is dedicated to the environment and the use of mass transit appeals to them.Commuting in exchange for a bigger house was a deal Baby Boomers were willing to make for their family. For younger generations, that’s not a reasonable trade-off.According to the Washington Business Journal, Gen Y will be 30% of the population by 2012.Is your city or town ready for Y?Y will move where there is a place for them, and as the largest generation in America, they will be a tremendous economic boon for any city offering jobs, diversity, transit systems, technology, coffeehouses, parks and recreation, and economic vitality.The fact is, few small towns in America will be able to capture the citizenship of Gen Y.

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.

Sonja Moseley

Director of Strategy and Innovation at XYZ University, Sonja is passionate about growing intentionally. She isn’t afraid to ask tough questions that break down barriers and lay the groundwork for success. A Master of Nonprofit Studies coupled with leadership roles in nonprofit and membership organizations have equipped her with a unique perspective on mission-driven management. Sonja draws upon her experience to help organizations uncover opportunities and develop young talent.

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