To Better Understand Gen Z, Take a Look Back

As a reminder for everyone, the “context” around you affects everything else.

In the case of this post:

  • My wife and I are Baby Boomers (born in late 50s)
  • My four children and their spouses are GenXers and Millenials (born between 1981 and 1992)
  • My six grandchildren are Gen Zers (born between 2008 and 2020)

Generational cohorts (like the above) are a source of never-ending curiosity for me. From being in the largest group (Boomers) to having kids at the end of one cohort (Gen X) to the beginning of the next (Millenials) to having grandchildren born in the middle of the next cohort (Gen Z), just observing and interacting with my immediate family has been fascinating.

Increasingly though, I am being drawn to GenZ; specifically, this generations’s defining moment.

And to no surprise, virtually everyone is pointing to the COVID-19 pandemic as the defining moment of GenZ.

As The Center for Generational Kinetics defines it, a defining moment:

Takes place at the right time in a generation’s coming of age experience. The event or external influence needs to occur at a formative time in a generation’s coming of age experience, which is usually an age range from childhood through early adulthood. The key is the generation needs to be old enough to deeply experience the event while at the same be in a young enough life stage where it can significantly impact their views, beliefs, and attitude toward their world and their future.

Creates a powerful, unforgettable emotional impact, usually tied to fear and uncertainty caused by the event and its aftermath. These moments tend to make a generation feel vulnerable and look at the world differently than they did before, such as the way 9/11 impacted Millennials or how the JFK assassination affected Baby Boomers. 

More from CGK:

For Gen Z, COVID-19 has upended almost every aspect of their life. For younger members of Gen Z, they no longer go to school with classmates, see their friends in-person, or work part-time jobs. Instead, they are confined to their home, with a parent or other family members, and trying to continue their education at a time when many schools do not have an effective distance learning program. These same Gen Zers are seeing their parents struggle financially, including job losses, inability to pay rent, and tension between adults within their household as everyone deals with this new reality and the close quarters of being quarantined.

Gen Zers from the class of 2020 in high school saw standardized testing canceled, no graduation ceremony, uncertainty about college options, financial pressure, and no ability to play competitive sports or drive academic achievements or progress that could change their future. These Gen Zers are telling us they worry if college will even take place in the fall. Will they move out of their family’s home this year? If college is all online, how will they have a traditional college experience? While the COVID-19 experience can vary widely based on our interviews with Gen Zers from different socioeconomic, geographic, and other factors, the result continues to be a real question mark about what will happen after their senior year of high school.

At the same time, Gen Zers who are in the workforce are disproportionately in the service industry, hourly workers, in entry-level jobs, or are young professionals as they are typically on the very front end of their careers. These same Gen Zers are often the first to get laid off or furloughed as many industries contract. Gen Z can also suffer from the “last hired, first fired” mantra of years past. Put all this together, and Gen Zers already in the workforce are feeling a massive reset at exactly the time they should be starting to build their independence and self-reliance. 

Gen Zers who are in college are often experiencing a hybrid of the newly upended work and education reality. Some colleges and trade schools have moved quickly to cancel all on-campus classes and move to online learning while others are struggling under the weight and scale of the change— as well as the practical limitations of specific learning activities, such as scientific lab access. Add to this mix the unknown about whether or not colleges will refund room and board, whether international students who had to go home will be able to return, and the overnight change of having tremendous freedom taken away as they move back in with their family. There is a lot for Gen Z college students to worry about besides just finishing their classes.

On top of Gen Z’s work and school impacts from COVID-19, add all of these significant stressors: the heavy external influence of daily death counts and mortality rates, fear of losing their parents, grandparents, or friends, and the endless social media echoing how bad the world is around them. It’s easy to see why COVID-19 is a Generation Defining Moment for Gen Z—and the impact gets deeper the longer the event is extended and the more uncertainty, fear, and difficulty it creates. 

from “The State of Gen Z 2019-2020,” The Center for Generational Kinetics

Wow – is that heavy, or what?

And yet, I have reason to hope. Reason based on the fact that while we may live in a very tumultuous time, and uncertainty is a constant, all this is not new.

It’s highly likely that some of the best understanding of the future can be gained by studying the past.

And that past reveals – going back hundreds of years, and a couple dozen generational cohorts – is that generations have a cyclical pattern.

What Gen Z is experiencing today – not the specifics, but broad understandings – can be unlocked by looking at a prior generation.

The farther you look back, the farther forward you are likely to see.

Winston Churchill

My grandchildren may well be shaped by circumstances and events like their great-grandparents, born in 1925-1942.

More to come!

Looking Through the Generational Lens

One of the consistent lenses I use to view life through is that of generations.

It comes as a natural part of my curiosity of life, as I am interacting with 5 generational cohorts in my family: my parents and in-laws are from the GI Generation; I am a Baby Boomer; my oldest son and one daughter-in-law are Gen Xers; my other three children, two daughters-in-law and one son-in-law are Millennials; and my 6 grandchildren are Gen Zers. Even though we are spread out across three states (and occasionally, around the world) and do not get to interact as much as we would like, the personal level of generational differences is obvious.

Take the same dynamics as above – 5 generations – and move them into the institutional world, say a church setting, and it won’t be long till you have a generational collision.

If you are a leader in ChurchWorld, how do you deal with the fact that, for the first time in our history, we can have five separate and distinct generations working alongside each other in our churches? The 5th generation, born since the mid-2000’s, is not far behind in taking up a leadership role.

Generational differences are important, but it is all too easy to stereotype these differences. The only way we’ll ever build bridges between generations is to stop stereotyping and get to know who these generations really are and why they are that way.

An interesting book on the subject: Sticking Points – How to Get 4 Generations Working Together in the 12 Places They Come Apart, by Haydn Shaw. Here’s a teaser:

For the first time in history, we have four different generations in the workplace (and five in families). These generations might as well be from different countries, so different are their cultural styles and preferences. Of the four approaches organizations can take to blending the generations, only one of them works today. Focusing on the “what” escalates tensions, while focusing on the “why” pulls teams together. Knowing the twelve sticking points can allow teams to label tension points and work through them—even anticipate and preempt them. Implementing the five steps to cross-generational leadership can lead to empowering, not losing, key people.

How many different generations do you regularly interact with?

How’s that going?

Guiding Your Multigenerational Workplace Through Five Growth Precepts

In 2020, 25 percent of the labor force is projected to be over the age of 55 – and they’re not retiring anytime soon. These projections from the Bureau of Labor Statistics at the US Department of Labor indicate that not only will Baby Boomers continue to work alongside their current Generation X and Millennial colleagues, but that they will still be around when Generation Z joins the workforce.

The result? A clash of cultures that will require a new management approach.

Gone are the days when people entered the workforce as young adults, worked until their late 50s, and then moved off into retirement while younger generations took their place. Instead, the average retirement age has steadily been creeping up in recent decades as older employees – in particular, the Baby Boomers – stay in the workforce either by choice or by necessity.

Before we dive into the discussion, here’s a brief recap of just who comprises the generational cohorts mentioned above. While there’s no set standard, the following descriptions are generally accepted:

  • Baby Boomers – born in the years 1946-1964, numbering about 76 million people
  • Generation Xers – born in the years 1965-1980, numbering about 66 million people
  • Millennials – born in the years 1981-1997, numbering just over 83 million people
  • Generation Zers – born in the years 1998-present, numbering over 80 million and still growing

How do you manage the workplace reality of having three or four different generations on your team?

THE QUICK SUMMARYGenerations at Work: Managing the Clash of Boomers, GenXers, and GenYers in the Workplace by Ron Zemke, Claire Raines, and Bob Filipczak

Written for all who are struggling to manage a workforce with often incompatible ethics, values, and working styles, Generations at Work looks afresh at the root causes of professional conflict and offers practical guidelines for navigating multigenerational differences.

By laying bare the most common causes of conflict – including the Me Generation’s frustration with GenYers’ constant desire for feedback and the challenges facing GenXers sandwiched between these polarities – the book offers practical, spot-on guidance for managing the differences with consideration to each generation’s unique needs.

Along with the authors’ insights for managing a workforce with different ways of working, communicating, and thinking, the book offers in-depth interviews with members of each generation, tips on best practices from companies successfully bridging the generation gap, and a mentorship field guide to help you support the youngest members of your team–tools, which are the key to helping your workforce interact more positively with one another and thrive in today’s wildly divergent workplace culture.

A SIMPLE SOLUTION

According to the authors of Generations at Work, today’s workplace contains the conflicting voices and views of the most age- and value-diverse workplace the world has known since our great-great-great-grandparents abandoned field and farm for factory and office. At no time in our history have so many and such different generations with such diversity been asked to work together shoulder to shoulder, side by side, and cubicle to cubicle.

While there have certainly been multiple generations employed in the same organization before, they were mainly separated from each other by the hierarchy of a manufacturing-oriented economy. Senior (older) employees – mostly white and male – worked in the head office or were top management positions in key parts of the company. Middle-aged employees tended to be in middle management or high-skill, seniority-protected trade jobs. The youngest, newest, and physically strongest were on the factory floor or endured time in specific trainee slots that would lead, over time, to middle management – at best.

Among all the groups mentioned above, contact was primarily horizontal; with people like themselves, or at best, one level up or down the chain of command. Mingling among the generations, if and when it happened at all, was significantly influenced by formality and protocol.

Today’s workplace is totally different. The old pecking order, hierarchy, and shorter work life spans that kept a given generational cohort isolated from others no longer exist or they exist in a more permeable manner.

An unfortunate outcome of this shift is the likelihood of intergenerational conflict: differences in values, views, and ways of working, talking, and thinking that set people in opposition to one another, and challenge organizational best practices.

While generational differences have existed for, well, generations, what’s different is that this new generation gap is a four-way divide. The once “natural” flow of resources, power, and responsibilities from older to younger has been dislocated by changes in life expectancy, increases in longevity and health, as well as changes in lifestyle, technology, and knowledge.

Life for every generation has become increasingly nonlinear, unpredictable, and uncharitable.

Generational differences can be a source of creative strength and a source of opportunity, or a source of stifling stress and unrelenting conflict. Understanding generational differences is critical to making them work for the organization and not against it.

Accommodate employee differences

With employee retention at or near the top of the list of organizational “must meet” measures, the most generationally friendly organizations treat their employees as they do their customers. They learn all they can about them, work to meet their specific needs, and serve them according to their unique preferences. Each generation’s icons, language, and precepts are acknowledged, and language is used that reflects generations other than those “at the top.”

Create choices

Generationally friendly companies allow the workplace to shape itself around the work being done, the customers being served, and the people who work there.  They recognize that people from a mix of generations have differing needs and preferences, and they design their human resources strategies to meet varied employee needs. “Change” is not so much the name of a training seminar or a core value listed somewhere in their mission statement as it is an assumed way of living and working.

Operate from a sophisticated management style

Generationally friendly managers don’t have time for BS, although they are tactful. They give those who report to them the big picture, with specific goals and measures, and then they turn their people loose – giving them feedback, rewards, and recognition as appropriate.

Respect competence and initiative

Generationally friendly organizations assume the best of people. They treat everyone, from the newest recruit to the most seasoned employee, as if they have great things to offer and are motivated to do their best. It is an attitude that can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Nourish initiative

Generationally friendly organizations are concerned and focused, on a daily basis, with making their workplaces magnets for excellence. They know that keeping their people is every bit as important in today’s economy as finding and retaining customers. Therefore, they offer lots of training, from one-on-one coaching opportunities to interactive online training to an extensive and varied menu of classroom courses. They encourage lateral movement within the organization and have broadened assignments.

Ron Zemke, Claire Raines, and Bob Filipczak, Generations at Work: Managing the Clash of Boomers, GenXers, and GenYers in the Workplace

A NEXT STEP

Set aside time at a future leadership team meeting to review your organizational structure in terms of the five initiatives listed above.

On five separate chart tablets, write one phrase each as listed above across the top. Draw a vertical line down the center of each chart tablet, and write the words, “Positive” and “Negative” on either side of the line.

Discuss with your team how each one of the five initiatives are demonstrated in your organization in both positive and negative terms.

After your discussion is concluded, decide how you will celebrate the positive actions and correct the negative actions.

Excerpt taken from SUMS Remix 127-1, released September 2019.


 

Part of a weekly series on 27gen, entitled Wednesday Weekly Reader

Regular daily reading of books is an important part of my life. It even extends to my vocation, where as Vision Room Curator for Auxano I am responsible for publishing SUMS Remix, a biweekly book “excerpt” for church leaders. Each Wednesday on 27gen I will be taking a look back at previous issues of SUMS Remix and publishing an excerpt.

>>Purchase SUMS Remix here<<

>> Purchase prior issues of SUMS Remix here<<