Generational Traits and the Workplace

As the New Year dawns, I find myself in a reflective mood, and am increasingly excited to celebrate the upcoming second anniversary of my startup company, Ed-Watch. In addition to being grateful to the clients and business partners that I have met through this company, I find that leading a team in the initial years of a business has been a very rewarding experience. Over the course of my professional life, I have worked with people from different educational and social backgrounds, and age groups. However, I never had the chance to contemplate on the benefits and drawbacks of working with a team exclusively made up of younger, dynamic people. I now see how generational traits play a role in the workplace.

While growing up, my mother used to remark that my generation lacked empathy and respect, and that we were more privileged than the previous generations. Usually, I did not agree, yet she always found a way to convince me that her generation was better, except that we, the Millennials, may be a bit smarter. Growing into adulthood, I inclined towards similar views about the generation younger than me (Gen Z).

In recent years, though, I have been hearing the theory that the Generation Z may actually be dumber! The argument often revolves around the growing reliance on technology and artificial intelligence. For instance, with spellcheck and autocorrect, we do not feel the need to learn spellings anymore. The use of social media is also blamed for the lack of interpersonal skills in this generation.

Generations are products of events and circumstances that they grew up in. For example, the baby boomers profited from the stability after the Industrial Revolution and the World Wars. They had just started listening to the radio, going to cinema or buying a TV for their homes. Many of them still consume traditional media such as printed newspaper. While their parents had “greener” lifestyles due to necessity, they could afford new luxuries such as cars. Most millennials, however, grew up with computers and the Internet. We were still teenagers when 9/11 happened. For our elders, war was fought in the actual land they were living on. Whereas for us, it was a concern in distant lands leading to terrorism and high defense budgets in our own lands. Terrorism and the economic crisis of 2008 shaped our opinions and behaviour. The pandemic and its economic difficulties have affected us in the prime of our careers.

Generation Z, on the other hand, has just entered the workforce or is finishing up education in the post pandemic world. They became teenagers after social networking sites had come into existence. Many of them are more ethically and environmentally conscious, having grown up in an era of extremism in politics and religion all over the world. They are receptive to the changing world and often hold strong opinions. Today, I see the Gen Z as neither dumber nor smarter, just different.

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In my opinion, the following aspects highlight the main differences in working styles of generations. Some give age-diverse teams a unique advantage whereas others point to potential areas of personal improvement for individuals.

Creativity

I have to give this to the younger generation – they have lots of interesting ideas! Some of the most creative and innovative people I know, belong to Gen Z. This is evidenced by their large presence on and exposure to “content” on social media.

Older people tend to stick to tried and tested strategies for solving problems and running businesses. While this is natural as we age, it is also about our approach towards creativity and life. Younger team members come up with out-of-the-box solutions to not keep us stalled in a given situation.

Risk taking

The traditional cycle of life, for many generations, was based on a typical patriarchal model. Young men worked towards a career and sustenance, while young women sought out husbands that could provide for them and their future children. Everyone was expected to conform to societal norms. While millennials did grow up in a world somewhat changed by social and feminist movements, technological advances and innovation, we did not experience significant disruption in the traditional family model. So, many of us did not question the expectations of society, and were largely compliant.

On the other hand, generation Z has seen its elders struggle with economic recessions and illness (pandemic). They realise, at a very young age, that unforeseen circumstances are unavoidable. One can lose a high earning job at any moment, become bankrupt and lose their house. So they worry less about saving and retirement planning and more about living their best life at present. Hence, they are full of ambition and are generally risk takers, as opposed to their risk-averse predecessors.

Virtue of patience

In the constantly connected world of social media and smartphones, the phenomenon of “instant gratification” has become prevalent.  It can be easily explained by comparing a rich, spoilt child with a poor, under-privileged child. Since the spoilt child has easy access to material things, he can become quickly agitated if his wants are not quickly fulfilled. Whereas, the under-privileged child is able to find happiness and joy in whatever is available in the moment.

Similarly, younger people who are naturally a bit impatient due to their age and stage of life, now have the means to fulfilling their online desires whenever they want. In the real world, though, most objectives and goals take hard work and a long time to reach. Therefore, some patience is needed. As we grow older, we tend to become more patient. Add to this the fact that “instant gratification” was not commonly available to us, we are more willing to wait to reap the fruit of our efforts.

Consistency and Loyalty

Millennials entered the workforce in times of uncertainty. This made us cautious in general. So, even when we have been outspoken about flexibility in working hours and work-life balance, they still remain a perk for us. We tend to stick to our employers just like our parents did. We had the reputation of being disloyal because we changed jobs every few years instead of staying in one place for 20 years.

Yet, now when the “Great Resignation” has arrived post-pandemic, it is the younger millennials and Generation Z that make up the majority of employees who resigned. The new generation has started working in the era of flexible hours and “work from home” arrangements. Coupled with the factors about Gen Z being more ambitious and less patient, they are perhaps even less “loyal” than the millennials. An inconsistent behavior makes for a generally less productive employee. People need about 12 months to settle in a new role and then they flourish in it. For now, this does not seem to be happening with Gen Z.

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How Does This Affect the Workplace?

The newer generation is always different from the previous ones. Some traits are positive while other habits and trends cause a downfall. So no generation is better than the other as such. However, technology and social media have led to a desire of self-validation, popularity and a general fickleness. People now spend less time to read books and more to play video games or binge watch TV shows. There is less face to face interaction and classic social skills are not needed. When a person’s emphasis is more on living life on their terms than experiencing it as it comes, they tend to admire themselves more, and respect and learn less from others. This starts a spiral of being self-centered and leads to a cycle of depression and loneliness.

The workplace exists in the larger context of society. If a team member is not happy in their personal life, their work performance will get affected. We need to strike a balance, something which Gen Z desperately seems to be seeking. In an age-diverse team, everyone can learn something from each other. Shutting out younger or older people completely will lead to failure of the business since an important opportunity of exploring drastically different ideas and solutions will be lost.

Generation Z are still quite young. They will learn and evolve with time. Millennials were not perfect either, nor were our predecessors. We are all learning as we go, so will they. We just have to learn how to be mutually productive in a respectful and considerate environment full of compassion and empathy.

The writer, Sana Quadri, is a Chartered Accountant with extensive experience in the Financial Services Industry. She is passionate about Learning & Development. She is also the founder of the ed-tech company, Ed-Watch, where she strives to help companies to grow and individuals to forge a successful career path.

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