Leading Across Generations
The world within which we grow up shapes us in fundamental ways. Whilst not the complete picture, understanding how historical moments shape generations will lead to a better appreciation of why an individual thinks, feels and behaves the way they do.
Harnessing this understanding will lead to a more inclusive and better managed workplace and will improve talent retention and recruitment.
Who are the different generations?While categorizations vary across the globe l, it is generally understood that there are up to four generations in the workplace at present:
*Age in 2023
As of 2023, the majority of the global workforce is made up of Generation X and Millennials, demonstrated below by the workforces of the United Kingdom, United States, Hong Kong and Singapore.
Notes: US data – Bureau of Labor Statistics; generations split as follows: Baby Boomers (60+), Gen X (40-59), Millennials (25-39), Gen Z (16-24). UK data – ONS; Baby Boomers (65+), Gen X (50-65 plus half of workers aged 35-49), Millennials (25-34 plus half of workers aged 35-49), Gen Z (16-24). Hong Kong data – Census & Statistics Department; Baby Boomers (60+), Gen X (40-59), Millennials (25-39), Gen Z (15-24). Singapore data – Ministry of Manpower; Baby Boomers (60+), Gen X (40-59), Millennials (25-39), Gen Z (15-24).
The proportion of the workforce made up by Baby Boomers is enduring more so than previous generations. This is due to both medical advances enabling people to live healthier for longer, and workplace changes allowing people to work with greater ease i.e., remotely.
Meanwhile the proportion of the workforce made up by Generation Z is increasing, with PwC estimating Generation Z and Millennials will make up around 60% of the global workforce by 2030.2
And we can expect the emergence of Generation Alpha in the workforce in 2030, leading to the possibility of five generations in the workplace at one time.
Are generational differences not just down to age?
Difficulties in assessing generational differences are well-known.3 Some observed differences are due to differences between age-groups, rather than generations. For example, some studies suggest that Generation X, who are in middle adulthood, value work-life balance more than other generations do.4 This could simply be a result of differences in life stage, as Millennials might express similar sentiments when they reach middle adulthood. It is therefore important to distinguish between age-related and history-related influences; the latter being the defining influence across generations.5
Age-related influences are tied to chronological age and largely predictable, although there will be some variation across cultures. For example:
Understanding age-related influences is important in the workplace. For example, a young adult may be embarking on a journey into parenthood and in doing so, may need their employer to be more flexible and forgiving when work does not take priority.
Taking the time to understand and appreciate these life events is key to ensuring employees are able and willing to contribute to the best of their ability.
History-related influences explain how the time period in which we live, and the unique historical circumstances of that time affect our development. Economic shifts, social movements and wars are just some examples of historical influences. They are by nature less predictable and show significant variations across cultures.
Historical influences can be local to a neighbourhood, country, or continent; or global (either in nature or consequence). It is important to consider that global events can bring very different localized impacts due to co-existing cultural influences, as we have seen with the COVID-19 pandemic where economic, health and societal impacts have varied significantly across the globe. Regardless of localized differences, historical influences can shape entire generations by shaping the world in which individuals mature.
In considering how history-related influences might shape your or other generations, we have brought together some key themes and events over the past 80 years. We hope they evoke curiosity: which historical events had the most impact on you? How might recent events be impacting younger generations and their approach to work?
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What do we know about each generation?
Generational research is difficult. Having surveyed the literature on generational differences, we have hand-picked some insights from reputable studies. These are not comprehensive but give a flavor of the observed differential characteristics of each generation. We have also included quotes from a short series of internal interviews conducted here at Arcadia in March 2023.
Generation Z are adapted to life in a digital age and a world that operates at speed, scale and scope. They are pragmatic due to being accustomed to utilizing ever improving tools and technology. Generation Z, like Millennials, are especially drawn to companies that make positive social impact.12 Gen Z value flexibility, relevance, authenticity and non-hierarchical leadership.13
Spotlight on Generation Z
A large-scale study by Stanford conducted between 2017-2021 found the following attributes of Generation Z.13 Findings were based on interviews, focus groups and surveys of >2k adults aged between 18-25yrs (Generation Z) as well as the ‘iGen corpus’, a 70million item strong repository of spoken and written language of people aged 16-25yrs.
- Value flexibility, relevance, authenticity and non-hierarchical leadership.
- Do not necessarily want to communicate via digital means (a common assumption) – nearly every Generation Z interviewed said their favorite form of communication was ‘in person’.
- Often question rules and authority due to being so used to finding what they need on their own (e.g., through the internet). They can also become frustrated by what appears to them to be outdated and often irrelevant ways of doing things.
- Have a greater appreciation for diversity and the importance of finding their own unique identities as a result of growing up in a world where it is easy to learn about/meet/experience different people and cultures from across the world.
Why is this important?
- Recruitment: Generation Z are either in education, entering the workforce or in the early stages of their career. As the generation of ‘sensibility’, wanting to solve humanity’s greatest issues, ‘unity’, seeking a better more equitable world, and of ‘truth’, craving authenticity in an era of fake news and information overload14; Generation Z have new requirements of the workplace. Understanding these and adapting recruitment strategies accordingly is key to successful talent acquisition.
- Retention: Understanding how to lead across generations is key to successfully motivating and retaining talent; and has been evidenced to promote cooperation and unity in the workplace.15 A failure to engage employees across all generations leads to inadequate working environments and can cause breakdowns in workplace relationships, leading to quiet or actual quitting.
- Training: As Generation Z become a greater proportion of the workforce, there are important implications for training in the workplace. Generation Z and Millennials, as generations of ‘choice’ growing up in a world of abundance, need to be persuaded of the value of training; they need the ‘why’ before they engage. Younger generations require instant gratification – training techniques need to capitalize on technological advances and they need to be fast and rewarding. Training strategies need to account for younger generations switching jobs more frequently, to ensure that training offers remain valuable to both the employee and employer.
- Shift-change in leadership: As Baby Boomers gradually leave the workforce, leadership positions open for Generation X and Millennials to progress into. We expect over the coming decade a resulting shift-change in leadership, with implications for how employers handle the transition. Research shows that Generation Z value non-hierarchical leadership, at odds to what Baby Boomers value and Generation X have been accustomed to. This shift-change may offer opportunity for new leaders to change the structure of organisations accordingly.
- Opportunities: With increasing advances in technology, it is arguably vital for success to have an intergenerational workplace to harness opportunities created by artificial intelligence, data science and automation. Generation Z are considered ‘digitally fluent’16 and consequently, they are the most likely to be able to help navigate opportunities presented by exciting technological advances. Companies need Generation Z.
Can / should we generalise?
Understanding diversity in the workplace is paramount, whether diversity by generation, gender, culture, age or career stage.
“Appreciation of generational differences is simply another form of diversity in the workplace, and as such, should be prioritized to create the space for understanding those who have different experiences and perspectives.” – Generation X, Female, US
As described, there are historical influences which distinctly shape a generation, resulting in common tendencies distinct to that generation. These tendencies need to be understood and appreciated to enable successful talent recruitment, retention and training.
However, as with other diversity domains, generations are not necessarily homogeneous.17 There are age-related influences common across generations; and there are cultural factors which lead two individuals within the same generation to have different values and working preferences. There are also individual differences which lead to different motivations and attitudes in the workplace. It is important not to over-generalise: stereotypical beliefs can be problematic, they can get in the way of how people collaborate with their colleagues, and have troubling implications for how we people are managed and trained.18 The important thing is for employers to consider reasons for why an individual thinks, feels and behaves the way they do.
- Companies need to understand their workforce and the sub-groups within – these subgroups might not necessarily be by age or generation; the important thing is that the workplace is a safe and productive place for all.
- The workplace is becoming increasingly generationally diverse, with expectations of up to five generations in the workforce in 2030 and with Generation Z and Alpha demonstrating significant differences to older generations which need to be understood.
- It is important not to overgeneralise: stereotypes can interfere with workplace behaviour. Across generations, cultures and age groups, individual differences must always be considered.
We’d love to hear your perspectives on and experiences of leading and managing an intergenerational workplace. We have a range of training as well as seminar-style offerings on understanding generations which we’d love to discuss with you and, where relevant, tailor these to your company’s needs. Get in touch here: email@example.com.
This article was written by a female Millennial and a male Baby Boomer, both members of Arcadia’s Research team.
1 In China, generations are considered by decade – for example, the ‘post 50s’ generation were born between 1950 and 1959.
2 PwC – How prepared are employers for Generation Z? August 2021 – (link).
3 Pew Research Center – The Whys and Hows of Generations Research. September 2015 – (link).
4 Whitney Gibson, J., Greenwood, R. A., & Murphy, Jr., E. F. (2009). Generational Differences In The Workplace: Personal Values, Behaviors, And Popular Beliefs. Journal of Diversity Management (JDM), 4(3), 1–8. https://doi.org/10.19030/jdm.v4i3.4959
5 Kuther, T. L. (2022). Lifespan Development (3rd ed.). SAGE Publications US.
6 Abate, J., Schaefer, T., & Pavone, T. (2018). Understanding generational identity, job burnout, job satisfaction, job tenure and turnover intention. Journal of Organizational Culture, Communications and Conflict, 22(1), 1-12.
7 Gursoy, D., Maier, T. A., & Chi, C. G. (2008). Generational differences: An examination of work values and generational gaps in the hospitality workforce. International journal of hospitality management, 27(3), 448-458.
8 Jiang, S (2019, April 2). The ABCs Of Generations X, Y and Z. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbeshumanresourcescouncil/2019/04/02/the-abcs-of-generations-x-y-and-z/?sh=4150bdfe672b
9 Gibson, J. W., Greenwood, R. A., & Murphy Jr, E. F. (2009). Generational differences in the workplace: Personal values, behaviors, and popular beliefs. Journal of Diversity Management (JDM), 4(3), 1-8.
10 Pew Research Center (2010, February 24). Millennials: Confident. Connected. Open to Change. https://www.pewresearch.org/social-trends/2010/02/24/millennials-confident-connected-open-to-change/
11 Smith, C and Turner, S (2015). The Radical Transformation of Diversity and Inclusion The Millennial Influence. Deloitte University. https://www2.deloitte.com/content/dam/Deloitte/us/Documents/about-deloitte/us-inclus-millennial-influence-120215.pdf
12 Deloitte (2022). Striving for balance, advocating for change – The Deloitte global 2022 Gen Z & Millennial survey. https://www.deloitte.com/global/en/issues/work/genzmillennialsurvey.html
13 Katz, R (2022) Gen Z, Explained: The Art of Living in a Digital Age (University of Chicago Press, 2021) – referenced here: https://news.stanford.edu/2022/01/03/know-gen-z/
14 Edelman – The Power of Gen Z – Trust & The Future Consumer, December 2021 (link).
15 Becton, J. B., Walker, H. J., & Jones‐Farmer, A. (2014). Generational differences in workplace behavior. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 44(3), 175-189.
16 Leslie, B., Anderson, C., Bickham, C., Horman, J., Overly, A., Gentry, C., … & King, J. (2021). Generation Z perceptions of a positive workplace environment. Employee Responsibilities and Rights Journal, 33, 171-187.
17 Rudolph, C. W., & Zacher, H. (2017). Considering generations from a lifespan developmental perspective. Work, Aging and Retirement, 3(2), 113-129.
18 Harvard Business Review – Just How Different Are Millennials, Gen Xers, and Baby Boomers at Work? August 2019 – (link).
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