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Generation Y

Knowing Y: Engage The Next Generation Now

Generation Y. Millennials. Trophy Generation. The Me First Generation. Regardless of how you refer to them, organizations worldwide are really perplexed by the generation of young adults now moving into the majority of the workforce, consumer spending, and voting power.

Generation Y. Millennials. Trophy Generation. The Me First Generation.

Regardless of how you refer to them, organizations worldwide are really perplexed by the generation of young adults now moving into the majority of the workforce, consumer spending, and voting power.

Often dismissed as entitled, attention-deficit, and incapable of interpersonal communication, leaders often lament the fact this generation is difficult to understand and impossible to engage. Few have taken the extra step to truly understand what motivates and inspires this generation.

I have spent the last several months doing just that, researching and interviewing hundreds of Gen Ys and authoring a book on the topic. “Knowing Y: Engage the Next Generation Now” (ASAE: The Center for Association Leadership) will hit bookshelves later this month. This book was written to help leaders determine why Generation Y isn’t engaging and what to do about it.

Think you know Y? Think again.

As the first generation to come of age in the post-Industrial Era, Generation Y’s interpretation of the world and how it works differs from the generations born during the Industrial Era. As a result, they communicate, purchase, and engage differently and have introduced in entirely new approaches and values systems.

Here are a few of the shifts occurring as Gen Y moves into young adulthood

Loyalty vs. Relationships

Generation Y is more apt to move from one opportunity to the next, garnering them a reputation for having a lack of loyalty. Ys are very loyal—they’re just not loyal to institutions; they are loyal to people. Gen Y commits when meaningful, trustworthy relationships are actively present.

Ownership vs. Access

After defining ourselves for centuries by possessions—cars, houses, stocks, land, and jewelry—what matters most to Generation Y is not so much ownership as access. They will forego ownership to rent or share, and they love technology for providing access to most of the essentials of everyday life. The pressure is on to provide access to products and experiences that deliver a real return on investment.

Community vs. Globalization

Members of the older generations are likely to define community as knowing your neighbors. Generation Y defines community as having access to and interacting with a global network via social media. Globalization is something earlier generations could only consider in abstract terms; Generation Y has always lived it.

 Status vs. Inclusion

No longer is all the wisdom and experience contained within the eldest, predominantly male population. This hierarchical, homogenous model survived for centuries, but it will end with Y. They are the most ethnically diverse generation in history, best educated, and the first to have more women than men obtain postsecondary credentials.

 Jobs vs. Entrepreneurs

It used to be that you would choose a career, get a job, and work for that industry—sometimes for the same company—until you retired. Today, more workers are detaching from conventional jobs to take on contract work and Gen Y has launched a record number of businesses. The entire workforce is moving into an entrepreneurial mindset both figuratively and literally.

Sales vs. Service

Ys are very smart, savvy consumers and they will do their homework before they purchase anything. Ys will want facts and expect great customer service. This will mean organizations need to shift their focus from sales to service; recruitment to relationship building.

You can choose to dwell on the challenges that lie ahead or you can dwell on the opportunities. But one thing is certain – whatever choice you make from here on out, it will begin and end with 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.

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