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Generation Y
Talent Development

The Lie That’s Robbing Our Future

Did you ever find yourself halfway through a major shift before you realized it was happening? Like a frog in pot of water sitting over an open flame; halfway to boiling before you even realize the water is warm? Well, the water is heating up in the workforce and it’s time to pay attention before we get cooked!

Did you ever find yourself halfway through a major shift before you realized it was happening? Like a frog in pot of water sitting over an open flame; halfway to boiling before you even realize the water is warm? Well, the water is heating up in the workforce and it’s time to pay attention before we get cooked!

In 2015, we saw a huge generational shift when Millennials became the majority generation in the workforce. For the previous 34 years Baby Boomers were the majority and in a position of leadership within virtually every industry. That is a very long time for any one generation to be in charge. Management practices created by their values and cultural expectations have become so ingrained as to seem unchangeable. But they will change with the new majority generation, whether we’re ready for it or not.  

Not only are Millennials the new majority, but by the end of this decade 78 million Baby Boomers will turn 65 years old. With so many Boomers retiring, more than a fourth of Millennial workers will be stepping into leadership positions. This shift is a documented fact and yet, according to a 2015 Deloitte study, only 31% of global human capital leaders believe their company's leadership pipeline is "ready". Which means our leadership is aging and we don’t have a great succession plan.

The reality is Baby Boomers aren’t sure if Millennials are ready to lead, and Millennials aren’t sure they want to lead what Baby Boomers have built.  It might seem like we’re at an impasse. My colleague delivered a Q & A on this topic recently when an audience member said, “There’s nothing we can do about it!”  She’s not alone in that frustration. Many people are frustrated by the disconnect between generations in the workforce, but it is a lie to believe that there is nothing we can do about it.

Many things are going to be changing in this next decade as we adjust to the new majority, but to do so successfully the first thing that needs to change is our attitude. To change our attitudes, we must start by acknowledging a couple of things.

First, it’s time to acknowledge that the leadership practices of the past will not work in the future. Not even if you dress them up in a new logo or put a foosball table in the break room. It’s time to acknowledge that Millennials, and the values and cultural experiences they bring, are not going anywhere. Not only are they not going anywhere, but they are going to shape our future.

For many organizations this is going to mean going back to the drawing table and inviting new people to the table. XYZ University CEO Sarah Sladek writes about this in her latest book, Talent Generation. She writes that after 16 years of workforce research she has discovered a significant truth. Sladek says, “Any organization that wants to succeed in the 21st century must provide a means for entry-level talent to work in close collaboration with executive-level talent.”

Secondly, inviting new people to the table means acknowledging that different (and younger) generations have something of value to offer. This is not about bending their way of thinking to older practices. It is about bending older practices around new ways of thinking to remain relevant in the 21st century.

The first wave of successful change is always internal and easily practiced. Change your attitude and you might just change the future.

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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