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Generation Y

The End Of Work As We Know It

Last week I gave a presentation at the national conference of an industry association. I was charged with giving a presentation on younger generations and future trends.

Last week I gave a presentation at the national conference of an industry association. I was charged with giving a presentation on younger generations and future trends.

This is a difficult feat when the industry’s average employee age is 60-years-old.

Imagine the blank stares I received when I spoke about space travel and holograms and a world with a majority population under 30-years-old.

The fact is, for an industry with an average age of 60, the chances of reversing the aging trend at this point borders on the impossible; they are too far gone. These industry leaders didn’t need a presentation on the future – they needed a presentation on how to survive the next year!

What I can’t help wondering is, what has this industry been doing for the last 10 years? How did it get to this point? Didn’t they ever stop to ponder the concept of change or to consider that they desperately needed to build a bench of young talent?

Just think about the rapidity of change in the global economy, global politics and consumer technology in the past five years. Five years ago, most major economic trend lines were up and to the right. There were more entrenched autocrats in power in the Middle East. The iPad hadn’t been invented yet. A Harvard dropout named Mark Zuckerberg had started Facebook, and tweeting was emerging as something other than what birds do.

If change continues at its current rate, let alone accelerates, it’s going to completely redefine the concept of work and leadership. For the industries and companies that have struggled to make change and adapt, this means inevitable failure. We can’t get stuck in the past. Change is the only certainty.

Here are a few changes to anticipate — now:

  • LeadershipLeadership is going to get a lot more complex. It’s going to be less and less about authority and more and more about influence. Collaboration will rule because younger generations have been groomed to do it, cycle times will demand it, and technology will continue to enable it.
  • TechnologyThe workforce of the future will be innovation-centered, highly productive, and a magnet for global talent. New technologies will be developed and globalization will continue to drive the utilization of advanced mobile technologies. Expect increased telecommuting, virtual teams, and more work flexibility overall. (Plus, the arrival of robots, space travel, and holograms will certainly change the concept of work as we know it!)
  • SkillsKnowledge won’t be the competitive advantage anymore. With technology, knowledge is quickly outdated and accessible to all in real-time. The critical skills needed to be successful in the new working environment are vision and foresight to anticipate or respond to change very quickly, make wise decisions, and take action to create a better future.
  • Customization by GenerationWith three distinct generations in the workforce — Baby Boomers, Generation X and Generation Y — employers will need to develop highly individualized solutions to accommodate the career needs of each generation. Savvy business owners and chief executives will take advantage of the skills, attitudes and unique characteristics of each group. Create career paths for all three generations so that they see how they have a future with your firm.
  • DiversityIn addition to the generational shift, our nation will witness gender and racial shifts, as well. For the first time in history, more women are attending college than men and 40% of working-women are out-earning their husbands. Gradual racial and ethnic shifts in the population are more concentrated in younger generations because most immigrants are young adults and because Hispanic families in the U.S. tend to have more than the average number of children.
  • MobilizationBy 2015, Generation Y will become the majority workforce. This generation is highly entrepreneurial, so we’re likely to see more start-ups and small businesses, which will spur corporate downsizing. We will not see long careers of 10 or more years in one company, but maybe 6 years with employees making either functional or geographic changes every 2 years.
  • LoyaltyGen Yers find jobs through friends and want to work with friends. Loyalty is to a person — the boss — not the company. And time is more valued than money. Millennials want flexible schedules and may prefer additional vacation days to cash bonuses.

Fast-paced change in our society has affected all industries and will continue to change the nature of work for the next 10 to 15 years. Chances are if your organization isn’t thinking about the future, it’s already irrelevant.

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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