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Mind the Gap: How Different Generations Approach Work and Office Culture

Attitudes towards work vary widely amongst the age groups.  To ensure a harmonious workplace, HR and corporate leaders need to understand the differences between Gen X, Gen Y, and Gen Z.

By Supak ‘June’ Prompila, JacksonGrant Recruitment Consultant

I am fortunate to work in an office where three generations – X, Y and Z – work together harmoniously. Different age groups have different approaches to their careers, and different work habits. At JacksonGrant we’ve learned to acknowledge and adapt to these different attitudes, in order to achieve our shared goals and objectives.

Navigating the generation gap is not always easy or straightforward. The young people of Generation Z entering the workforce have a very different approach towards work compared to their supervisors.

Generally speaking, Gen Z does not share the same work ethic as Generation X. This can be a source of tension between older management and younger staff. It’s increasingly important for different age groups to understand one another and communicate effectively to keep up morale – and prevent any misunderstandings or toxicity in the workplace.

Sea Change - Technology and Covid Disruption

Gen X-ers were born and raised without high-speed internet, without smartphones and iPads; there was no wifi or instant messaging, and nobody ever got to work from home. There were no crypto-millionaires: ordinary people couldn’t even invest in stocks without paying steep brokerage fees. From a Gen X point of view, the only way to get rich quick is winning the lottery, or breaking the law.

The Gen X managers and executives who run regional and global organisations don’t believe in short-cuts: you must work hard for a long time before the company will reward your efforts.

In Thailand, it’s the same: Middle-class Gen X-ers had to strive and sacrifice for decades to achieve success. Generation Z doesn’t really believe in that old-fashioned work ethic: they want to work from home, they want flexible hours, and they want immediate rewards. This is a function of rapidly advancing technology, of course, but also two-to-three years of covid disruption: young office workers are accustomed to a very long leash, something that Gen X and Gen Y never had early in their careers.

How the Generation Gap Plays Out in the Workplace

As a recruiter, I am in constant communication with executive clients and HR colleagues. I regularly follow up with candidates I’ve placed, to see how they are getting on in their new roles. Here are some of the important generational differences I see that can lead to potential conflicts if not properly understood: 

·       Communication styles

The young generation is more straightforward, quick to offer constructive criticism, individualistic, with a more casual approach.

Gen X values hard work and long hours, a/k/a ‘The Grind’ – they are more skeptical, formal, and uncompromising.

  •  Work ethic and values

The young generation has been raised with social media and an emphasis on personal growth, prioritising the self over the collective, and achieving a work-life balance. As a result, they tend to value flexible work arrangements and prioritise a sense of fulfillment in their careers more than traditional values of sacrifice, loyalty, and putting in long hours. They want to work by remote. As much as compensation, Gen Z values diversity, inclusion, and a sense of purpose. They expect quick results, an expectation that is not always realistic.

Generation X is far more pragmatic. The older generation sees no substitute for hands-on experience. They value action and achievement more than ideals, place a high importance on learning by doing, trial and error. As we might expect from our elders, they are more patient. They also have a tendency to romanticise hardship.

  • Leadership styles

The young generation is extremely open-minded. They resist micromanagement, and resent pressure.

Their Generation X supervisors, on the other hand, are intensely focussed on the organisational processes that brought the company success; they prioritise results and the bottom line.

Gen Y Can Bridge the Gap

Given the wide divergence in values, we can see an inherent conflict between the Gen X management style, and the attitudes of the Gen Z staff that they are supervising.

As a Gen-Y recruiter, I am in the middle of both groups, so I try to help Gen X and Gen Z work together more harmoniously, and adapt to changing workplace dynamics. I firmly believe that Gen Y can function as a bridge – because we understand both sides, it is up to us as future managers to help our senior management and junior staff get along.

What does this mean for recruitment?

Recruiters need to be aware of these generational differences. We need to understand our clients’ company culture intimately and implicitly. Even more importantly, we must ascertain the character of the candidates we are putting forward, to ensure a seamless fit.

Red flags may pop up during preliminary interviews. Even if a candidate has the right skill set, it’s a mistake to place an individual with a staunchly Gen-Z personality in a conservative Gen-X environment. Dig deeper: ask job-seekers what is their ideal working culture, what motivates them, what are their life goals?

We also must understand our niche industries in great detail. For example, tech employees often thrive in a fast-moving, dynamic culture. The manufacturing sector is more strict, less flexible:  many have six-day work weeks, something that many tech workers won’t accept.

What does the widening generation gap mean for employers?

Gen X managers and executives need to understand it is much harder in today’s marketplace to find the kind of talent they demand.

The upcoming generation often lacks the sort of dedication that companies have come to expect from entry-level staff.  To attract talent with a more old-fashioned work ethic, companies will likely have to pay more, or spend an extended period of time searching for appropriate candidates.

Ultimately, in some cases employers may need to accept that the standards they have set for junior staff may be unrealistic, given today’s workforce.

Strategic Solutions

To attract the best Generation Z talent, businesses should consider how they can soften their workplace, and make policies more flexible. By embracing and accommodating Gen-Z values as much as possible, companies will find it easier to retain younger talent. Here are a few suggestions:

·       Flexibility: Gen Z values flexible work schedules and office hours. Employers should provide hybrid or work-from-home arrangements whenever possible.

·       Technology: Gen Z is a tech-savvy generation that grew up with modern technology. Employers should provide them with the most advanced technology to work with, such as the latest computers, software, and communication tools.

·       Diversity and Inclusion: DEI is extremely important to young people. Organisations should strive to create an inclusive workplace where employees of different backgrounds and cultures feel valued and respected, with equal opportunities for promotion. 

·       Continuous Learning: Gen Z values training and development opportunities. Employers should provide regular training programmes, workshops, and mentorship to help the next generation improve their skills and education.

Advice for Generation Z

Job-seekers also need to compromise if they want to achieve success. Gen Z are mostly entry-level and junior staff; they need to understand that they don’t run the world – not yet, anyway. Their opinions about work-life balance and compensation may have merit, but they are untested at the organisational level.

Entry-level workers must accept that they will need to work harder: unless your family owns the company, the only way to succeed in the corporate world as junior staff is to put in more effort than your colleagues. There simply aren’t as many shortcuts in the corporate world as there are in social media entrepreneurship, for example.

Some hard truths about Gen Z, from an elder’s perspective:

·       Gen Z is in too much of a hurry. They are impatient for change, but organisational changes take time, especially in big organisations. Young professionals need to appreciate that institutional change doesn’t come in the blink of an eye, despite how quickly technology is changing the world.

·       First prove that your new way of working is faster, better and more sustainable. Only then will Gen X bosses consider new ideas.

·       Young Gen Z workers often think they deserve a seat at the table, and the right to influence company policy. But they haven’t proven themselves yet. It is unrealistic to expect big rewards so early in your career.

Meeting in the Middle

Misunderstandings and disagreements between Gen X and Gen Z are to be expected in the workplace, just as in life.

Gen Z needs to appreciate that the world is slowly adjusting to their preferred way of doing things, but a quick revolution is not going to happen. To convince Gen X of your talents, you need to adopt a more measured approach.

Gen X and Y need to be open-minded about what Gen Z has to offer. Give junior staff an opportunity to speak their mind and make suggestions about adapting to new technology. At the same time, help them to cultivate the self-discipline required to implement the changes they desire. Gen Z needs help to develop their time management and organisational skills.

Moving Forward 

The two-to-three-year covid lockdown put Gen Z in a bubble that they haven’t completely emerged from. They have not been fully socialised and initiated into the corporate world as previous waves of graduates have.

Covid did not create a ‘new normal’. It was a temporary pause. New up-and-coming talent has tremendous potential, and lots to offer; but they have not learned yet how to apply their skills within traditional structures. For this they need Gen X and Gen Y’s guidance.

Both sides of the age divide can foster a more productive and happier workplace if they understand and appreciate the ‘other’. This can be achieved by showing mutual respect for each group’s contributions, strengths, and accomplishments.

Gen Z and Gen X should be open to change and embrace new technologies and work methods. Gen X can share their knowledge and experience with Gen Z, while Gen Z can share their knowledge of modern technology and trends. Knowledge-sharing can create a more productive and innovative workplace.

If your company is having difficulty sourcing the right young talent to fits your office culture, I can help. Please reach out to me here.