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Generation X
Generation Y

New Leaders Needed: Change Is Our Only Hope

Generations X and Y have a tainted view of authority. From President Richard Nixon to Enron, we have observed the fall of many of America's leaders. Will it ever stop? Here's just a sampling of what's happened in the past two months:

Generations X and Y have a tainted view of authority. From President Richard Nixon to Enron, we have observed the fall of many of America's leaders. Will it ever stop? Here's just a sampling of what's happened in the past two months:

Fraud! Deceit! Abuses of power! The cycle continues. Thanks to 24-hour access to news via CNN and the Web, we are more aware than ever of the shortcomings of our nation's leaders.Nevertheless, Generations X and Y are hopeful. Generation X came of age in the 1970s, which introduced 30 years of massive layoffs in corporate America. Our generation has long hoped the dishonesty would subside and our trust would be restored with ethical, admirable leaders at the helm of our nation's businesses and government.In contrast, Generation Y has come of age during a technology boom and were raised by parents that were especially protective of them and involved in their young lives. Ys learned collaboration and innovation from the start. They are an optimistic generation. Even during this challenging economic time, surveys indicate that four out of five Ys are hopeful about the future.But hope in and of itself is not a strategy. Xers and Ys need actionable concepts. We need and want real change to occur.I recently read a blog post that put the responsibility on HR departments and rallied on behalf of putting new leaders into positions of power. The blog, authored by Jason Seiden, stated:

"Top business leaders, by and large, cannot lead the way to a better tomorrow. They are too entrenched in the system and have too much at stake to be credible agents of change. Yes, enlightened leaders are out there and will be critical to success, but HR can be critical EVERYWHERE, irrespective of the CEO's enlightenment."

I'd take this a step further to say our businesses and government not only need new leaders, but younger leaders. Leaders who desperately want change and haven't spent years doing things the way they've always been done. How to do this? Here are a few ideas:

  1. Track your top performers. Remember – your top performers aren't always your executives. In fact, your company should identify its youngest top performers and focus on their insight and well-being. For example, call or meet with them, ask how they are doing and what resources they could use. Take notes on what they say, then compile those notes into concrete suggestions and act upon them.
  2. Evaluate the hiring process. Create a document that outlines your last HR hire including the competencies used, how you evaluated resumes, and your on-boarding process. Have the new hire weigh in with what worked and what didn't. Open yourself up for dialogue and feedback in an effort to continuously improve the hiring process and bring in the best candidates.
  3. Harness the power of the Web. Associate with younger generations by getting involved in free online job boards like LinkedIn and Facebook. Create a profile page devoted to your business to build a network of prospective, new, and experienced employees. This network will be valuable to you when you are ready to interview and hire and will also work to keep your company top-of-mind.
  4. Embrace social networking. Blogs devoted to recruiting and selection, or creating a blog on your company website will engage young workers. These generations want to see your company's personality and hear its voice so they have something to believe in and trust.
  5. Train. Younger generations want to be challenged and acquire new skills. Focus on the future and give them the tools they need to succeed. Trainings should be interactive and engage experienced leaders as presenters, or invite the younger leaders to present content themselves. A lack of professional development opportunities and a lack of positive relationships are the two main reasons X and Y leave an employer.
  6. Provide what X and Y want. As soon as the economic crisis subsides, retirements will continue and Generations X and Y will comprise the majority of the workforce by 2011. Do you know what these generations want from an employer? Here are just a few of the 'must-haves' for a company competing to keep young talent: tuition reimbursement for continuing education; access to quality professional and leadership development; opportunities to take on additional responsibilities in leadership roles; opportunities to connect and network with peers; mentoring programs; access to CEOS and executives; flextime and telecommuting options; and childcare and eldercare benefits.

Young leaders can think out of the box and respond to or introduce change. And change is exactly what our economy, businesses, and government need right now. Actually, change is our only hope.

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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