Generations in the Workplace – Part 1

June 19, 2024

So, a Boomer, a Millennial, and a Gen-Z’er walk into a conversation about generations in the workplace …

Here’s an interesting little factoid about the modern American workplace: For the first time in history, it includes participants from five distinct generations.

Yep, five. Count ‘em:

  • The Silent Generation (Generally defined as those born roughly from 1928 to 1945; these and all of the following date ranges are of course approximations, and definitions of where generations begin and end vary somewhat depending on the source, and on the particular individual whose generation is being defined.)
  • Baby Boomers (Born between 1946 and 1964.)
  • Generation X (Born between 1965 and 1980.)
  • Millennials (Born between 1981 and 1996.)
  • Generation Z (born between 1997 and 2012.)

With the oldest members of Gen Z now in their mid-to-late 20s, and the Silent Generation still holding on to some positions of serious authority (and still showing some serious rocker cred), the workforce is indeed a generational blend of unprecedented variety.

To explore how this mix is shaping the experience of workers, we hosted a chat among three women from different generations: Gina (a Boomer); Perry (a Millennial); and Emma (a Gen Z’er).

Yes, we realize this leaves Gen X’ers entirely out of the picture, even though they are very much in the prime of their own careers and occupy important roles throughout the working world. This oversight, needless to say, is wholly consistent with the entire lifetime experience of Gen X, sandwiched as it is between the two far more populous (and far more self-absorbed) tribes of Baby Boomers and Millennials. To which Gen X’ers will probably just respond, “Oh well, whatever – never mind.”

We’ll hit some of the highlights of the chat between Gina, Perry, and Emma in this Hire Thoughts and the next – the discussion was fruitful enough to warrant a double-dip.

The participants agreed that the presence of five generations – spanning potentially eight decades in age – is an “amazing opportunity,” especially for those who are willing to communicate and listen across generational lines.

“Like my dad, something that I help him with a lot is technology or understanding social media,” said Emma, who added, “There’s that kind of trade-off. He tells me how things are run, how professional interactions go, how to make connections, that sort of thing.”

The conversation surfaced several trends and shifts in assumptions across generations. One of the most prominent of these is an unmistakable move toward greater informality, notably in the areas of dress and verbal communication.

“When I was growing up in the business, it’s so crazy to think what I wore,” Gina recalled. “I would buy 25 pairs of pantyhose. I’d buy them at Nordstrom, and they’d come in a pack of 25. It was half my budget then. And when I started recruiting for Amazon in 1999, if you wore a suit there, they would cut your tie. Even just in that generational shift [since then], which has only been, what, 25 years or so, I don’t own a suit.”

The move toward greater informality has coincided with the full emergence of the massive Millennial and Gen Z cohorts as cultural and economic forces to be reckoned with. These generations’ more relaxed approaches to certain aspects of work culture have caused some in older generations to unfairly question their overall work ethic.

“I really do feel you (Millennials) got a really bad rap about not working and being lazy and all those kinds of things,” said Gina.

“And yet there’s still this overall sense that I need to work so hard to get to where I need to be because I now live in a very competitive world where everything about me is displayed online,” said Emma. “I think that my generation does work hard. It just might look a little different than what my parents were used to.”

An interesting distinction that arose in the conversation was the difference between the traditional emphasis on “fitting our life around our work” and the widespread Millennial/Gen Z preference for “fitting their work into their life.”

But as Emma observed, this balance remains a tricky one to strike. “I still think we are addicted to working and to getting money and being successful,” she said. “That’s driving people and overworking them and overstressing them, but now we know that, whereas that wasn’t really being talked about before.”

 

Stay tuned. In our next Hire Thoughts, we’ll get into some of the most interesting and meaningful generational differences of all – those around technology, and AI in particular.

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