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Generation Y
Generation X

Xers, Ys Spur A Political Power Shift

I watched the televised coverage of the Iowa caucus with great interest, not only because I grew up in the state, but also from a generational perspective.

I watched the televised coverage of the Iowa caucus with great interest, not only because I grew up in the state, but also from a generational perspective.There was much commentary about Obama’s win as being representative of the generational shift that’s taking place in America. It’s being used as a metaphor for what’s happening in the workplace, as if this is something new or revolutionary that’s happening.Haven’t the Boomers noticed? The younger generation is, effectively, shifting the balance of power to themselves.It happened in Minnesota back in 1998 when former wrestler, Jesse Ventura, was elected Governor. He ran as a Reform Party candidate and was never expected to compete with the major-party candidates–much less win the election. But he appealed to younger voters with a grassroots campaign that consisted of events, quirky television ads, and use of the Internet to educate and reach voters. The younger demographic voted, and their candidate won.The same situation happened at the Iowa caucus. A candidate of color, in his 40s, Obama appeals to the X and Y voters because he is representative of change. He is unlike the Baby Boomer candidates, many of which are tainted by a political past. As a result, Xers and Ys trust Obama and relate to him, which will be a difficult feat for other candidates to overcome.The Clinton campaign assumed women would vote for women. Even I expected Clinton’s campaign would make more waves than Obama’s. But Clinton is a Baby Boomer. And the younger voters are more concerned about age than they are about gender because they believe a younger candidate is more likely to institute change.The opinions of the Baby Boomers are mattering less and less. We’re seeing it in membership associations, where Xers and Ys are refusing to pay dues. We’re seeing it in the workforce, where Xers and Ys are making demands for flex-time and customized career paths, and job hopping or starting their own businesses when their demands aren’t met.The generational shift is popping up everywhere—even in television scripts. Last night, on the premiere of Cashmere Mafia, one of the four story lines followed a Xer couple’s frustrations at home and at work. When the 20-something nanny and a 20-something co-worker worsened their situations, the Xer couple discussed their frustration dealing withGen Y “or Gen ID, as in ‘I deserve.’”I must say, while it’s at times overwhelming and frustrating, it’s also remarkable how much Ys are changing the world we live in at such a young age. When Xers were this age, we were so overwhelmed with trying to earn a living on meager salaries and scarce job opportunities, voting was the last thing on our minds. And when Baby Boomers were this age, they were protesting and dodging the draft.But voting is a way for people to instigate change, and that’s just what the Ys, and the Xers, want to do. Ready or not, there is a generational shift taking place, and it’s happening at work and in society and in politics–and in case you haven’t noticed, the power has already shifted to X and Y.

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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