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Generation X
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Generation Z

Workplace Evolution: Flexibility For All Generations

Remember when doctors smoked at the office? You don’t have to watch Mad Men to appreciate how much the workplace has evolved in the last 50 years. Right now we have three generations–Boomers, Gen X and Millenials–in the workforce with varying needs and expectations, and things are changing.

This post is part 1 of 2 related to workplace evolution.

Remember when doctors smoked at the office? You don’t have to watch Mad Men to appreciate how much the workplace has evolved in the last 50 years. Right now we have three generations–Boomers, Gen X and Millenials–in the workforce with varying needs and expectations, and things are changing.

Now is the time for flexibility. In order to motivate and reward all three generations, employers will need to find ways to creatively foster a flexible workplace.

Each of generation values flexibility. For the Baby Boomers who stay in the workforce longer (not because they want to, but because financially they have to) flexibility is becomes an issue of leisure. This generation has worked hard to get where they are and they are looking for ways to enjoy themselves even as they stick it out for a few more years to hit their desired retirement dollar amounts.

In the same vein, Gen Xers have always valued a work life balance and believe that work is something you do, not someplace you go. And Millenials? They may never even consider going into an office. They’ve grown up with technology that made it possible to work from anywhere anytime; they got their degrees online and highly value their personal time. Across the board, all generations in the workforce have a potential need to telecommute from wherever they want to be.

And why should they be stuck in an office?

Current technology already allows for flexibility of schedules and interaction. Myself? I’m a Millenial. As an intern last summer, I never saw the physical office of the company I worked for; I only met with colleagues face to face a few times. And it doesn’t stop with telecommuting. The way generations job search is also evolving. I have seen my grandpa hand over  the help wanted section of a newspaper with ads circled, but  77 percent of job seekers today are using mobile apps to search for jobs, and 89 percent of companies are using social media to recruit new talent.

As a Millennial, I get a little smug teaching my aunt how to update her Facebook profile, but social media is a multi-generational tool. Yes, Baby Boomers can use Facebook; they even have some things to teach Millenials about it. Boomers have seen a lot of technological changes since they entered the workforce. They have gone from being frightened of social media to successfully integrating it into business practice to build relationships, something Millenials have yet to embrace. Gen Xers are already the number one users of social media for business purposes. No one will be left behind as social media helps create a more flexible workplace.

We’re not (meeting) in Kansas anymore

New media technology is already changing the way we work. Instead of face-to-face meetings, you can initiate Google+ Hangouts. That’s what’s been happening at the University of Minnesota since they implemented university-wide use of Google+ last fall. Employees at the U of M are already noticing that the Google+ Hangouts feature saves commute time and paying for parking by facilitating online meetings. Employees can call hangouts from wherever they are with a laptop without worrying about reserving a conference room or getting to it. Google Docs even allows multiple team members in different locations to all manipulate one document at the same time. And you don’t need to work at the U of M to start implementing these tools now.

The future workplace might look exactly like the environment you choose, the exact place you want to be while you work. You will be reached by phone or text or social media, but still able to communicate face to face. By 2019 the next generation, Gen Z, the digital natives, will be hitting the workforce, doing jobs that don’t even exist right now. Maybe they’ll crave structure, like desks and walls; this newfound flexibility may seem as outdated to them as smoking in hospitals seems to us.

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.

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