When the Business Journal published its first issue in 1989, the workforce was composed in generational terms primarily of Baby Boomers and members of the Silent Generation. They were rule followers and workaholics who had been controlling things for years.
Then along came Generation X, skeptical about authority and looking for more balance in their lives. While their predecessors embraced technology out of necessity, Gen Xers were technologically adept.
“They were the first latchkey kids,” said Scott Van Ness, instructor of operations management at the UCCS College of Business and a generational researcher. “They were used to doing things on their own.”
The oldest Gen Xers, born in 1965, turned 18 in 1983 and started entering the workforce; the youngest, born in 1980, hit the workplace at the end of the 1990s.
Van Ness cautioned that the date ranges bracketing the generations are not hard and fast; researchers’ definitions of each may vary by a year or more, and people on the cusps of adjacent generations may identify with either one.
“There isn’t any agency that says these are the dates,” Van Ness said.
The exception is the Baby Boom generation, the only one officially designated by the U.S. Census Bureau.
It’s also important to remember that discussions of generational characteristics tend to be stereotypical.
“I think the human resource system forces us to pop people into categories by age, demographics, things like that,” Van Ness said. “We can get in trouble by overcharacterizing these folks. That’s something we’ve seen especially with first-generation Millennials: ‘Oh, you’re a Millennial; you don’t want to work hard.’ We still have to treat people as individuals.”
Employers need to consider other factors, such as who their parents were, where they grew up and in particular, what technology — a major driver of habits and behavior — and seminal events shaped their generation, he said.
It’s still useful to consider generational characteristics when hiring and managing, as well as marketing to various generations. So let’s talk about Gen X, which came of age as the Business Journal commenced, and Gen Z, the young people who are entering the workforce now.
Generation X employees were natural leaders who didn’t need as much guidance as previous generations, Van Ness said.
“You could just turn them [on] and get them to go,” he said. “You had to keep them focused; one thing we found initially was, give them boundaries.”
Gen Xers were a bit more cynical, a little less altruistic and more materialistic and competitive than their Boomer parents.
“They grew up during the Watergate era and saw what the Boomers had done,” and wanted to distinguish themselves; “we’re not that hippie generation,” said Van Ness, a Gen Xer himself.
Many Gen Xers entered the workforce during boom times. They started the dot-com revolution. But many of them didn’t want their lives dominated by work.
As the years passed after 1989, Gen Xers found themselves outnumbered by the previous and following generations.
According to the Pew Research Center, Boomers were 76 million strong in 2016 and Millennials numbered 62 million. Gen Xers, born at a time when Americans were having fewer children, totaled about 55 million.
Gen Xers “are our most neglected workforce generation because the Boomers hung around forever and then the Millennials have come in and there’s more of them, and they’re ready to take over,” Van Ness said. “Gen Xers are kind of in the middle and they’re kind of ticked off about this.”
But they’re projected to outnumber their predecessors by 2028, when there will be almost a million more Gen Xers than Boomers.
Like all previous generations, Gen Zers are looking to differentiate themselves.
They witnessed the Great Recession and saw many college graduates incur huge amounts of student loan debt and have trouble getting jobs.
“They’ve seen Millennials living in Mom’s basement,” Van Ness said. “Gen Zers don’t want to do that.”
Generation Z, which embraces people born between 1997 and 2012 or so, started entering the workforce in 2015. While they value education, 42 percent of Gen Zers ages 17-23 are already in the workforce.
“We’re seeing, right here at UCCS, enrollment starting to dip a little bit,” Van Ness said. “They want to go to work right now, and … have no debt.”
But the biggest factor shaping Gen Z may be the omnipresence of the smartphone.
According to research by Nielsen, Millennials and Baby Boomers spent an average of 1:02 hours accessing the Internet over a PC on a daily basis in the first quarter of 2017. Gen Xers spent about 1:20, according to the report. But Gen Zers spent only eight minutes per day online via PC.
The vast majority of their online time is spent on mobile devices, and they’re often more comfortable with their little screens than they are having face-to-face interactions.
According to the Center for Generational Kinetics, which is conducting a national research study of Gen Z, more than half spend five or more hours per day on their mobile devices, including up to an hour watching video content, and 95 percent have smartphones.
They are emotionally connected to their phones: 31 percent of Gen Zers say they can’t comfortably go 30 minutes without their phones.
But all that time on smartphones doesn’t seem to be making them happy.
Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University, has been researching generational differences for 25 years and calls this generation iGen.
“[T]heirs is a generation shaped by the smartphone and by the concomitant rise of social media,” Twenge wrote in an article in the September 2017 issue of The Atlantic. “But the impact of these devices has not been fully appreciated, and goes far beyond the usual concerns about curtailed attention spans.”
Depression, loneliness and suicide among the Gen Z teens Twenge studies have skyrocketed since 2011 — about the same time when the number of Americans who owned a smartphone surpassed 50 percent.
“Recent research suggests that screen time, in particular social-media use, does indeed cause unhappiness,” Twenge wrote in the article, titled “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” adapted from her book, “iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy — and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood.”
“The more time they spend on social media, the more likely Gen Zers are to say they’re unhappy and to report symptoms of depression,” Twenge wrote. … The opposite is true of in-person interactions.”
Gen Z in the workplace
Generation Z kids had more structured upbringings than previous generations, said Heather Horton, director of the Wellness Resource Center at Colorado College, and fewer opportunities to develop life skills and strategies for stress and conflict management and “adulting things like financial obligations, employer expectations and why that’s important,” Horton said.
“These are all things that certainly affect our students … and will be impactful within the work setting as well,” she said.
They have higher expectations of the people around them, she said, especially employers being responsive and caring.
“They’re not likely to stick around if they feel the employer doesn’t care about their well-being,” Horton said.
Although they are anxious about entering the world of work, Gen Zers are independent thinkers and passionate about work that reflects their interests and values.
“Young people want to be engaged in something meaningful,” Horton said. “Being able to articulate work that is connected with values will be a great way to recruit young people and keep them.”
The most diverse generation ever, Gen Xers “may demand some changes in workplace environments in terms of understanding things like identity, whether that’s race, gender or sexual orientation,” she said. “They have expectations of employers to be knowledgeable, responsive and proactive in creating environments that feel inclusive and welcoming to all people.
“There are a lot of things about this generation that employers find daunt-ing and concerning,” she said. “If we think about them in a more holistic way, there are some concerning things, but they also bring a lot of gifts to the workplace. Employers should think about that and embrace the change they’re going to bring. It might be good for everybody.”