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Generation Y

When Boomers Behave Badly

At a recent workshop, one of the participants complained about their Gen Y workers. As an example of the “horrors” that Boomer managers have to deal with, he said indignantly. “Some Gen Yers even bring their parents along on interviews!”A couple of the other participants nodded in sympathy.

At a recent workshop, one of the participants complained about their Gen Y workers. As an example of the “horrors” that Boomer managers have to deal with, he said indignantly. “Some Gen Yers even bring their parents along on interviews!”A couple of the other participants nodded in sympathy. Another mentioned that they had gotten a call from a Gen Yer’s parent asking how their son had done in the interview! Everyone agreed that was a prime example of how Gen Yers completely don’t understand how to behave properly in the workplace.When I heard that though, I wanted to jump up and yell. “Wait a minute! Hold up! You can’t blame this one on Gen Yers!”Let me explain. Even if the parents of Gen Y workers are coming along for job interviews or asking to be involved in salary discussions – that is not necessarily the fault of the Gen Yer!

This is actually a prime example of a Boomer Behaving Badly. Yes, Gen Yers are nervous about their first interviews and salary negotiations. Who wouldn’t be? Basically nothing in our 18 years of schooling prepares us for the actual interviewing process.And most salary negotiations are generally about the employer trying to get the best employee they can for the least amount of money and benefits. If a hiring manager can low-ball an employee for any reason, they probably will. So it’s easy for an inexperienced Gen Yer to get taken advantage of – especially since (after years of scraping by on peanuts in college) any steady salary rate sounds like a fortune.So we worry, and we freak out about this to our parents. (As I’m sure Xers and Boomers did to their own parents.) This isn’t anything remarkable.

The problem occurs when a Boomer parent listens to their Gen Yer and decides that the best solution is simply for them to come along!This is what surprises me about the situation. Boomers have been in the workplace for years. They know what’s expected and what’s not. They (justifiably) get annoyed when younger workers behave improperly. And yet, some Boomers apparently think it’s appropriate for them to come along on interviews and even to call the interviewer afterward to see how their son or daughter did.

It’s unbelievable that those Boomers even considered that to be an option. They should know better. Most Boomers do. For example, when I was being treated badly in a former job, my father wanted to call my boss and speak to her. He knew that she was taking advantage of my inexperience – and as a former HR manager, he knew she had no legal ground to stand on.But he didn’t call her. Instead, he took the time to discuss the issue thoroughly with me so I understood where I was entitled to stand firm. And my mother, who was also upset with the situation, helped me practice what I would say and proofread my emails.They were involved, and they gave me valuable advice that made sure my inexperience didn’t work against me. But they stayed in the background – as they should. They knew it would be out of line for them to handle the issue for me.

So, when you see that Gen Yer sitting there in the waiting room with their mother or father, don’t lay the blame on the young person you’re interviewing. There could be easily several issues at play. The Gen Yer could be so relieved to be getting help that they allowed their parent to come along – and they might not know that it’s inappropriate. But there’s also the possibility that the Boomer insisted that they come along – and the Gen Yer is totally mortified. (We frequently are when our parents behave badly.)There’s one thing that is absolutely certain: that Baby Boomer parent should have known better.

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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