Australia is currently experiencing the biggest generational shift it has seen for half a century. Over the next decade, the youngest of the formidable Baby Boomers will sail past 65 and ease out of the workforce, leaving a very significant labour and management void. In a growing economy there is a need to fill the ongoing labour demands as well as replace retiring or downshifting staff. At the strategic level, the knowledge and leadership of the Baby Boomers needs to be effectively transferred. This will be to the Gen X and Y leaders, and the emerging Gen Z’s. With all these generations mixing in the workforce, we need to understand the differences to get the most out of this diversity.
An overview of each working generation
The Baby Boomers have lived through incredible change. They have adapted to, and in many cases created the change. They are therefore a very adaptive and flexible generation. This is seen in everything from their embrace of technology to their collaborative management style. Their experience combined with their adaptivity will keep them relevant.
Gen X is the perfect bridge generation. They understand and usually adopt the work ethic and focus of the Boomers. Gen X began their economic life when jobs were harder to get and keep. In the early 1990’s there was a recession and downsizing of the workforce. Very different to the near-full employment today. Gen X are close in age to the Gen Y’s and can connect somewhat with their culture, views, and workplace attitudes.
Gen Y: Also referred to as Millennials, they have sometimes been stereotyped as fickle, self-focussed and transient. The reality is that Gen Y have invested significantly in their education, are committed to growing their careers and are showing stability in their family-forming life stage. Managers who lead collaboratively, build an engaging work culture and offer growth opportunities will see loyalty and commitment from Gen Y.
Gen Z are almost exclusively the children of Generation X. Gen Z are powerful players in today’s work culture. Within a decade, Gen Z will comprise a third of the workforce, and so an understanding of them and their context is essential.
More career mobile
The 21st Century life is rarely linear and sequential. Traditionally one would complete the education stage, move into their working years, and perhaps after a career change or two head into retirement. These days the lives of Gen Zs are more of a mosaic of different roles, phases and careers. Today the education phase extends well into adulthood, and throughout an individual’s working life. This multi-career generation may retrain several times and based on the average tenure of staying with an employer for just under three years, a schoolleaver today will average 18 jobs across 6 careers in their lifetime.
This huge decline in tenure is often put down to a character flaw in Gen Z where they are perceived to have a lack of loyalty. Yet the cause is not a lack of loyalty, nor a poor work ethic. It is simply a response to the changing times. They have come of age in an era with little job security, a competitive environment, and no employment guarantees. Gen Z are playing within the new rules of the employment world. By understanding this we can adapt to and accommodate this mobile generation.
More technologically integrated
Gen Z are digital integrators. Having used devices from the youngest age, it is almost like the air they breathe, permeating all areas of their lifestyle and relationships. For the digital integrator, technology has blurred the lines of work and social. Of study and entertainment. Of private and public. Simplicity and flexibility amidst the complexity of busy lives are some of the key benefits that technology brings the digital integrator. Gen Z live in an open-book environment, just a few clicks away from any piece of information. They connect in a borderless world – across countries and cultures. They communicate in a post-literate community where visuals and videos get the most cut-through. Gen Z are highly intuitive and confident, unaided users of digital technology and are comfortable using it in their work environment.
Differing expectations of work
Every aspect of work is undergoing massive change. Where we work has been transformed in a work from home environment that has changed how people work. It’s no longer about set hours and hourly based work, but outcomes and empowering the employee to get the work done. How workers interact has changed with team-based work shifting to accommodate hybrid working environments. Occupation types are also continuing to change with new jobs and industries emerging.
Not only have careers morphed and evolved, but the role of work in our lives is also less isolated than it used to be. While work does blur with life, the expectations Gen Z bring to work are more than just a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay. It’s also about social needs, self-actualisation and the contribution they can make to their community. Workers today look to have multiple needs met at work. Sure, it’s about achieving task outcomes and receiving financial rewards. But it’s also about social connection, training, personal development, greater fulfilment and even environmental sustainability.
Responding to more collaborative leadership styles
Before we can manage and lead we must be able to understand and connect. Gen Z are not only at a different life stage to older generations, but they have been raised and educated in a very different era. Their expectations of a leader, attitudes to the job, and preferred styles of work have all been shaped by their times. For more than half of Gen Z workers (53%) inspiring and accessible leadership is extremely or very important to them in their place of work.i The findings are clear: unless their direct supervisors and the leadership hierarchy manage in an inclusive, participative way, and demonstrate people skills and not just technical skills, retention declines. The ideal manager for Gen Z is one who values communication and creates an environment of transparency and respect for staff. Their preferred leadership style is one that is more consensus rather than command, more participative than autocratic, and more flexible and organic than structured and hierarchical.