Managing generations X, Y and Z

Throughout the ages and across geographies, people have always had different beliefs, rituals and behaviours. Now, they are being broken down across generations.

If you’re working in a senior leadership role, you may be generation X, while your employees are generation Y.

This article explores how you motivate and retain the best of the best, when managing across the generations. Some of the data has come from the Deloitte Millennial Survey of almost 8,000 millennials across 30 countries.

First, some definitions

Everyone has a different idea of where the lines should be drawn, so the boundaries are not clear-cut and of course there will be individuals who overlap. For the purposes of this article, here is a broad definition:

  • Generation X: Born between early to mid-1960s and late 1970s / early 1980s
  • Generation Y (also known as millennials): Born between late 1970s / early 1980s and the Millennium (so the oldest will now be in their late 30s).
    This article mainly focuses on Generation Y
  • Generation Z: Born since 1995 (so the oldest will now be 22 and entering the workplace)


Characteristics of Gen X – a quick introduction

Generation X individuals have experienced a shifting society, where the focus moved from children to being more focused on adults. Due to increasing divorce rates and mothers more likely to go out to work, children spent more time at home on their own without parental supervision – they were dubbed the ‘latchkey generation’.

This may have influenced the other labels they’ve been characterised with:

  • The hardest working generation since the second world war
  • Entrepreneurial – remember all the technology start-ups?
  • Adaptable, independent, resourceful
  • More likely to be influenced by peers than those in authority

Characteristics of Gen Y – a more detailed view

Concern for the world

Generally, millennials are concerned about uncertainty arising from conflict and the direction the world is going, especially those from the mature European economies. However, they also believe they have the ability to change the world around them, and that business has the potential to be a force for positive change.

Millennials don’t just observe what’s happening; they feel accountable for issues at work and in the wider world, and feel they can have the most impact at work.

More recently, they have an increased desire for certainty, which links to their concern about political and social upheaval. Comparing the survey results with last year, respondents are less likely to leave their current employer within two years, while the likelihood of staying beyond five years has increased.

It’s all about your ‘Why’

There is a shift underway where the culture of an organisation is based more on the values of its people than its leaders.

9/10 respondents believe the success of any business should be measured by more than just its financial performance.

Businesses seeking to attract, develop and retain the best people must, therefore, communicate the purpose of your organisation and how it contributes to making the world a better place. There is a clear connection between this and retention. (Of course this is important to everyone but especially to millennials.)

Employees who feel their jobs have meaning, or that they make a difference, exhibit greater levels of loyalty.

This links to my recent article Start with Why: How great leaders inspire everyone to take action

Benefits of flexible working

82% of employees working in highly flexible organisations report a positive impact on their wellbeing, health and happiness, compared with 46% working in an organisation that offers low flexibility.

Flexible working also impacts positively on financial performance, with 75% reporting a positive impact in highly flexible organisations, and only 29% where flexibility is low.

Accountability and flexibility are also highly correlated. Levels of responsibility rise or fall, probably because of the level of trust.

All my clients now include flexibility as part of everyday working, so this is useful affirmation of the benefits you’re realising – in case you don’t already know!

Flexible working continues to be a feature of most millennials’ working lives, and is linked to improved organisational performance, personal benefit and loyalty.

  • 84% of millennials report some degree of flexible working within their organisation
  • 45% of millennials in the least flexible organisations plan to leave within two years and only 27% anticipate staying more than five years (a statistically significant difference from the average)

Flexible working arrangements clearly make millennials feel more loyal to the organisation, and are likely to impact their attitude and performance.

Communication style

When millennials were asked what they most value in leaders, they said:

  • 66% believe straight-talking language is important
  • 58% said leaders should provide their opinions with passion
  • 48% reported believing that leaders must appeal to those who feel left out or unheard

Millennials in senior positions rate the most important skills as:

  • Communicatoin
  • Flexibility
  • Leadership
  • Ability to think creatively and generate new ideas

…interestingly, they didn’t include technical skills in this list.

Emerging automation

With the emergence of increased automation, millennials recognise the obvious potential benefits for productivity and economic growth, and believe people will get more time for creative and value-added activities, and the opportunity to learn new skills.

They also recognise that people will need to retrain, and worry that the workplace will become sterile, impersonal and less human.

Millennials who make the greatest use of social media were the most likely to recognise the potential of automation in the workplace.

This links to last month’s article: Futurism: Future-proofing yourself and your business

How millennials view generation Z

When millennials were asked what advice and guidance they would give to the next generation – generation Z – based on their own early career experience, they said:

  • Learn as much as possible – Begin your career open-minded and be ready to learn from others
  • Work hard – Do your best and do not be lazy
  • Be patient – Take your time when entering the workforce and go step-by-step
  • Be dedicated – Be committed to succeeding and persevering
  • Be flexible – Be open and adaptable to change and try new things

Of course, these tips could apply to anyone, but it gives a useful insight into what millennials think is important.

Characteristics of Gen Z – a quick introduction

Some of us may have children in this generation; I certainly recognise some of the characteristics!  These are:

  • Natural consumers and users of technology, leading to shorter attention spans as they flip from app to app
  • A higher desire for privacy than generation Y – less likely to use Facebook and more likely to use Snapchat
  • Cultural diversity is a given
  • Connecting their work to social impact will continue to be a theme, as it has been for Generation Y

How to motivate different generations

When different generations work together, you may need to motivate them based on the traits of their generation, whilst also appealing to them as individuals. Here are some tips:

  • Make sure your communications are not just profit-driven. Reinforce the purpose of your organisation with strong, clear, regular communications
  • Talk with passion and conviction, using plain language (work on your storytelling skills!)
  • Millennials are cynical about company intentions, so make sure that anything you do that serves society is authentic and genuine e.g. time off for a charity day
  • Continue to model a flexible working environment
  • Depending on the level of automation within your organisation, think how you communicate the positive benefits for business performance, employee creativity and skills growth. To reassure those who are ignoring the shift towards automation, or feeling nervous about it, get them to engage in positive discussion around the topic
  • Give them the opportunity to make an impact in their area of work, and continue to delegate as far and low as possible (if i had a £ for every time I heard this in the organisations I work in, I would now be retired on my own private island in the sun!)
  • Make social media work for you, and use the full breadth of social media to communicate with your employees
  • While generalising people based on when they were born may have value, it’s always ‘one size fits one’ not ‘one size fits all’. It may be broadly true that younger people are more interested in new opportunities and assignments, while people in their 30s and 40s are more interested in financial stability, and people aged 50+ are less ambitious and more interested in work:life balance. But you should ask each employee as an individual what they are motivated by and what they need. Do this regularly, as needs change over time.
  • Consider cross-generational mentoring ‘with a twist’. Pair a younger employee with a seasoned leader so they can benefit from each other’s skills and mindset.  Maybe the younger employee who is confident with technology and has a more entrepreneurial and creative outlook can suggest an innovative way to enable a project, while the older person can teach the younger one about the subtleties of influencing in a large organisation.

Further reading

For more insights on this subject, please see:

Culture and why it matters

How to motivate employees today

Why use storytelling in business

Next month

The latest thinking about mindfulness, including insights you can use to bring calm into your life.