The Generation Challenge

Everyone’s personal values and attitudes are shaped by their family, community and significant events (wars, violence, technology, politics, finance etc.)...

Everyone’s personal values and attitudes are shaped by their family, community and significant events (wars, violence, technology, politics, finance etc.) in their world as they are growing up. The academic world has created a model to review, compare and contrast people born within certain time frames and has developed the “Generation Theory” which links world events with changes in the attitudes and values of the general public. It’s important to remember that the dates quoted are approximate, events in different parts of the world affect the populations differently and personal experience mean that we can only speak in terms of generalisations.

 Generation X (1965-1979)Millenials (1980-1994)Generation Z (1995-2010)
Work ethicBalancedDeterminedPragmatic
They work toFund their lifestyleHelp change the worldChange the world
View of authorityUnimpressedPoliteSuspicious
Leadership byCompetencePulling togetherCoaching
Don’t likeCliché / hypeSelf-importanceUntruths
EmailPhone messagingSocial media
ValuesSelf-reliance Informality Pragmatism Global thinkingGlobalism Confidence Honesty & integrity DifferenceDiversity Authenticity Activism Inclusion
MotivatorsGadgets Tell them “do it your way” Tell them “what is in it for you” Positive feedbackSmall rewards given frequently Working with creative people Tell them “we need your help”Purpose Connection Security/ stability Tell them “this is how you can contribute”

With their workaholic Baby-boomer parents out at work and increasing divorce rates, Generation X were left to themselves to find their own solutions to problems. The first acts of global terrorism (e.g. Munich Olympics), environmental disasters (e.g.  Bhopal, Chernobyl), a growing number of political scandals (e.g. Iran – Contra) and the shrinking job market as the boom times ended, created a generation that was sceptical about the “old world order”. Desktop computers became common in the 1980s and Generation X seized this as their opportunity to do things differently. They studied new subjects at university (e.g. computer science, business studies) which meant that they could enter the business world with skills that previous generations hadn’t had and make a big difference.  In a time of an economic boom, the front runners of the IT world forced their bosses to accept their casual approach to authority and their insistence that things had to be done differently.

Millenials grew up in a time of affluence and rapid social change. However, they are the generation whose parents allowed them to have the longest teenage to adult phase ever. Millenials saw their parents work long hours, even in boom times, to earn money, to buy things they didn’t need, to impress people they didn’t like and came to realise that free time is more valuable than money. Having said that, they are the first generation that needed more than just a degree to get the best jobs, who are unlikely to earn as much as their parents and who recognise that they have to fix the global problems caused by the Baby Boomer generation. Technology is as natural as air to this generation – they are the digital pioneers who have made the most of the new technology and have been involved in creating the world of instant communication (mobile phones, the internet etc.) and free access to information. Their world view is truly global and their approach to business reflects this.

Generation Z have seen the election of the first black president of the most powerful economy in the world, the establishment of gay rights and mass movement of refugees caused by war or economic inequalities. They see diverse family structures and multi-racial environments as completely normal. More than any previous generation, Generation Z see people as individuals rather than members of groups (race, gender, profession, age etc.) and value authentic expressions of individuality. They grew up seeing their parents struggle financially in the global financial crisis, so they are driven to find safe, secure jobs, smart investments and anything that presents long-term value. Generation Z are more politically active than previous generations as they fight to control climate change and shape a more equitable future for all. They look to governments not business to solve the big issues. These are the digital natives – social media, access to information anytime, anywhere have been a reality for their whole life. But reliance on devices and too much screen time can lead to feelings of isolation and under-developed social skills.

What are the challenges for the generations?

  • As the top layer of organisations, Generation X have to create workplaces that they are unaccustomed to for the younger generations, and which include diversity, equality, sustainability, flexible work-time models, recognition and support to get the best from Millenials and attract Generation Z.
  • Hierarchical management is a thing of the past. Millenials and Zs demand that decision making is transparent, aims / targets / purpose are clearly defined and that they should be involved in the business – life on a “hamster wheel” is no longer acceptable.
  • Millenials are no longer the “new kids with the bright ideas” and need to find their own leadership style that will cope with the demands from Generation X but also resonate with Generation Z. They need to provide Gen X with enough information to reassure them that the right work is being done, to the right level, at the right time to meet the goals that they set. They also need to mentor Zs in a very collaborative environment where mistakes are not punished but are used as learning opportunities and the purpose of the work they are asked to do is clear.
  • Generation Z has been massively affected by the Covid pandemic – schools /universities closing, digital onboarding, short time work, loss of service jobs that supported their education – their transition from youth to adulthood was disrupted which will have a knock-on effect in work situations. This is compounded by the fact that this “loneliest generation” who spend more time on devices in the “compare and despair” world of social media rather than cultivating meaningful relationships. On the other hand, low income or isolated Zs who haven’t had access to their own devices etc. may be vulnerable as they enter the workforce as they are unaware of the extent of global issues or how to use the latest technology

But having said all that, every generation, still needs:

  • appreciation/recognition for what they do.
  • to be informed of important issues.
  • to take part in the development of the organisation.
  • to work within the network.
  • feedback.

Further reading

L. Sustala, Zu spät zur Party: Warum eine ganze Generation den Anschluss verpasst, 2020

B. Tulgan, Not everyone gets a trophy: How to manage generation Y, 2009

R. Zemke/ C. Raines/ B. Filipczak, Generations at work: Managing the clash of veterans, boomers, Xers and Nexters in your workplace, 2000

Sheila Purdy
"I love to watch people blossom into their best selves and become role-model leaders." Expertise Background Personal Born in the...


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