A Look at Generations in the Workplace
For employee investment and retention, companies have to adapt to changing expectations.
An area of interest in research since I was in college has been generational patterns/shifts and how changing expectations create a need for systematic changes. Sometimes, we adapt well. Other times, we fail to recognize the vital impact of the mindset shift of younger generations and become reactive too late, instead of proactive.
This topic is something I’ve researched and presented many times. Now seems better a time than ever to write about it, as numbers of baby boomers retire each day and the first of Gen Z enter the post-grad workforce. Additionally, the rising concerns I’ve repeatedly heard about high turnover rates are mostly rooted in a misunderstanding of the shift that’s happened.
No longer are we a society where employees have to provide employers value to survive, but one where companies have to provide value to employees to retain them (and actually get a decent ROI on an employee).
It’s important to note that while shifts in attitude happen and help to define generations, each generation is influenced by those before them who raised, mentored, and taught them.
Baby Boomers (1946–1964)
Baby boomers are the first generation where there is the heavy talk of the “American Dream,” making them idealists. They tend to question everything, respect experience, and spend money liberally. They are the “me” generation and often take individualism to an extreme, but are extremely loyal in their careers. Many baby boomers worked no more than 2 career-level jobs in their lifetime.
While some baby boomers do exist in upper management and other positions, they are phasing out of the workplace in hoards as they reach the age of full benefits.
Gen X (1965–1980)
Gen X is often also known as the Latchkey Generation. This is because they were the first generation that grew up in dual-income households and many of them learned to take care of themselves from a fairly young age. Gen X is the last generation that largely has people actively pursuing master’s degrees without some kind of incentive. They are very project oriented and focused on purpose. In the workplace, they value skills first and work ethic second, expect to have influence, want to be led by competent younger people, and believe they get paid to get the work done and no more.
Millennials are used to blended family situations are the first widespread children of divorce. They are often seen as coddled to deal with emotional trauma and tend to, themselves, wait longer to start family-based life events such as marriage and children. Undergraduate education is a bigger expense for the millennial generation and, therefore, is often treated with greater caution.
One of the poignant marks of the millennial generation is the advent of the “gig” economy. It’s the start of freelance work and many of this generations workers are now seated in positions to take “gig” based jobs through companies like Uber, Fiverr, and Instacart, because it allows them the freedom they desire.
Gen Z (1999-)
The newest generation of workers is just getting to the age where they are graduating college. They are freethinkers and even more likely than previous generations to question personal family values. Despite this, they are a big influence on family decisions are often asked by their busy Millennial parents to take time to do the research for big family purchases. Gen Z, themselves, is the generation that will latch onto rent and subscription culture, owning less and less. They desire and take part in a highly customized education through digital means, which extends to personal time. They are the “always” on, digitally integrated generation. They expect to learn soft skills in school and hard skills through their employer’s training..
Workplace Pain Points
These are areas that cause tension between generations, usually between management and employees. Some of the mindsets and expectations cause resentment among older employees who have dedicated many years to one job. Others cause a struggle for employee retention, turnover rates, and company success.
Pain Point 1: Career Retention
Boomers: “Changing jobs puts you behind.”
Gen X: “Changing jobs is a necessity for career growth.”
Millennials: “Changing jobs is part of my routine.”
Gen Z: “If I don’t see room for promotion or growth, I will change jobs quickly.”
Employers MUST state and create their value for younger hires early on so that they don’t feel they have any reason to leave.
Pain Point 2: Advancement
Boomers: “Experience is the key measurement for promotion.”
Gen X: “I expect to be promoted on merit.”
Millennials: “The more I contribute, the more likely I am to move up.”
Gen Z: “Promotion is expected.”
The most important takeaway here is that having a process in place for promotions is important. Just be wary of promoting to leadership positions without considering the skills needed to be a good leader. I wrote a little bit about that earlier this week.
Great Leaders Are Not (always) People with Years of Industry Experience
Are seniority and merit the only ways to promote leaders?
Pain Point 3: Feedback
Boomers: “I expect a once-a-year review with a lot of paperwork and an in-depth conversation.”
Gen X: “Sorry to interrupt, but how have I been doing?”
Millennials: “I want feedback whenever I request it… at a push of the button.”
Gen Z: “I want feedback constantly. In any and every form.”
Shifts in the review process have shifted to fit this by offering more frequent feedback through 360 review processes. My company allows employees to leave weekly feedback through a program called 15five. We have bi-yearly in-depth reviews and weekly 1 on 1 meetings with our direct leads.
Pain Point 4: Rewards
Boomers: “I want more money, a new title, public recognition, and the corner office.”
Gen X: “I want to earn freedom and flexibility.”
Millennials: “I want work and benefits that have meaning to me.”
Gen Z: “I want a fun work environment and financial stability.”
Shifts in the workplace to support this have included the idea of “startup culture” becoming more mainstream (with many companies following the lead of tech giants like Google and Facebook).
How do we adapt to up-and-coming workers?
While it seems unfair that the responsibility falls on the employer, a truth of the matter is that Gen Z workers will leave if they don’t find personal value in their work, opportunities to grow, or the work-life balance they desire to find personal fulfillment. With workplaces who offer these things in existence, competition is strong. It’s a corporate survival of the fittest.
In order to do the best you can to retain newer employees and provide value to them, try a few of the suggestions below. Each step you take will make you more appealing to more recent graduates.
- Clearly state your employer value proposition
This doesn’t have to be its own statement, though it can be. Value propositions can live in the policies and culture you outline in your employee handbook, just as much as they can exist alone.
- Invest in your employees
Comprehensive training programs or paid conference and seminar opportunities are one way that you will provide value to your employees, while also setting your business up for success.
- Create opportunities to listen to employee needs
Do this in a number of ways so that you know you are reaching people with all kinds of personalities and needs. Allow employees to express feedback in a written format, facilitate policy discussions, and have specific reviews of policy and culture each year to ensure it is fitting the needs of your employees.
- Offer opportunities to create meaning at work or culture that encourages personal fulfillment
While listening to employee needs can certainly be a catalyst for this, more proactive approaches are going to help flesh out the employer value proposition. Newer generations, for the most part, don’t get their fulfillment through work. An example of crafting this “other” value is allowing an hour or two of paid development time a week where employees can explore their interests as it pertains to relevant skill growth or having competitive paid vacation to ensure employees have the opportunity to take time to explore what makes them tick.
- Offer a clear path of advancement
Choose a promotional structure that best reflects the ways your industry creates leaders. Document it and go over it sometime during the hiring process so it is a part of a potential hire’s decision making.