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Generation X
Generation Y

The Generational Fear Factor and a Simple Way to Overcome It

Failure. Being overlooked. Change. Three fears held by different generations that damage, and often lead to inaccurate stereotypes. There’s a easy way for all of us to come together, break some stereotypes, and help each other work through our fears.

Most of us have either experienced or learned that there are generational differences, but did you know that there are also generational fears? It’s not fear of spiders, heights, or small spaces. 

What fears does each generation hold and what stereotypes are created from those fears?

Baby Boomers fear change. For 34 years Boomers were the majority in the workforce. That means that virtually every industry, with the exception of technology, was ruled by the generation that values conformity and Industrial Era management practices. That all changed in 2015 when Millennials became the majority and brought their Post-Industrial Era technology, casual dress demands, and pursuit of happiness. Few people actually like change and Boomers are being asked to accept a whole lot of it in a very short period of time. Do you know that our bodies have a physiological response to too much change in a short period of time? It maxes out our prefrontal cortex, creates fear and causes our amygdala to respond with the fight or flight response.

The fear of change leads to the perception that Boomers are stuck in their ways, unteachable and quickly becoming irrelevant.

Generation X, the Jan Brady of generations, fears being overlooked. Is it any wonder? Stuck between the older, and more beautiful Marcia (Baby Boomers clocking in at 78 Million strong) and the cute and perky Millennials (80 Million), Gen Xers are growing bitter with the lack of room for them in at this generational table. It would be wise for us to make some space because while this grown-up “slacker” generation is smaller in size (46 Million) it could be a very strong ally in this generational conflict. They have a foot in both eras and could be the bridge that saves us all.

The fear of being overlooked leads to the perception that Generation X is too cynical and busy complaining to contribute.

Millennials fear failure. They don’t fear it because they are incapable of failing, but because they’ve never had to face it and it can be a shock to the system. It’s like the first exposure to the sun, if you aren’t prepared, most people will get sunburned. As the trophy kids of helicopter parents, Gen Y is having their first exposure to failure as adults, and it’s scary.

The fear of failure leads to the perception that Millennials are flighty, and not worth investing in.

So what’s the secret to overcoming generational fears and breaking through stereotypes? It’s one word: COLLABORATION.

It is the act of working with someone to produce or create something. I’m going to give it an “overcoming generational differences twist,” and say it’s the action of working with someone of a different generation to produce or create something. It turns out that the antidote to our generational fears is found in community with, and being supported by, others.

We are living in an era of change which has produced fear and conflict. It is a challenge to be successful in the 21st century workforce with a multi-generational team, but it is also a unique opportunity. For the first time in history, each generation has something to learn and teach. What a time to be alive!

This is an opportunity for the different generations to work together, break some stereotypes and help each other overcome our fears.

Sadly, I can’t do anything about your fear of clowns. You’re on your own for that one.

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.

Jodie Swee

Together we’re better. This is Jodie Swee’s motto when it comes to generational differences. She has spent the last twenty years digging into the psychology of Millennials and is passionate about helping to bridge the gap with older generations. Jodie's background in sketch comedy sprinkles humor into the realities of our multi-generational workforce.

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