I began tracking the great "Generation Shift" that is now underway in the workforce in 1993. Back then I was conducting the original research that led to my first book, "Managing Generation X." Ah... the early 1990s. That's when Gen Xers (my generation) were still the young upstarts in the workplace; shortly before the oldest of Generation Y (First Wave Millennials 1978-1989) started arriving in part-time jobs as teenagers; and shortly after the oldest Gen Zers (Second Wave Millennials 1990-2000) were born. That's also when I established my firm, RainmakerThinking, Inc., to conduct interviews, focus groups, surveys, and assessments with young people in the workplace. That research has continued ever since, tracking the ever-emerging ever-"new" young workforce and following each generation's progress over the years through each life/career-stage in the ever-changing workplace. Back in the 1990s, we started with Generation X. By the late 1990s and early 2000s, we were focused on Generation Y. Now it is Generation Z. Along the way, we've been documenting the forces of change, the accidents of history, and the steady transformation of the workforce and the workplace --- numbers, norms, attitudes, expectations and behaviors. Depending on where you are in your life and career, these changes look a whole lot different.
With the last pre-Baby Boomers (those born before 1946) all but gone from the workforce and first-wave Boomers now steadily exiting the workforce in large numbers, the last vestiges of the old-fashioned work ethic are dwindling fast. The second-wave Boomers (those born 1956-64) are now climbing their fifties and sixties and quickly becoming the aging workforce. Generation Xers (my generation), the original rule-breaking "new economy" free agents, are all grown up now, and then some! Now we are the "prime age" workforce and increasingly dominate mid and senior positions of management responsibility and organizational leadership.
Meanwhile, newsflash: Generation Yers are no longer the young people in the workplace. While the 1990s ---an era of relative peace and prosperity, billed with plentiful opportunity and boundless optimism--- were the formative decade for Generation Y, the first dot com boom went bust in early 2001. And then came 9/11. And then the economic crash of 2008. Nowadays many Gen Yers are still reeling from the lean years of the Great Recession, having spent so much of their early careers largely spinning their wheels despite their best efforts. Even a lot of the "winners" among Generation Y are much worse for wear. Those who survived and succeeded through the economic turmoil did so by working longer, harder, smarter, faster, and better, under a lot of pressure, without a lot of down time. Those Gen Yers now in leadership roles are under even more pressure, often managing too many people, with significant resource constraints, and logistical challenges, not to mention insufficient experience and leadership training. Many Gen Yers have felt stuck in positions for years at a time, afraid to make a move due to uncertainty about taking chances with the unknown in unstable economic times. And now there is a new crop of teenagers and twenty-somethings already nipping at their heels: They are Generation Z.
How do we recognize a new generation when we see one? The working definition of the Millennials has been all those born between 1978 and 2000. But 22 years is simply too large a time frame to capture just one generation, especially in this era of constant change. Like the massive Baby Boom (1946-1964), the massive Millennial cohort simply must be treated as two distinct waves, coming of age in two very distinct decades. We refer to the first-wave Millennials (those born 1978-89) as "Generation Y" and the second-wave Millennials (those born 1990-2000) as "Generation Z."
Generation Z clearly embodies a continuation ---and even culmination--- of the larger historical forces driving the transformation in the workplace and the workforce for decades. In that sense there is great continuity in the long Generational Shift from the Boomers to X to Y to Z:
Generation Z will be the first truly global generation --- connecting and traveling to work across borders in every direction and combination. Unlike any other generation in history, Gen Z can look forward to a lifetime of interdependency and competition with a rising global youth-tide from every corner of this ever-flattening world.
The pace of technological advance today is unprecedented. Information. Computing. Communication. Transportation. Communication. Commerce. Entertainment. Food. Medicine. War. In every aspect of life, anything can become obsolete any time --- possibilities appear and disappear swiftly, radically and often without warning.
Gen Zers were small children on 9/11/01 and young teenagers when the economy collapsed in 2008. Theirs is a world threatened by terrorism and environmental cataclysm; in which the economy fluctuates wildly from boom to bust; governments sometimes shut down or run out of money; great companies conquer or fail or merge or continually downsize, restructure, and reengineer. Institutions in every domain have been forced into a constant state of flux just in order to survive and succeed in this constantly changing world. Gen Zers know enough to know that they can't rely on institutions to be the anchors of their success and security.
The information environment
Gen Zers are the first true 'digital natives.' They learned how to think, learn and communicate in a never-ending ocean of information. Theirs is an information environment defined by wireless internet ubiquity, wholesale technology integration, infinite content, and immediacy. From a dangerously young age, their infinite access to information and ideas and perspectives ---unlimited words, images, and sounds--- is completely without precedent.
In every dimension, the world is becoming more diverse and more integrated. Generation Z will be the most diverse workforce in history, by far. That's true in terms of geographical point of origin, ethnic heritage, ability/disability, age, language, lifestyle preference, sexual orientation, color, size, and every other way of categorizing people. For one thing, the Generation Z workforce will include a global mix like never before. Equally important, Gen Zers look at every single individual, with his/her own combination of background, traits and characteristics, is his or her own unique diversity story. They value difference, uniqueness, and customization, most of all their own.
Helicopter-parenting on steroids
By the late 1990s, the Boomer-esque self-esteem based "everyone gets a trophy" style parenting was morphing anew. The parents of these second wave Millennials are mostly Gen Xers, who have had fewer children and typically have children at a later age than Boomers did. Xer parents have taken helicopter parenting to a whole new level. Parents (and contingent authority figures) are so engaged in supervising and supporting the child's every move, validating their differences, excusing (or medicating) their weaknesses, and setting them up with every material advantage possible. In China, where there are so many only-children due to the longstanding "single child policy," a similar trend in child-rearing has yielded a phenomenon referred to by many as "Little Emperor Syndrome." Gen Zers have been insulated and scheduled and supervised and supported to a degree that no children or young adults have ever have been before.
It's not just that they are always looking down at their hand-held devices. Gen Zers are always totally plugged in to an endless stream of content and in continuous dialogue ---through social media based chatting and sharing and gaming--- with peers (and practical strangers) however far away (or near) they might be. They are forever mixing and matching and manipulating from an infinite array of sources to create and then project back out into the world their own ever-changing personal montage of information, knowledge, meaning, and selfhood. They try on personas, virtually. Social media makes it easy to experiment with extreme versions of one persona, or another; more or less (or much more) crass means of expression. Gen Zers are perfectly accustomed to feeling worldly and ambitious and successful by engaging virtually in an incredibly malleable reality --- where the stakes can seem all important one moment, until the game is lost and reset with the push of a button.