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Generation Y
Generation X

Move Over Pops: Rock Stars Have Invaded The Workforce

Throughout history, many of the most successful rock stars were largely misunderstood and criticized at some point in their lives and had to claw their way to the top of an industry that was highly-competitive and ruthlessly cutthroat.

Throughout history, many of the most successful rock stars were largely misunderstood and criticized at some point in their lives and had to claw their way to the top of an industry that was highly-competitive and ruthlessly cutthroat.

That’s what makes the term ‘rock star’ such a great metaphor for my generation, Generation X (1965-1981), and the generation to follow, Generation Y (1982-1995).

Our generations have been largely misunderstood and criticized by the generations that precede us. We are often labeled as high-maintenance non-conformists, self-centered slackers, or ego-centric know-it-alls.

Nonetheless, we are high-performing generations. We are well-educated, globally-minded, tech-savvy, multi-tasking professionals who easily strike a balance between bonding with our families, finding fulfilling work, and making a difference in the world.

To use a concept that is familiar with the Baby Boomers (1946-1964), the arrival of our generations is comparable to the arrival of The Beatles. The Beatles changed rock ’n roll the same way Generations X and Y are changing work.

How are we changing work?

Working nine to five isn’t the only way we make a living. We would rather start our own businesses than climb a corporate ladder. Salary is not our primary motivator. And we certainly aren’t going to work 20 years at the same company in hopes of receiving a gold watch at the retirement party.

Generations X and Y possess the rock star talent every company wants and needs, but can’t seem to relate to–much less keep entertained.

All generational differences aside, the fact is this: In 2010, 40% of our workforce will be eligible to retire, which poses a serious threat to our industries and America’s ability to compete in a global economy.

Perhaps a percentage of Boomers will prolong their retirement due to the recent financial crisis—but this presents the daunting challenge of maintaining a cutting-edge workforce with relevant skills in a rapidly-changing, technology-driven world.

And every year after 2010 more Boomers will be turning 65. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a shortfall of 10 million workers within 10 years.

Why aren’t there enough workers?

Partly because young professionals are choosing technology-based careers instead of careers that were popular choices for their predecessors like accounting, construction, education, government work, and healthcare.

And partly because most Boomers work for corporate America, and most Xers and Ys would rather not. Younger generations are leading the trend toward entrepreneurship.

The approaching retirement wave united with the wave of workers pursuing different careers is indeed the perfect storm; a serious threat that has long been predicted, but few businesses will prepare for until it actually hits.

Unfortunately, the economic crisis has made executives more passive towards the talent gap. Either they have become so driven by quarterly reports that they aren’t planning for it, or they are simply hoping the issue will resolve itself –which is a ridiculous notion! All the Boomers will not prolong their retirements and all the Xers and Ys will not suddenly become more accepting of the Boomer ways of work and just be happy to be employed.

We must stop relying on the retiring workforce to fill in the gaps and start focusing on recruiting and retaining the next generation of employees!

No matter how much you want Boomers to prolong their retirements, their days are numbered. Prepare for their retirement and do everything you can to capture the information that is critical to your company’s succession planning.

Likewise, make a sincere effort to understand and embrace the expectations of X and Y and accept that your organization needs the talent only they can provide. Give them ample opportunities, access to leaders, plenty of motivation and freedom and they will perform well for your company.

Indeed, their view of work is different, which means you are going to have to try harder to relate to them and make changes to keep them. But your company’s success in the years ahead will depend largely on its ability to attract and keep these young rock stars.

Without Generations X and Y, your company doesn’t have a succession plan.

Without the latest and greatest talent, your company doesn’t stand a chance of surviving this storm—and neither does our economy.

Sarah L. Sladek is the president and CEO of Limelight Generations. She is also author of Rock Stars Incorporated: Hiring the High Performance, High Maintenance Hotshots Half Your Age, and founder of the RockStars@Work Conference being held in Minneapolis on October 20, 2009.

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.

Sarah Sladek

Concerned about declining engagement in our nation’s membership associations, non-profits, and workplaces, Sarah Sladek founded XYZ University, the nation’s first and only generations-focused training and engagement strategy company, in 2002.

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