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Generation Y

Marching into a New Generation

2017 has been marked by an influx of poltical demonstrations. In 2016, 3.6 million Baby Boomers retired, Millennials became the largest generation in the workforce and Gen Z started entering the professional scene. How are the current generational shifts affecting our poltical landscape?

Never marched in a political demonstration? Well, it appears that 2017 is the year to step outside your comfort zone and march in solidarity with like-minded individuals. Starting with the Women's March in January, we've witnessed numerous demonstrations on both sides of the isle. Last weekend, the March for Science drew 40,000 in D.C., 40,000 in Chicago, 20,000 in New York and 10,000 in London, as well as thousands in cities across the world. 

While it had a smaller turnout than the Women's March and the March for Life, the March for Science was part of a much larger transition. This year, for that matter, marks a new era. People who have never previously participated in political demonstrations are getting involved. Social media is providing virtual hubs for people to express their views and disseminate those opinions to the masses. What is it about 2017 that has brought forth so much uprising?

In 2016, 3.6 million Baby Boomers retired, Millennials became the largest generation in the workforce and Gen Z started entering the professional scene. It's hard to discuss this political shift, including one of the most contentious political campaigns in history, without including the generational shift. Both the first female candidate on the democratic side and a businessman without a political background on the republican side prove the desire for something new. Saying, "this is the way things have always been done" is no longer resonating with the incoming generations, as there is a hunger for change, a desire for something new and an upswell of people who aren't afraid to demand it.

We recently interviewed a Millennial who participated in some of this uprising, most recently the March for Science. Jennifer Owens is in her mid-twenties, has a Bachelor of Arts in International Studies from the University of Minnesota-Duluth and is currently working remotely as a program manager for SAVE (Suicide Awareness Voices of Education), based in Bloomington, Minnesota.

When asked why she marched, she said,"I marched in solidarity with people from all professional backgrounds who support the scientific process and have a shared concern about the direction the new administration is headed. It's alarming and disheartening when our highest body of governance blatantly ignores the facts in favor of an alternative reality that better supports it's worldview. I can't help but think what a privileged behavior this is. The privilege of ignoring truth because you're not directly affected or negatively impacted."

In the age of transparency, the Millennials are no longer standing on the sideline while the new leaders take charge, they are instead taking charge. There is a widespread demand for leaders to share more of what is happening behind the scenes, in what we've dubbed this the "sharing economy". It doesn't stop with AirBnB and Uber, no, Millennials are demanding more information about the places they work and the people who lead their cities, states and country.

It's also easier than ever to spread news (real or fake) like wildfire. For the first time in history, the term "alternative facts" has become mainstream and "fake news" has permeated the political process at the highest level. Not surprisingly, Millennials are not simply willing to stand by and trust their leaders, without some kind of give and take of information. Wracked by change and disruption, the Millennial generation has ranked trust as one of the most important qualities in their leaders. So, it's not surprising that science, a proven method for uncovering facts and thus creating "trust", became a platform for demanding more transparency from our highest leaders.

"Those of my generation who are paying attention think this cause shouldn't even be a cause. We're frustrated. We're angry. We shouldn't have to be marching in support of science, truth, and reason because these are all ideas that were settled hundreds of years ago - or so we thought." stated Owens. "But we got off our butts last weekend, we made signs, and we marched. We marched to support smart policy decisions, based on science, evidence and facts, that will make the lives of our people better for generations to come. We marched against the trend of anti-intellectualism and the normalization of ignorance. We marched because we understood the stakes and that saying nothing would be far worse."

She continued to tell us "the experience was empowering. It's a reminder that you're not alone and that the power lies within us. It lies within our voices, in our actions, in our consumer habits, and all other aspects of life. If we keep demanding truth, if we stay curious and demand evidence, we can't fail."

As our conversation came to a close, Jennifer shared her "hope that we demonstrated to our nation's leaders that we care about facts, we care about science, we care about the environment and climate change, and we aren't going to simply fall in line. Now that the march is over, we need to keep having these conversations in our own networks, pay attention to what's going on in Congress, and follow legislation that's going to affect the marginalized or those without a voice. All of this matters now more than ever. RESIST"

The "resist" slogan, seen widely during the Women's March and again in the March for Science, is intriguing by itself. Yes, there is a left-leaning "resistance" dedicated to the current president, but there is something more to this. The influx and diversity at every political movement during the last year may be marking a shift in "left versus right" altogether. 

So, is this generation, the Millennials, resisting the "way it's always been done" and shifting towards breaking down the old hierarchy? 

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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