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Generation Y

Under The Hood(Ie): Realizing Gen Y's Potential

This year, the oldest members of Generation Y will turn 30. By the time these people reach their 33rd birthday, Generation Y will have become the majority of the workforce. In other words, by 2015 the majority of our workforce will be in their 20s.

This year, the oldest members of Generation Y will turn 30. By the time these people reach their 33rd birthday, Generation Y will have become the majority of the workforce. In other words, by 2015 the majority of our workforce will be in their 20s.


For some, this is a terrifying reality. After all, Generation Y has perplexed employers, industries and associations nationwide. Criticized for being lazy, demanding and self-centered, the future majority has received a bad rap.

Take for example Mark Zuckerberg, one of the most successful entrepreneurs. At 28 years old, the billionaire of Facebook has been heavily criticized amidst its recent tumbling stock prices. Forbes positioned it as a case of the young whippersnappers vs. the old fogies.

Interesting enough, the stock price has nearly taken a backseat to the coverage of Zuckerberg’s decision to wear a hoodie when he courted would-be investors in New York. That hoodie has garnered such harsh criticism as a mark of immaturity,  a sign of Liberal communism and a trademark for the smug, Harvard jerk.

Yikes. Who could have thought that a hoodie would mean so much?

The point is, Generation Y–even the most successful of Gen Y–isn’t being taken very seriously. We’ve seen it before. When Generation X came of age, they were dubbed Slackers. But the mud-slinging seems to be worse this time around because the gaps are wider. Substantial change has occurred in the past 20 years and that has substantially altered the perceptions, values and choices of Generation Y.

Is it just age we’re talking about here? Is Mark Zuckerberg really immature and simply hasn’t grown up yet? Well, at 28 years old that’s a tough argument to make. Indeed, when we’re young we’re rebellious and we feel invincible. However, we can’t track all of Gen Y’s mannerisms back to youthful rebellion. It’s more than that.

Let’s face it: some of the differences we’re seeing in Generation Y have little to do with age. It’s their generation.

So why is Gen Y a Y? Why can’t they be more like the rest of us? By taking a closer look at their childhood influences, one can better understand the seemingly odd behaviors of Generation Y — and also realize their potential.


Unlike other generations, Generation Y has been raised as peers in the household. From a young age, their Baby Boomer parents listened to their opinions, heeded their advice and readily met their needs.

  • The Result: Gen Y doesn’t understand the concepts of hierarchy or authority. They want meaningful relationships with their direct supervisors and expect to have the same opportunities and privileges in the workplace as their elders.
  • The Opportunity: Gen Y wants to learn from their elders and they are fast learners, which makes them excellent candidates for leadership roles and increased responsibility.


From bike helmets to organized play dates to living with their parents post-college, Generation Y is the most protected, supervised and provided for generation in history.

  • The Result: Gen Y struggles with independence. They prefer to work in teams and need frequent feedback and direction from their co-workers. Also, Gen Y may have difficulty dealing with disappointment and failure.
  • The Opportunity: Gen Y has been raised with the proverbial safety net in place and is therefore more confident—even in the absence of experience. They are entrepreneurial-minded, willing to take more risks and think outside the box. This confidence, innovation and drive can be a positive asset to an organization.


Generation Y is the best-educated generation in history with a very high percentage pursuing advanced degrees and studying abroad. However, today’s education system doesn’t delve into workforce training.

  • The Result: Gen Y needs training on workplace etiquette. They simply don’t know or understand the importance of dress codes and other protocols. In fact, many young job seekers don’t know how to interview for a job or prepare a résumé.
  • The Opportunity: Globally-minded, marketing-savvy, technology-savvy and innovative, Gen Y brings a considerable amount of knowledge to the job and they tend to learn faster and produce more than their co-workers.


Generation Y is the first to be raised on technology. To them, technology is like oxygen. In fact, they rank it as important as oxygen.

  • The Result: Generation Y may have more difficulty handling interactions with clients and customers—especially via phone or face-to-face conversations.
  • The Opportunity: Here again, Generation Y has the upper hand on productivity. Their natural ability to use technology makes them capable of getting more done in a shorter period of time. In addition, they are masters at multi-tasking, information-gathering, and networking on a global scale.

Is it wise for Mark Zuckerberg to sport a hoodie during an IPO launch? Perhaps not.

But success has little to do with what you wear  — and clearly it has nothing to do with age, either.

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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