Working with other generations: 9 thoughts

When I hear discussions about special rules for working with people of another generation, I often think it's silly and contrived. That said, there are several observations worth noting.

1. Ageism is one of the more socially acceptable forms of bias but is no less problematic. There are five generations in the U.S. workforce today. We are also living in a time when diversity, equity and inclusion is of elevated attention and priority in business. Yet bias against people based on their age is still often overlooked, normalized or even reinforced. 

Ageism can occur whether people are perceived as young or old, and can show up in language, attitudes, stereotypes, exclusion and more in addition to barriers in hiring, promotions or training opportunities. Awareness of ageism and the various forms it can take is important. Workplaces that counter this form of bias will likely be those where workers of all generations feel more included, valued and empowered to contribute their unique perspectives and talents.

2. Every generation comes with stereotypes. Every generation that enters the workforce faces certain assumptions. Younger generations often face stereotypes that their work ethic is inferior to that of their predecessors. (An analysis of newspaper clippings dates this complaint back to 1894, if not earlier.) 

I always joke that so many of the people I work with must have missed the memo about younger generations having poor work ethic. Most of them work just as hard and as intelligently as any other generation. 

Whatever the assumption may be, little is accomplished with labels for entire generations of people. Stereotypes hold us back from better understanding any real differences or similarities between diverse generations of workers, which can make for stronger relationships, teams and products. 

3. Generational differences are shaped, in part, by major events and economic circumstances. The views of millennials and Gen Z are often clumped together when it comes to working life, but there are subtle differences in how the two generations may approach various topics. 

Take work-life balance, for example. Many millennials — born between 1981 and 1996 — entered or started their careers in an economy fractured by the Great Recession, which tempered expectations for balance and flexibility with an aversion to risk. Those born after 1997 in Gen Z, on the other hand, have had their choice of work in the most flexible economy in memory. 

One thing holds true for every generation: The economy into which you graduated can influence your views on working and career-building for the rest of your life. It's helpful to remember this about the views of others and your own.

4. Here's a revelation: We all appreciate work-life balance. While it may seem convenient to portray certain generations as more focused on work-life balance than others, this aspiration isn't confined to any one group. At the end of the day, there is nothing atypical about the desire to (a) do meaningful work with dignity, (b) earn money to support oneself, family and a full life, and (c) have time to live that full life. 

Technology, the economy, innovation and other factors can create new opportunities for people to make productive contributions to the workforce while also attending to family and other responsibilities. These advancements should be celebrated and encouraged, and workers should not be admonished for making the most of them.

5. Younger workers bring along a higher level of social consciousness. As I look at some parts of culture, I've found where my generation was very focused on the economic prize, younger generations are motivated in such a way, too — but they also have a higher level of concern. 

Gen Zs and millennials are deeply concerned about the state of the world. Studies indicate they care much more about how issues affect the collective community than how they affect them personally. They try to balance the challenges of their everyday lives with their desire to drive forward greater, societal good. 

These generations are much more inclined to want to do something good with their work and companies, and they expect their companies and leaders to be highly engaged and doing good, too.

6. Gaps in generational attitudes or behaviors can point to opportunities for compromise and improvement. For example, a recent survey of workers in the United Kingdom found nearly 80% of Generation Z and millennial jobseekers have failed to turn up for an interview without providing prior notice. 

I disagree with "ghosting" potential employers, and younger applicants and professionals will eventually find etiquette and communication skills are key to success. But a finding like this might also point to opportunities for the interview or candidacy process to be refined. Have candidates gone through the job-search process receiving no word from employers when positions are filled? Is the interview process too lengthy or complex? 

Any time there is a shift from how certain generations are handling a business situation, I find it hard to believe the issue is purely a matter of young people being increasingly rude. Their response is imperfect, but it's likely that there are other issues at play on employers' side of the street that stand to be modified or corrected, too. 

7. The job hopping generation continues to be redefined. In 2016, millennials were called the most job-hopping of generations, with a Gallup poll finding 21 percent of millennials having changed jobs within a year — more than three times the number of non-millennials who reported the same. 

Now the torch is passed to Gen Zers, who joined the workforce just as the pandemic shook up the labor market and shaped their willingness to job hop. In 2022, about 22% of workers ages 20 and older spent a year or less at their jobs — the highest percentage with a tenure that short since 2006. 

Job-hopping may not be as stigmatized as it once was to employers, especially in a competitive job market, but companies still look for moderation versus extremism here. These trends also raise the need for employers to ignore stereotypes (i.e. young people value career development over loyalty) and instead understand the motivations of individual employees if they want to retain them. 

8. Younger generations will continue to become more technologically advanced than prior generations. The most recent college graduates — class of 2022 — have always been able to refer to Wikipedia. A visit to a bank has been a rare event for them. What you may see as a technological innovation — a before and after transformed by tech — younger people may see as an ordinary backdrop in their life. Technological skills, tools and attitudes are inherent in how they grew up. Employers need to be ready to regularly challenge and upskill these digital natives, whose higher baseline of tech aptitude drives a strong appetite for continual learning. 

9. Making space for mental health in the workplace. With five generations in the workforce, there is an enormous amount of variance in attitudes toward work and mental health. Mental health is not exclusive to young adults, but the youngest working generations are seen as the most vocal yet when it comes to mental health in the workplace. Older generations may feel less comfortable discussing mental health at work due to enduring stigmas historically associated with these discussions.

Openness in discussing one's mental health may vary among workers of various generations, but it's important that this not be misinterpreted as one generation caring more about mental health than another. A recent survey found baby boomers to consider mental health days "absolutely necessary," for instance. 

Workplaces need to promote mental health and encourage self care to allow all generations to be successful in their careers. If mental health and wellbeing becomes a higher priority for employees and employers in years to come, this can be a good thing for all. 

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