The Generation Gap Shaping Our Workplaces
It’s a been a long time since the workplace has been this diverse and seen such an overhaul of social change within a few short years.
There are four different generations working alongside each other at the moment – boomers, Gen X, Millennials and Gen Z. And the expectations each generation has for work / life balance, professional development and office culture are starkly different with this divide growing.
The different generations defined
To understand the challenges these generations have in relating to each other, we need to understand what each generation is like; where they’ve come from, what they’ve experienced and what their values are.
Boomers were named for the baby boom after the end of World War II. The Baby Boomers were born between 1946 and 1964. In the workplace many boomers are running companies, or managing departments. As a generation they are economically influential and often considered out-of-touch by younger generations.
Time of Social Change
The baby boomers as a generation straddled a period of drastic social change in the 1960s with the fight for women’s liberation and civil rights. Because of the age differences within this generation there were divides within the cohort of boomers with some supporting and fighting for these social changes and others against them.
Baby boomers dealt with a fair amount of trauma, living through the cold war and the Cuban missile crisis, terrified of the possibility of nuclear war. They counted pennies through the recession in the 1970s and lost money in the market crash of the 1980s.
Boomers in the Workplace
In the workplace boomers tend to hold positions of power due to seniority and experience. This generation is known for having excellent work ethic, their work principles were formulated based on a societal promise – work hard and be rewarded and for this generation it has held true. Baby Boomers grew up in period of middle class affluence, the wealth divide closed slightly enabling more people on average earnings to live comfortably.
In the 1980s when many Boomers were looking to buy their first home, it cost them on average 3.3 times their annual salary, now a home costs 10 times the average annual salary. Boomers are the wealthiest generation in Australia, they make up a quarter of the population and own more than half (53%) of the wealth.
Generation X came after the boomers named for an article by Douglas Coupland in Vancouver magazine in 1987 and further popularised by his 1991 novel Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture. Generation X were born between 1965 and 1980 and as generation they were defined by coming up dual income families and single parent families resulting in something called latchkey culture meaning they were often left unsupervised.
The Latchkey Generation
Gen X were often called the MTV generation. They grew up in the 80s and 90s, and collectively were known for being jaded, rejecting the financial trappings of modern society and consumerism. They were the first generation to grow up with home computers, making them more technological savvy than previous generations but many still lament the early days of handwritten school assignments and typewriters.
This generation’s wealth accumulation was interrupted first by the dot com bubble bursting and then by 2008 recession. For many generation Xers the 2008 recession hit right when they were in the transitional period of their careers, trying to climb the corporate ladder. And according to a study Gen Xers have it harder financially than their boomer parents at the same age. Gen X were less likely to own a home by mid-career level (ages 39-54) and less likely to have retirement plans in place than their boomer counterparts were.
Gen X in the workplace
In the workplace, Gen X are slowly taking leadership roles, running companies and moving up that corporate ladder. They are known for being hard workers, but less invested in the company and happy to be quiet achievers.
Millennials were the generation to follow Gen X, they were sometimes called Gen Y but Millennial has been the most popular term for this generation coined by Neil Howe and William Strauss in their 1991 book Generations.
The Digital Adoptee
Millennials as a generation were born between 1980 and 1997. Named for being born at the end of the millennium. Millennials grew up in the age of the internet, watching and adapting to rapid technological changes, many millennials communicated by email by the time they were in school. They had mobile phones in childhood and social media accounts by the end of high school.
Millennials have had a rough start. Many were shaped by seeing the terrorists attacks of 9/11 when they were only in primary school, and most had just left high school or university when the 2008 recession hit. They’ve also watched industries fall due to digital disruption and had to change career course swiftly in their short working lives. Not to mention the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the ongoing pandemic, all this combined with a rise with cost of living and a lack of wage growth has earned the millennials the nickname of the unluckiest generation.
It’s Not All Avocado Toast
Financially Millennials are struggling. With rising house prices and cost of living increases causing a greater generational gap between them and their boomer parents but this is predicted to ease with the inheritance of generational wealth as the baby boomers die out. This will be the biggest wealth transfer in history with an estimated 3.5 trillion to be inherited by millennials.
Millennials are known for being politically engaged, and socially progressive, as they become more economically influential, they are shaping the world with their buying power. Sustainable and ethically sound companies are reaping these rewards.
Millennials at Work
In the workplace Millennials are very adaptable and willing to learn, grow and change. They prize work / life balance over hustle culture and expect opportunity for growth in their roles, wage reviews and professional development.
Generation Z was so named because it followed Gen Y (now known as the Millennials), they are also sometimes called Zoomers. Gen Zers were born between 1997 and 2012. The eldest of this generation are now 25 and coming to the working world in droves.
Gen Z were the first generation to grow up with the internet and handheld digital devices, so they are thought of as digital natives. They adapt quickly and they have never known a world of handwritten assignments or remembering home phone numbers.
Gen Z as a group have experienced a lot in their short lives, a looming climate crisis, a booming housing market and a global pandemic all before they could rent a car.
The ‘Woke’ Generation
As a generation, Gen Z are very socially and politically conscious, ethnically, sexually and gender diverse. In the Millennial age group 10.5% identify as LGBT but this figure has more than doubled for Gen Zers to 20.8%. Perhaps as result of this diversity within their generation, Gen Z are hyper aware of sociopolitical movements, according to one study 75% identify as activists. This drive for social change carries over to the workplace.
Gen Z at Work
In the workplace Gen Z place high priority on work / life balance and ethical work practices. They are looking for leadership that meets their standards and flexibility as well as a strong focus on mental health and wellbeing in the workplace.
The Rise of Millennial and Gen Z workers
Millennials currently make up about 37% of the workforce and by 2025 Gen Z will make up 27% of the workforce. We are skating towards a world where Gen Xers and Boomers will be the minority in the office. And according to the Australian Bureau of statistics it’s an employee’s market. 79% of business are reporting not having enough applicants on job ads, and 59% of businesses say those who do apply lack the appropriate skills and experience.
Keeping these stats in mind, it’s important for workplaces to be attractive to these younger employees. But what should businesses focus on if they want to attract Millennials and Gen Z?
Flexible working conditions
High on the list for Millennnials and Gen Z alike are flexible working conditions. These two generations are confident digital nomads, happy to work from home and troubleshoot any technical issues. After the pandemic made working from home a more accessible option, many workers don’t want to return to the office. 75% of Millennials and Gen Z say they prefer working remotely.
If a fully remote office is not an option in your industry, look to offer a hybrid remote / in-house structure that offers some of the freedom and flexibility that this generation is looking for.
Burn out is a real problem for this generation, 46% of Gen Zers and 45% of Millennials say they are feeling burnt out as a result of intensity and demands of their workplace. 39% of Millennials and 32% of Gen Z cite work / life balance as an important factor in choosing the companies they want to work with.
So, it’s unsurprising that these generations are looking for workplaces to lead the charge for mental wellbeing.
To help with this, companies should implement mental health days as a part of sick leave and offer a company wide mental health care program that can help to negate the negative effects of burn out and prioritise mental wellbeing in the workplace.
Millennials and Gen Z are looking for better compensation from their workplaces and unlike previous generations they are not afraid to leave a job in search of greener pastures. In a recent Quest survey 55% of people who were looking for work cited better pay as the main factor.
Considering the cost of replacing an employee is around 33% of that worker’s annual salary, it’s in a company’s best interests to retain Gen Z and Millennial talent.
To do this, consider a rolling 5% increase in yearly salary reviews to help with the cost of living increase. Make sure if additional responsibilities are added to their role, their contract is reviewed and the compensation is increased, and if financial benefits are out of reach for the company try to offer other value adds for them such as monthly RDOs or increased holiday leave.
What do we have to learn from each other
While it can often feel as if Boomers and Gen Z / Millennials are worlds apart, they have more in common than you think.
For those Gen Z and Millennials who are fighting for social change, it bears considering that you stand on the shoulders of many boomer activists who fought to end segregation, fought for women’s liberation and equal rights for marginalised communities.
For boomers it’s important to remember that these younger generations are carrying on a fight you’ve long forgotten. Their prospects, their financial security and their environmental concerns are a direct result of the world you’ve shaped. As much as you might not like it, the stats say it is harder for them to buy a house and it has nothing to do with avocado toast, so cut them some slack and remember you have a lot to learn from each other.