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Generation Y
Generation X

Success Defined By Generational Values

This spring, about 1.65 million young men and women graduated from American colleges and universities. That’s a staggering number. Much has been written, and rightly so, about the difficulties facing the Generation Y (also known as Millennials) graduates as they enter a troubled world.

This spring, about 1.65 million young men and women graduated from American colleges and universities. That’s a staggering number.

Much has been written, and rightly so, about the difficulties facing the Generation Y (also known as Millennials) graduates as they enter a troubled world.

Compared with other recent American generations, this year’s grads seem to have been dealt a particularly tough hand. These graduates will be entering a grudging and highly competitive job market in an economy still sputtering toward a meaningful rebound.

But with great challenge comes great opportunity.

Back in March, TheNew York Times published a story headlined, “More College Graduates Take Public Service Jobs.” The article refers to “a cohort of young (people) who ended up doing good because the economy did them wrong.”

As job hunts became tough after the crisis, anecdotal evidence suggested that more young people considered public service. Exactly how big that shift was is now becoming clear: In 2009 alone, 16 percent more young college graduates worked for the federal government than in the previous year and 11 percent more for nonprofit groups.

Specifically, applications for AmeriCorps positions nearly tripled from 2008 to 2010, to  258,829. The number of applicants to the Teach for America program increased by 32% to 46,359.

The New York Times article referred to Millennials as people who were “recalibrating” their ambitions and their goals.

The article surmises that Millennials are unusually big-hearted, partly because of the community service requirements they had in school and partly because of recent economic decline. Research has always indicated that this generation is more interested in making a difference than making a dollar; they would rather serve a greater purpose than to help a company make more widgets.

In any case, what’s happening in the job market is an excellent example of how generations are formed. It’s not an exact science, but we can’t deny that as a rule, we establish our values and interests based on what’s happening in the world during our youth.

Baby Boomers were raised in an era of prosperity. They were encouraged to pursue the American Dream, which consisted of a great education or great job and resulted in the title of CEO, the corner office, and a hefty salary with an annual raise.

Generation Xers were raised in an era of social change. They were raised to be self-sufficient, raising themselves amidst skyrocketing divorce rates, two-parent working households, and 30 years of massive layoffs in corporate America. As a result, they strived to find jobs that offered work-life balance so they didn’t have to sacrifice time spent with loved ones or enjoying life.

Generation Y started out as the most supervised generation in history, shuttled off to playdates and daycare and soccer practices from an early age. They have always been rewarded for participation and not achievement. They have observed or experienced major crises ranging from terrorism, September 11, school shootings, and the worst economic decline in 70 years. As a result, they seek meaningful work.

What we experience in our youth defines our values; it even defines the way we define success. Each generation defines success so differently, it’s often the cause of conflict in the workplace. On the other hand, it’s also the path to greater opportunity.

Boomers love the rat race and built many of America’s successful enterprises with their own blood, sweat, and tears. In contrast, Generation Y wants to help the human race and will serve America’s people with their compassion, creativity, and innovation.

We need what every generation has to offer to be our best selves, workplaces, communities, and country. That’s the challenge–and the opportunity–of being in a multi-generational workforce.

(P.S. If you want to know more about what’s happening in the workplace, check out HR magazine’s May cover story, Mixing It Up. A colleague of mine, Amy Hirsh Robinson, is quoted in the article. The article delves into the attitudes, conflicts, issues, and choices that arise with four generations in the workplace.)

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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