Boomers, Millennials, and Gen Z at Work: 3 Words That May Not Mean What You Think

We value diversity in the workplace but sometimes lose sight of the experiences and values that shape those varied opinions and ideas. That’s why perspective and empathy are critical soft skills in today’s workplace; they can be essential to good collaboration and navigating through misunderstandings.

Division across generational lines is a common example of this. Sophie Wade, workforce innovator and author, challenged business leaders at the Work Without Limits™ Executive Summit to rethink not just their assumptions about different generations but also their language: We often assume the words we use have a relatively universal meaning. But what if we’re wrong? Consider what the following terms mean to you:

“Lifelong Employment”

To a baby boomer, “lifelong employment” meant working for one company for an entire career. This loyalty might be rewarded with a symbol, such as a gold watch, upon retirement.

But to a millennial, “lifelong employment” takes on a completely different meaning: “Of course, I’ll be working all my life”.

Wade explained that some of the things older generations aspired to are no longer the expectation. “The great recession exposed the lack of job security and lack of corporate loyalty,” she explained. “And millions of millennials around the world are very aware of how underfunded pensions are, making retirement either unwise or unlikely.”

“Career”

Careers used to be linear, continuous, and compounding. Older employees may have dedicated themselves to climbing one vertical ladder—at one company—over the course of their career.

Again, Wade noted, the norm has changed: “An article in the Financial Times recommended that every individual plan for having five careers in their lifetime. Five.”

Careers are no longer linear. They may involve multiple jobs, breaks in employment, and moves that could be vertical or diagonal or lateral. There’s no standardized path. Younger employees recognize this and try to navigate it—often by asking questions that seem to challenge the status quo.

“Hard work”

For years, hard work meant late nights at the office—and in some industries, this can still be the benchmark. However, for younger employees immersed in environments with artificial intelligence (AI) and an app for everything, “hard work” increasingly means finding ways to leverage digital tools to work more efficiently.

Wade says the clashes about this are all too common. For example, she cites research that shows baby boomers often don’t appreciate having lots of laptops out on the table during a meeting. Are people concentrating? Are they distracted? But then, she noted, this is what many classrooms look like today. “For millions of millennials and Gen Zs, this is what they’re supposed to do when they’re showing their teacher or professor that they’re concentrating and they’re taking notes and they’re engaged.”

Why it’s important to change lenses

We each see the world through the lens of our own beliefs and experiences. The problem is that sometimes, that context is wrong. “Very different conditions and experiences can really change how we understand something,” Wade said. “And that really makes a difference if we don’t take into account somebody else’s perspective.”

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