Q&A: How To Bridge the Work Style Gaps From Baby Boomers to Gen Z

February 15, 2024 By Traci Hale, vmv7mc@virginia.edu Traci Hale, vmv7mc@virginia.edu

It’s not your father’s workplace anymore. The look of the office, and who is working there, is changing as the workforce gets younger.

Generation Y, aka millennials – people born between 1981 and 1996 – represent the largest generation in the U.S. workforce, surpassing Gen X workers, born between 1964 and 1981, in 2016. Millennials now account for more than 35% of the workforce, according to labor statistics. Baby boomers – those born between 1946 and 1964, who represent almost 20% of U.S. workers – are heading toward retirement. Generation Z workers, born between 1997 and 2012, are entering the job market now.  

With different communication styles, life experiences and views on work-life balance, new conflicts are arising. So, are there steps employers and employees can take to bring everyone back together at the water cooler?

UVA Today spoke with Katie Wiesel, executive coach and principal partner at KHW Coaching and Consulting, to get her take on the changing workforce. Wiesel also is the program director for the UVA Northern Virginia’s ELEVATE: Women’s Leadership Program. 

The University of Virginia alumna and former senior director of Darden Executive Education and Lifelong Learning said step one is to assume positive intent.

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Portrait of Katie Wiesel

University of Virginia alumna Katie Wiesel, director of the UVA Northern Virginia’s ELEVATE: Women’s Leadership Program, provides executive coaching to business leaders. (Contributed photo)

Q. Are there common characteristics millennials bring to the workplace?

A. They are purpose-driven – they want to make an impact – and they want work-life balance. They like clear communication. They like recognition. They aren’t afraid to change jobs every few years. They are now the “sandwich generation” – with many of them taking care of both young kids and aging parents, so they are rightly concerned with work-life balance and earning potential. Work-from-home flexibility is key for their ability to get everything done.

Q. What characteristics do Gen Z workers bring to the workplace?

A. As a generation, this is the most self-aware, inclusive, tech-savvy generation in history. They are complete digital natives, which brings both benefits and challenges to the workplace. They are more aware of, and driven by, social justice and belonging than other generations. Their influence and demands will shape the future of work, for the better in many ways.

That said, they are also more anxious than previous generations and they’re not afraid to talk about and advocate for their mental health.

Q. What events or trends have influenced Gen Y’s and Gen Z’s behaviors in the workforce?

A. Officially, in the U.S., Gen Y’s (aka millennials) were born between 1981 and 1996, so the youngest of them are 28 years old. They came of age during 9/11, the Iraq War and the Great Recession, [so they have] lots of uncertainty around both safety and financial security. 

Gen Zers were born between 1997 and 2012 – the oldest of them are in the workforce in their first or second jobs. They are complete digital natives and came of age during the rise of social media and AI, the Arab Spring, the murder of George Floyd and the COVID-19 pandemic. As a group, they are concerned with social justice and inclusion in the workplace. They seek immediate gratification regarding job promotion and supportive leadership, and they’re finding some disappointment in those regards. They sometimes have difficulty hearing the feedback they think they want. They are super social, so they don’t necessarily benefit from or enjoy working from home, nor are they getting the in-person training, communication and socialization they desire.

Q. How has the younger workers’ tech ability changed how business is conducted?

A. On the one hand, Gen Zers are obviously extremely tech savvy. They want immediate information and results and use technology to get there. They’re innovative and use social media to be more engaged with customers. Their reliance on technology has also created a communication challenge between the generations – the older workers don’t understand the younger ones, and the younger colleagues think the older ones are too formal and stodgy.  

Q. Sometimes younger workers are accused of being less engaged or connected. Is this accurate?

A. Both research and anecdotal evidence suggest they are less engaged than previous generations, especially for Gen Z. Managers of Gen Z (and Gen Z employees themselves) report they are exhausted and disengaged at and by work. 

Bankrate survey from August showed 78% of Gen Z workers said they would look for other jobs within the year. What they seek, and the key to getting them more engaged, is professional development that helps them thrive as whole people and a focus on the positive impact their work has on society.  

Q. Why do you think younger workers have gained a reputation for being “difficult”?

A. The challenges I see are mostly based on communication styles, unconscious bias and difficulty giving and receiving feedback. On the unconscious bias front, boomers and Gen Xers think millennials want too much work-life balance and don’t want to work hard. My older clients complain about this all the time. Gen Xers complain millennials are entitled, jump companies too often and aren’t loyal to their employers.

Excellence Here Goes Everywhere, To Be Great and Good In All We Do
Excellence Here Goes Everywhere, To Be Great and Good In All We Do

If the other generations think millennials don’t want to work hard, they think Gen Z doesn’t want to work AT ALL. I heard a client complain yesterday that his Gen Z intern said he was choosing an easier and less lucrative profession because my client’s 40-hour a week job was just more than he wanted to commit to. 

Another bias I hear against Gen Z is how anxious and fragile they seem. Their bosses don’t feel comfortable giving them negative feedback because they can’t take it; they cry. The unconscious bias, of course, goes both ways – the younger employees have biases against the older folks, “OK boomer” being the catch-all complaint – but they shouldn’t discount experience and well-earned expertise. 

Q. What workplace conflicts exist between the different groups?

A. Communication differences abound. Digital natives are more likely to text, DM, etc. when their bosses are more used to email or phone communications. Gen Z especially, and not surprisingly, isn’t as comfortable with face-to-face communication, including phone calls. They haven’t practiced as much face-to-face communication with peers or adults as their older counterparts have. Communication etiquette and what’s considered work appropriate dress and behavior is starkly different between generations.

Q. What type of behaviors can help mitigate these conflicts?

A. Here is where this gets particularly interesting to me. Our younger generations are demanding more inclusion and belonging; more kind, supportive leadership from their managers; more transparency around mental health issues; more flexibility and autonomy to do their best work and be their best selves at work and at home. 

These demands benefit everyone. It’s messy and uncomfortable for everyone, but we’re moving in a positive direction if we can manage to maintain productivity and quality of work in the face of change. Professional development is key to helping our youngest workers develop communication skills so they can work well across generations; confidence in their decision-making; conflict management tools; and advocacy for the self and others. UVA Northern Virginia recently developed a program for early career women to help them gain all these skills.

Q. What can we all do to encourage a positive work environment?

A. Assume your colleagues are doing their best work. Assume their feedback is meant to be helpful, rather than critical of you as a person. Ask lots of questions and really listen to learn, not judge your colleaguesAll generations – when we feel valued and heard and respected, when we can see the impact and purpose of our work, when we can use our strengths on a regular basis – that’s when we’re engaged and excited about our jobs.

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Traci Hale

Senior Editor University Communications