Millennial Founders, Gen Z Teams

Runjhun Noopur
The Startup
Published in
6 min readNov 25, 2023


What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

Source : Pexels

In a turn of events that nobody saw coming, Millennials are facing their own Gen X moment. And Gen Z is killing their vibe.

This is beyond the social media battles, TikTok cringe, and memefication of inter-generational wars of our times. As a lot of people are slowly realizing, there are real-world implications of a whole new generation coming into its own while the previous one still struggles to find its feet.

Nowhere is this struggle more visible than in the world of startups where the clash between the two generations is as unavoidable as it is essential. Scarred by their own experiences of toxic workplaces, a whole generation of Millennial bosses are determined to make it right and dream of creating workplaces that are walking motivational posters, and duly abide by hitherto revolutionary ideas like open doors and flat hierarchies.

Unfortunately for our well-meaning Millennials, Gen Z doesn’t care. Perhaps because, as Millennials would argue, they did not have the misfortune of working for bosses who declared work-life balance as a myth (a haloed recruiter in my coveted law school campus went to the extent of saying that wanting work-life balance was against their firm’s policy) and at workplaces that deemed the very idea of break a harakiri.

But that isn’t entirely true though, is it? Toxic workplaces and bosses are as pervasive as they are persistent. A bunch of well-meaning Millennials are hardly enough to change work cultures that have survived generations. And the conflict truly isn’t about Gen Z being too entitled and Millennials being too noble. Or about the Millennials being too blind to the plight of Gen Z that has inherited a fractured, uncertain future.

As a Millennial, although a geriatric one, I am tempted to once again to blame GenX. But here is the deal — no one generation is responsible for this mess. We are all equally responsible. And that is a fact that makes all of us extremely uncomfortable.

To break it down in simpler terms, and specifically from the perspective of the start-ups, the problem is structural. When Millennials inherited faulty workplace structures from the previous generations, they overcorrected. We decided to go straight from messy, toxic workplace structures to no structures at all. And therein lies the trouble. Because the answer to problematic structures wasn’t to get rid of them entirely. It was to improve them, replace the toxicity with efficiency, and create a resonant work environment that knew what it was doing.

On the other end of this rebellion spectrum are Millennials who decided that the answer to these faulty workplace structures was to replace them with even more faulty systems. They looked at the old workplace structures and decided to up the ante in the most extreme way possible. They equated efficiency with crushing control over their team’s time and input and started hiring resources instead of people.

The angst rooted in the empathy eye-wash of Gen X workplaces was channeled into becoming an organization that just did not care. The pretenses of course remained, but the stakeholders knew where they stood. It wasn’t just about not having empathy. It was about arriving at the rather problematic conclusion that empathy did not matter for the organizational bottom lines.

I once met a founder who likened his startup to a military camp. ‘Programming’, he boomed, ‘programming the resources is the key. They have to focus on nothing but the outcomes.’ What he did not say was that ‘programming’ was simply another word for brainwashing.

Operating without a proper corporate workplace playbook, he and many other founders found themselves drawing inspiration from systems like the army and sports teams — places and people that had very different goals, motivations, and most importantly places in the world.

When Gen X called their companies a family, it was a red flag for a workplace that routinely took their people for granted and used gaslighting as a tool of discipline. So Millennials resorted to metaphors that were not family but were equally problematic. What they failed to see was that a workplace is supposed to be just that — a workplace. Turning it into anything else, be it family, or army, or a sports team, were all ways of setting up structures and expectations that didn’t belong.

Irrespective of whether it was a well-meaning Millennial trying to break toxic patterns through personal touch and practiced empathy, or the more mission-oriented founder who hires resources instead of people and wants to inject brutal efficiency into their systems, the problem is almost always in the structure.

Perhaps, we CAN blame Gen X because they largely failed to set precedents for companies that at least aspired to balance efficiency with empathy that wasn’t just lip service. While Millennials packaged their angst as radical solutions that swung wildly between paralyzing empathy and crushing brutality, Gen Z inherited a professional world that was as confused as it was a mess.

At least Gen X knew what they were doing. In their head anyway.

The conflict isn’t between two generations. The conflict is an incomplete learning curve with no guidelines for any of the involved stakeholders. And the result is a professional world that has gone right back to the age-old cliche of blaming it all on ‘Today’s Kids’.

The answer, as always, lies beyond the blame game. It lies in evolving workplace structures that are balanced and efficient. They have the wisdom to identify the elements that did work for the previous generations (they did build some of the most successful businesses of our times, didn’t they?) and mix it harmoniously with our relatively recent awakening of wanting to treat people as…well people.

It is possible to build an efficient system that is not brutal. And there is a space between efficiency and empathy that is waiting to be inhabited by new-age companies that want to do the right thing.

One does not need to eschew the ideas of discipline, outcomes, and productivity to be an empathy-focused successful organization. What is needed is to build these values into defined and replicable organizational structures. To have systems and processes that balance discipline with creative leeway, oversight with freedom, and productivity with basic humanity.

To take care of your people does not have to come at the expense of your organizational goals and ambitions. And vice versa is also equally true. In fact, as a lot of modern research into the ties between workplace happiness and organizational productivity has repeatedly validated, happy employees do make for very successful organizations with a direct and measurable impact on the organizational bottom line.

But this is not about the proof of this concept. Every generation, be it Boomers, Gen X, or Millennials, has notable exceptions. Organizations that are hailed for knowing how to build a happy workplace that yields great results. Tiny establishments where attrition is virtually unknown and the employee well-being gets reflected in the company balance sheet. Pockets within larger organizations where one good boss has completely altered the dynamics of how the vertical functions.

It is doable and replicable, irrespective of the scale and ambition of an organization. And there is a very practical, by-the-numbers approach that can get us there. All we need is to be willing to look beyond the abstractions and start considering processes. We need to stop pitting generations and priorities against each other and start focusing on quantifiable systems that account for employee well-being balanced with organizational outcomes, and structures that are clear and defined.

As the old saying goes, if it can be measured, it can be improved. And while human behavior is unpredictable, having defined criteria, expectations and review systems helps channel the chaos inherent in human nature and render it usable for organizational growth.

Irrespective of the generation we belong to, we don’t need to turn people into resources to get our desired outcomes. Nor do we need to become the emotional dumping ground for our whole team in the search for that elusive empathetic workplace. What we need is balance, and structures that cater to it without compromising on the emotional well-being of our teams, or most importantly our own!



Runjhun Noopur
The Startup

Author. Entrepreneur. Emotional Sustainability Coach. Founder, Almost Spiritual.