As companies prepare for the challenges of a new ‘generation Z’ entering the workforce, David Bolchover asks whether these new recruits are really any different from previous generations.

After all those years of conferences and articles on Generation Y (aka millennials), we are now entering a new era. We can now look forward to seemingly endless conferences and articles on Generation Z (or post-millennials), with similarly vague and confusing conclusions to be met by a similarly inevitable combination of lip service and indifference from the corporate world.

Just as with Generation Y, this latest cohort to hit the workplace has varying birth years, depending on which expert you listen to. It looks like Generation Z can be born at some time from 1995 to 2025, which means we could well see those conferences and articles until the middle of the century. I hope you are sitting comfortably and prepared for the deluge.

I have spent a few hours trying to sift out the alleged differences between Generation Y and Generation Z, and my head is spinning with a mishmash of words and phrases that merge into one.

Some kind of fuzzy consensus (I think) holds that Generation Y is impatient, and unable to stay in any job for long. Apparently, they are also keen on purpose in their work, feedback and work-life balance. One typical summary concludes that ‘they seek personal growth, meaningful careers, and mentors or supervisors to encourage and facilitate their professional development.’ These are distinctive characteristics we have been told. If they weren’t, there would be little point in generational labels.

However, a 2017 Forbes article then tells us that Generation Z also ‘tends towards being impatient and often experience FOMO (fear of missing out), so instant feedback and satisfaction are key’. And a 2016 article from Inc. magazine has it that the ‘Gen Zeders’ are ‘most interested in working for a cause or company that they are passionate about.’ Meanwhile, a 2017 summary from HR Daily informs us that they are ‘more interested in a company that would provide them with possibilities for personal growth and development.’

…same as the old generation

To add to the confusion, it seems that half a century ago, a very familiar conversation was taking place. Here are some of the characteristics attributed to a new breed of young white-collar workers identified in a survey in The Management of Personnel Quarterly in 1969: ‘Easily bored and requiring stimulation, excitement and an absorbing environment’, and ‘vitally interested in self-fulfilment’. In 1973, The Monthly Labour Review sought to define the attributes of recent graduates: ‘They stress work which is interesting, work will allow one to express his own individuality; and work which will enhance individual growth.’

‘The fact that a certain person may or may not hail from a particular generation will be of comparatively little concern.’

It is hardly surprising that following research for a 2012 academic paper in the Journal of Business and Psychology, the authors concluded that ‘meaningful differences among generations probably do not exist on the work-related variables we examined and the differences that appear to exist are likely attributable to factors other than generational membership.’ It concludes that ‘given these results, targeted organizational interventions addressing generational differences may not be effective.’

I would wager that if these researchers had devoted as much attention to the various corporate responses to chitter-chatter about generational differences, they would have found that ‘targeted organizational interventions’ would not have been top of the list. And who, in this instance, can blame organizations? In order to act, you first have to understand what you are acting upon.

In reality, managers will largely be left to their own devices and will continue doing what they have always done. Many if not most will neglect to manage at all, deeming that particular task full of hassle and less enjoyable than dealing with clients or completing deals. The more conscientious will seek to handle a host of individuals and their various foibles and expectations as best they can. No doubt exhausted and often exasperated by this effort, the fact that a certain person may or may not hail from a particular generation will be of comparatively little concern.

Still, the subject does make for a good keynote speech, with audiences far and wide nodding knowingly for decades to come.

David Bolchover is an award-winning business journalist and author of three books on management and the workplace.

This article was written for FT|IE Corporate Learning Alliance.
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