Engaging Millennials and Gen Z in times of uncertainty
To some extent, Baby Boomers and Gen X saw their job as “just a job” and hence favoured employers with a prestigious brand, good pay, and career advancement opportunities, even if it meant working in a toxic, cut-throat environment where they worked on menial tasks and felt undervalued.
All this changed in the mid-2000s, as Millennials started entering the workforce. Technology enabled this new generation in unprecedented ways: it not only changed the face of how business was conducted, but the Internet made the world a much smaller place, one where everything – including knowledge – became accessible. Suddenly, Millennials saw a sea of ideas being tossed into a realm of countless possibilities.
As a result, unlike Baby Boomers and Gen X, Millennials decided that their careers should have meaning, provide the opportunity for self-expression, be centered around what they loved, and allow them to pursue their own personal interests and goals. The strong brands that appealed to the previous generations started to be overlooked in favour of organizations with strong Employer Value Propositions, promising a culture of care, diversity, personal and professional development, innovation, and inspiring leadership.
It was a revolution in mindset that nobody had anticipated, cemented even further by the 2008 financial crisis. Organizations had no choice but to reinvent themselves, transform their culture and rethink both their purpose and their definition of leadership. And this transformation never ceased. Today, there is an ongoing reassessment of policies at companies with regards to how they attract, recruit, engage and retain talent, because with each batch of new recruits, they witness generational shifts that strongly impact the definition of positive workplace culture.
Today, Millennials in early leadership roles make up a majority of the workforce across the world, and they will be taking on ever increasing roles in senior ones. The challenge most companies will face is preparing Millennials for these leadership positions by engaging, mentoring and developing them. Moreover, just as organizations have begun to decode the “Millennial dynamic”, a new generation – with a completely new set on mindsets and priorities – is now ready to join the workforce. Gen Z, true digital natives, are incredibly social minded. They recognise that our society is facing serious challenges, and believe it is up to them to fix what’s broken. As a result, they have their eyes set on purpose-driven organizations with a big vision, where they can make an impact and are allowed to make significant contributions in a short period of time.
The challenge is staring us in the face. A new generation of leaders, a group of youngsters wanting to be empowered and enabled, businesses facing unprecedented disruption, and four – sometimes five – generations working alongside each other. In this environment the way to move forward is to reorient ourselves and change our approach by implementing integration strategies that aim at seamlessly transitioning into an evolving working environment without disengaging the existing workforce.
Although most Baby Boomers or Gen X today would have had at least a decade of experience working alongside Millennials – and perhaps the personal experience of raising a Gen Z kid at home – exposure doesn’t always translate into acceptance. To the contrary, without deeper contextual knowledge of the forces that shaped the mindsets and behaviours of generations different than our own, it often reinforces negative stereotypes and leads to misunderstandings and confirmation bias (“O.K. Boomer” vs “Strawberry Generation”)
What companies need to keep in mind moving forward is not just the evolving workplace environment, but the change in core values and desires of two vastly independent and tech-enabled generations and what attracts them to a workplace.
Therefore, moving forward, these are key areas that organisations have to focus on in order to engage Millennials and smoothly onboard Gen Z.
- Cross-Generational Awareness: Help the new generations understand their multigenerational colleagues and vice-versa; focus on generational needs and integrate them through policies that are practical, workable and up to date. Most importantly, there is a compelling need to eliminate generational bias. Each age-group has something uniquely important to bring to the table, and combining these strengths is critical to success.
- Communication and Feedback: While young Baby Boomers and Gen X were taught to stay in their place, show deference towards their elders, and expect feedback only in extreme circumstances, Millennials and Gen Z want to be able to share what they think without beating around the bush, and expect open communication, formal and informal. This give them an opportunity to learn, course correct and grow both professionally and personally.
- Life-Long Learning and Development: Millennials and Gen Z see hand-on experience and integrated learning and development as a much more efficient way to learn the skills they need to be successful than getting a fancy college degree. Employers that offer them the opportunity to grow, learn and reinvent themselves in an environment where they feel safe and supported, definitely cut through the clutter.
- Non-Toxic Culture: This is a top-down sentiment that must reflect in a company’s culture. While Baby Boomers and Gen X came into the workplace with the expectation that it would be tough, and that they would likely not be treated kindly by their superiors (they were told it was for their own good, a way to “make their bones”), dignity of labour and mutual respect across the board are non-negotiable to Millennials and Gen Z.
- Meaningful Work: The young generations want to “make a difference”. Keeping them busy and on their toes is not going to do it for them. They look for the opportunity to feel connected, empowered and to work on something greater than their own personal goals, seeking satisfaction and meaning in everything they do.
- Diversity and Inclusion Beyond Policy: It is easy to come up with a D&I Agenda but it’s not always easy to implement it successfully. The young generations look for inclusivity in all forms. Creating gender-neutral workspaces – that are non-hierarchical and that focus on equal opportunity and rights – are the only way forward. Merit over everything else is the key to any organization’s success. Millennials and Gen Z expect their employers to “walk the talk.”
- Empathy and Flexibility: It is also important to address the impact that COVID-19 has had on Gen Z. While it is true that every age-groups has suffered the devastating and disrupting effects the global pandemic, Gen Z was hit particularly hard. Most have had to complete their degrees and graduate online, and those lucky enough to still have an internship or a job waiting for them, had to onboard virtually – to this day, never meeting most of their colleagues.
Conversations around work-life integration and mental health must take center-stage, even during the recruitment process. There are many ways in which one can engage Millennials and Gen Z, but the only effective way to ensure a happy and productive workforce is to listen. Unlike Baby Boomers and Gen X (who were not encouraged or even allowed to express their opinions) the young generations are communicative and vocal. They believe in being authentic and transparent. All we need to do is pay heed to what they are saying and find ways to establish positive communication patterns. And this is not limited to Millennials and Gen Z but holds true with their predecessors as well. Truly understanding every generations’ experiences, needs, challenges and expectations is key. Organizations that can accomplish this, will be on their way to building a truly progressive and future ready workplace.