Commentary: Why some older workers feel uneasy, even intimidated by Gen Z
Gen Z's hunger for change and need to make their voice heard can be intimidating to colleagues and supervisors but they are a force to be reckoned with, says Rachele Focardi.
SINGAPORE: Gen Z – also referred to as “True Gen”, “iGen”, or “zoomers” (born from 1996 to 2010) – have now made their way into the workforce, proving they don’t quite fit the “fragile and hypersensitive strawberry” label bestowed upon them.
On the contrary, their response to the disruption caused by the global pandemic to both their education and their debut into the workforce has unveiled a resilience, adaptability and humanity that is taking many of us by surprise, not to mention their strong commitment to social causes.
Older managers – who often referred to Gen Z as “entitled”, “uncommitted” and “unable to deal with hardship” – are starting to see their new colleagues in a new light, as a generation of activists, conscious consumers and future goal-based leaders.
When we factor in their energy, creativity and tech-savviness, it is clear Gen Z will soon be a force to be reckoned with. And this is making many working alongside them feel uneasy.
THE MOST CHALLENGING GENERATION TO WORK WITH?
The 2021 Multigenerational Workforce Study, a global study of more than 1,200 professionals, found that 32 per cent of baby boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) and Gen X (born between 1965 and 1980) consider Gen Z to be the most challenging generation to work with. A further 18 per cent admitted to feeling intimidated by them.
Despite the common perception they are not too different from their predecessors – the millennials – Gen Z come with specific aspirations.
Their uncompromising attitude towards practices that don’t reflect their values, and the fact that they prioritise their personal ambition and ideals ahead of the corporate good, can make them appear rigid and entitled.
Interviews I did for a recent book Reframing Generational Stereotypes illustrate this.
Mark, an executive in his 60s working for a consumer goods company, described this young generation as vocal and full of energy, which made him feel old.
“They do not listen to us. They don’t seem to appreciate the importance of life-long experience. They believe our ideas are out-of-date,” he shared. “They can come in quite strong with new ideas that are value-driven but often lack depth, yet they won’t take no for an answer.”
Many Gen X-ers too are feeling similar pressures, particularly when it comes to staying relevant. They see Gen Z as hungrier and better learners. They fear becoming obsolete and coming in second when competing with a 20-something-year-old for the same job.
Older employees are forced to overcome old mental models, while having to retain sufficient energy to engage and keep up with Gen Z.
EVEN MILLENNIALS ARE FEELING THE GEN Z UNEASE
Although the notion of senior, experienced professionals intimidated by entry-level employees may seem incredulous, they’re not the only generation experiencing the Gen Z unease.
Millennials (born between 1981 and 1995) are almost as equally intimidated (14 per cent) and challenged (26 per cent) by what American poet Hervey Allen referred to as “a fresh invasion of savages”.
Gen Z’s confidence, ability to learn quickly and ease with which they navigate new technologies make millennials fear they will struggle to keep up. Raised with much greater access to technology, resources and information than any previous generation, Gen Z are seen as formidable experts with impressive abilities and confidence.
This only adds to the discomfort millennials – already familiar with the working styles and expectations of older colleagues but who know little about their younger ones – feel around Gen Z.
The pressure of competition, particularly in organisations that prioritise merit over seniority, plays a big part too.
“Organisations are now promoting and encouraging very young talent to step into leadership roles. Many of us still in middle-management worry Gen Z’s energy and new approaches to old problems will outshine our work. And being managed by colleagues much younger than you … it doesn’t feel so good,” said Joyce, a manager in her 30s at a consulting firm.
Millennials are also experiencing what it feels like to be “sandwiched”, worrying their own needs will come second as they mediate between older generations with set ways of doing things and younger team members who expect to rise quickly.
Listen to EngageRocket CEO Leong Chee Tung and HR strategist Adrian Tan debate the merits of returning to the office on CNA's Heart of the Matter podcast:
THE GOOD NEWS: GEN Z BRING EXCITEMENT AND ENTHUSIASM
The good news – and the real big opportunity for organisations committed to bridging this generational divide – is that about 98 per cent of all boomers, Gen X and millennials enjoy working with Gen Z.
Many are excited, believing that both the world and the workforce will greatly benefit from their arrival.
“They are sharp, mission-driven, risk-averse, speak their mind and harness the power of the collective instead of trying to change the world alone,” Agrim, an engineer in his 30s who works at an international bank, told me.
“They are big champions for diversity and their broad interests reach far beyond what they studied in school. This will bring fresh perspectives to their organisation”.
Despite their fears, many baby boomers and Gen X employees echo Agrim’s sentiment, feeling that with more understanding and better communication between generations, Gen Z’s arrival into the workforce can be pivotal, driving innovation and positive change.
Ninety-seven per cent in the 2021 Multigenerational Workforce Study even admit they can learn a lot from their youngest colleagues in areas like technology, smart working and more.
WHAT FIRMS CAN DO TO BRIDGE THE GENERATIONAL DIVIDE AT WORK
According to Deloitte’s 2021 Global Human Capital Trends study, 70 per cent of organisations say leading the multigenerational workforce is critical for their success, but only 10 per cent say they are ready to address this trend.
Successful leaders will play a big part in bridging the generational divide, bringing out the best in every worker, and helping employees embrace diversity.
A good starting point is to level the playing field by helping employees become more generationally aware.
Training employees across age groups on how different generations think, operate and define success, and providing a platform where they can openly learn about each other, can help them become less fearful and more constructive in their interactions with one another.
Citi launched Generations Network to promote inclusion and teamwork across age groups through cross-generational awareness sessions with business leaders, frontline managers and fresh hires, as well as cross-generational conversations.
These two-way dialogues also help everyone. While older employees worry about remaining relevant in environments increasingly digital and agile, Gen Z workers feel just as intimidated by the older generations and fearful about their role in a multigenerational workforce.
A second step is to create a culture of life-long learning across the entire organisation. The reality is that nobody is truly prepared for the future of work. Being an agile, life-long learner in this new environment is a must, regardless of age.
DBS is a leader in this area, having designed its approach to managing a multigenerational workforce around the importance of building a collaborative learning culture across all age groups.
In 2017, DBS launched a programme to build confidence in learning among senior employees using appreciative inquiry to leverage their past positive memories as a motivator to take on other new experiences.
And in April 2020, DBS’ Learn Share Teach Together festival encouraged employees to adopt digital learning behaviours, pick up new skills, and connect with colleagues from all generations through the sharing of knowledge and experiences.
A third step is to ensure generations can learn from each other.
Two-way mentoring - where young and senior employees are both mentor and mentee - and flat multigenerational project teams that encourage different age groups to rely on each other’s expertise instead of years of experience, are two great ways to facilitate knowledge transfer and incite appreciation for each generation’s unique strengths.
Media investment company GroupM brought reverse mentoring to its board by identifying young top employers with highest potential for leadership and making them the sounding board of the Executive Committee.
They not only work on flagship projects outside their formal role, but periodically mentor Executive Committee members on areas of interest to them.
This allowed GroupM to create more impactful paths to leadership and resulted in successful initiatives - like GroupM Champions League, a gamified learning experience designed to upskill employees across age groups - that saw the company give out 15,000 certifications in the first three months of the programme.
Nothing is more powerful than generations combining strengths in pursuit of a shared vision. Intergenerational collaboration is the key to ensuring a better future for both organisations and society.
For this, we need curiosity and a genuine desire to learn from others, a deep understanding of ourselves, our own biases and how our values and behaviours affect those around us. We also need a sincere appreciation for skillsets and viewpoints different from our own.
Rachele Focardi is founder of XYZ@Work, Chair of the Multigenerational Workforce Committee for the ASEAN Human Development Organisation and author of Reframing Generational Stereotypes.