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Working trends across the generations

So who are these different generations? What’s important to them in the workplace, and what strengths do they bring to the table?

“When I was younger, things were different…” We’ve all heard the saying – whether from ourselves or others – about everything from parenting to politics.

These differing generational views feature strongly in the workplace too, where at any given time, three or four generations can be working in one team or department.

So who are these different generations? What’s important to them in the workplace, and what strengths do they bring to the table? We outline the three main categories below. While these categorisations can be a generalisation and there are always exceptions to the rule, knowing the broad brushstrokes can help you assemble the right combination of people in your organisation, so that the overall outcome is productive and satisfying for all.

Generation X

Born between: 1965 and 1979
Age range today: 42 to 56

Who are they?

Generation X grew up in the 70s and 80s, where there was comparatively less adult supervision than there is today. As a result, they learned to value independence and freedom, and are generally self-sufficient and resourceful. They’re “digital nomads” who witnessed the shift from analogue to digital, including the birth of cell phones and the internet. They were also the last generation to live their teenage years without social media.

Who are they in the workplace?

Generation X employees hold a prime position in the workforce today: while their parents – the “Baby Boomers” – are near to or currently retiring, and while Millennials are still finding their path, Generation X brings a wealth of knowledge and solid experience to the table. As one of the first generations to use computers and the Internet widely in the workplace, they’re adaptable to both environments, but are comfortable with various tech devices, from tablets and smartphones to videoconferencing.

What do they need to thrive at work?

  • A degree of freedom: They want responsibility but without an overreach of authority. They also generally do not like micromanagement, rather wanting to finish their tasks without too much close supervision.
  • Technology: Though this group are generally not as reliant on tech as Millennials and Gen Z, they’re fairly comfortable with technology and are able to use it effectively to enhance their output.
  • A stimulating role: They’re good at adapting to change, so they want a career that can evolve with them. They also thrive in roles where they’re required to be change drivers.

Millennials (also known as Generation Y or Gen Next)

Born between: 1980 and 1994
Age range today: 27 and 41

Who are they?

This is the generation that has had technology for most of their lives, and most do not remember life without a computer, cell phone or the Internet. Online, they do everything from socialise, read, learn and make purchasing decisions, and are exposed to far more information and media than previous generations. Due in part to their parent’s higher education, they’ve had more group interaction through playgroups and team sports when they were younger. This is also the generation of immediacy: they’re used to getting whatever they want whenever they want it – the faster, the better. They’re also family-centric and value a good work-life balance.

Who are they in the workplace?

Because they’re digital natives, this generation is completely comfortable with tech in the workplace, and are happy with mostly electronic communication as opposed to in-person interactions. From a values perspective, Millennials are lashing back against the corporate greed that started in the 1980s, rather looking for a workplace that offers meaning and purpose.

What do they need to thrive at work?

  • A collaborative and inspiring workplace: Their ideal workplace is where mentorship is encouraged and where they can find engagement and stimulation from new ideas.
  • A tech-savvy environment. They want good tech devices and tools at their fingertips – and they’re quick to learn new platforms and programmes. With the move to remote during the Covid-19 lockdowns, this generation has fared well in the transition.
  • Flexible working hours. Because they value family life, they appreciate flexible working hours to make time for their life outside of work. Again, the Covid-related lockdowns also suited them well for this reason.
  • More than just a job. They don’t want to be just another employee in a faceless company: they want alignment with personal beliefs, corporate activism and a chance to challenge the status quo.

Gen Z (also known as iGen)

Born between: 1995 and 2012
Age range today: 9 and 26

Who are they?

This is the “born free” generation, arriving after South Africa’s move to democracy in 1994. These are the people who are just entering the workforce today, and as digital natives, they’ve grown up with the Internet and social media as a large part of their lives. They’re self-taught and resourceful, and fluid in their identities. Some researchers have identified two subsets here: Gen Me, driven by status, success and hype, and Gen We, made up of change-makers who use their voice to advocate for causes they believe in, whether it’s sustainability, equal rights or mental health.

Who are they in the workplace?

Research is showing this generation is far less money driven than any of their predecessors when it comes to their careers. Generally, if given the choice, they would rather opt for more interesting work that doesn’t pay as well, rather than a better-paying job that is boring and unfulfilling.

What do they need to thrive at work?

  • A company that embraces broader ideals: They want to work for company that shows a commitment to broad social change such as sustainability.
  • A job that evolves: They want a job that will help them evolve in the direction they want to go in, which can mean mentorship and leadership programmes to help them progress.
  • A team environment: Possibly being influenced by the end of apartheid together with the huge influence of social networking in their lives, they thrive when working in a team, and seek positive reinforcement from others (also because they’re the youngest in the workplace). Remote working has proven a challenge for them, as they’ve lacked the mentorship and supervision they’ve needed to thrive as new entrants.