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Generation Y

Why Generation Y Won’t Go To Washington

Thousands of Americans woke up yesterday unsure where their next paycheck will come from. Others found their vacations to national parks cut short. Still others found the frustration of the federal bureaucracy even more frustrating, with fewer federal workers around to handle their questions.

Thousands of Americans woke up yesterday unsure where their next paycheck will come from. Others found their vacations to national parks cut short. Still others found the frustration of the federal bureaucracy even more frustrating, with fewer federal workers around to handle their questions.

Welcome to the government shutdown. Congress missed its midnight deadline to keep the government running and now must cobble together a compromise.

XYZ University would like to take a moment during this government crisis to address another crisis lurking on the Capitol steps.

Did you know? The U.S. has the oldest Congress in history and the oldest Senate in more than a century. Elected officials are aging, and younger generations are abandoning Washington. In fact, a recent article in “The Atlantic” researched the “hate” younger generations have for public service and politics.

Forget what you’ve read about the “trophy generation.” Here are four things you probably don’t know about the 80 million Americans born between 1981 and 1995 (Generation Y, ages 18-31).

  • This generation is fiercely committed to community service. Among college students, the volunteerism rate is a remarkable 53%, of which 41% say they serve at least a few times a month.
  • They don’t see politics or government as a way to improve their communities, their country, or the world.
  • This generation is rejecting public service as a career path. As Baby Boomers retire from government and politics, Washington is staring down a “brain drain.”
  • The only way this generation might engage in Washington is if they first radically change it.

This generation could rescue the civic health of our nation after decades of decline because, like their grandparents (the Silent Generation, 1925-1945), they are products of an era of economic crisis and war, and they are committed to community service.Not only does this generation volunteer more than any of the other generations, Ys are also more concerned with the importance of their work than the salary attached to it. Wired to the world, they are also more likely than past generations to see the globe’s problems as their own.That’s the good news.

The bad news is Generation Y is increasingly negative and cynical about the political process. According to the Survey of Young Americans’ Attitudes Toward Politics and Public Service:

47% agree that “politics today are no longer able to meet the challenges our country is facing”; and51% believe that when government runs something it is usually wasteful and inefficient.

There was likely a moment between the reelection campaigns of George W. Bush and Barack Obama when the case could have been made to Generation Y that government is transcendent. But instead, they came of age in a period of polarization and gridlock; the president they supported could not overcome it.

Generation Y has no patience for inefficiency, stodgy institutions or the status quo, and they want results – all reasons why they are disengaging from public service and government work.

In fact, just 6 percent of college students plan to work for public sector institutions, and only 2.3 percent want to work at the federal level.

Yet, as Baby Boomers approach retirement, the federal government will need to hire more than 200,000 highly skilled workers for a range of critical jobs. The successful transition of our nation depends on the interest of Generation Y–the largest generation in history.

To Gen Y, the world is filled with injustice and need, but government isn’t the solution. They are more likely to be social entrepreneurs, working outside government to create innovative and measurably successful solutions to the nation’s problems, even if only on a relatively small scale.

Predicting the future of U.S. government is challenging, but this much is certain: the government in existence today isn’t engaging or relevant to the future majority. And sooner or later, change won’t just be a campaign slogan anymore. It will become a reality.

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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