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Gen Z and Boomers are officially colleagues. It’s giving … change

Fresh faces entering the workforce alongside industry vets breeds stereotypes and tension. How can teams pull strength from this transition?

Professionals of various generations speak on stage during MILLSUMMIT 2023. (Courtesy photo)
As of 2022, the number of Gen Z in the workforce surpassed Baby Boomers — no cap. Gen Z is here and already changing the work environment.

Today’s intergenerational workplace comes with its fair share of myths, like Boomers being behind on technology, millennials touting tech but laziness, and Gen Z demanding too much and job hopping.

Those born in different eras do approach the workplace differently, from how they dress and write to how they assert boundaries around work hours.

How do these interactions truly play out in the workplace?

Dr. Deborah Mason, the coordinator for the Office of the Mayor’s Community Public Safety Initiative in Wilmington, Delaware, draws from her experience with all ages in criminal justice — particularly young folks. Mason noticed a younger generation following online trends for attire and long nails that don’t reflect a professional image.

“There’s good cause to believe this generation struggles, and this is my opinion, with attire, and I think a lot of it goes with social media,” she said while speaking on the “The Intergenerational Workplace” panel during MILLSUMMIT 2023.

She asserts that how people present themselves matters. However, Mason also urges leaders to understand what’s behind the behavior and find compromise: “Having a candid conversation with them always helps. And then trying to understand where they’re coming from, and why they are wearing that.”

Paula Swain, HR EVP of Incyte Corporation and a representative of the Boomer generation, said during the panel that some older colleagues fear that a new person might be taking their job. Swain also notes that older generations get confused by questions and pushback from millennials.

Instead of just doing the set tasks that have always been done, millennials ask a lot of questions about why they do the work they do. Swain sees this as a potential positive.

“They want to change everything, but a lot of things are actually really good,” Swain said. That millennial “why” can lead to improvements in efficiency, like eliminating time spent on a report that no one reads anyway.

“We’ve learned so much from people coming in who understand technology better than a lot of us do,” Swain said. “The younger people are bringing in technology and saying, ‘Why are you doing that on a spreadsheet? You could set it up in AI.’”

Understanding your team’s strengths paves the way for fresh processes

Sarah Mailloux, associate state director for the Delaware Small Business Development Center, has a corporate history and identifies with a younger millennial age group (but not all the stereotypes).

Mailloux noted that according to studies, one way to create diversity in a group is to “have people who are young talking to people who are older, sharing some of those tech questions and answers and some of that experience.”

Mailloux asserted that talking to older leaders helps them “believe and trust that I’m also capable, and not just a lazy millennial.” In turn, leaders have to make things “authentic and transparent” to get younger millennials to get behind them, because millennials “want to follow an authentic leader.”

This early into their careers, even 20-somethings may have had three or four different jobs. That perspective of “just a job” means they focus hard on work-life balance and boundaries around work hours.

“This job is one of many that you’ll have in your career,” Mailloux said. “As a young person, it’s important to be able to set those boundaries.”

Swain noted that many people in her organization consider their colleagues family and see it as a positive point, while Mailloux notes that many millennial and especially Gen Z workers consider “work as a family” to be a “toxic mentality.”

Intergenerational influence

Mason said millennials and Gen Z’ers often use up all their time off. What used to be a point of tension for her has now become an inspiration.

“They have such a great work-life balance,” Mason said. “What are they doing that I should be doing? I have a life and I want to live it. … Millennials and Gen Z, I want to say, thank you. Thank you for allowing me to use my PTO.”

Swain notes that her organization is also much greener and has more diversity thanks to its bringing in young people.

Despite being an optimistic generation, Gen Z is entering the workforce with worry. They doubt they’ll hit milestones, are less likely to note financial stability and report high rates of mental health struggles compared to other groups. Transparency, understanding and compromise from all groups can help ease the transition and trepidation.

When asked what they wish they had learned when they were younger, leaders gave comforting advice:

“Stop being so scared. You are OK and you are going to make it,” Mason affirmed. She says she’s grateful for her journey and the risks she took early in her career.

“Work on your strengths. Most of us think we have to work on our weaknesses,” said Swain, adding: “If you work on things you’re not good at, you’ll be mediocre. If you work on things you’re really good at, you’ll be excellent at it.”

“Advocate for yourself more and find mentors earlier,” Mailloux advises. Finding people who have your back can help you advocate for your career development, and she reminds new employees that finding a mentor can be as simple as asking directly.


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