With today's multigenerational workforce, leaders can't operate with a one-size-fits-all mentality. Technology, the economy, education systems, parenting styles, and more impact how employees learn, communicate and work. By assuming all younger-generation employees – Generation Y (millennials) and Generation Z – exhibit the same characteristics, employers are missing the mark for effective leadership. The most successful leaders have a clear understanding of their employees' various workplace expectations and learning styles.
Casey Welch, CEO and co-founder of Tallo, a platform that connects young talent with education and career opportunities, said grouping Generation Y and Z employees together is a critical mistake for small business owners and managers.
"Gen Zers are continuing to distinguish themselves as an entirely unique generation, and managers should not sooner equate them to millennials than they would for Gen Xers and baby boomers," Welch told business.com.
As the newest generation of employees enters the workforce, it is imperative for business leaders to understand the similarities and differences between Generation Y and Generation Z employees.
Millennials: Generation Y
Millennials, also known as Generation Y or Gen Y, are the people born between 1980 and 1995, ranging from 25 to 40 years old. They currently make up the largest portion of the U.S. workforce. Millennials are known for their familiarity with the internet, social media, and digital devices, and they prefer to use such means for communication.
As a generation that grew up on gold stars and participation trophies, millennials have come to place high importance on collaboration, teamwork and helping the greater good. These employees prefer flexible workplaces and are motivated by organizations that align with their values and beliefs.
"Millennials like to seek out new challenges and are not afraid to move jobs if they are not feeling challenged," said Kristen Fowler, practice lead at global executive search firm Clarke Caniff Strategic Search. "They are motivated by opportunities to grow new professional skills even if it means leaving their current employer."
Zoomers: Generation Z
Generation Z, also known as Gen Z or zoomers, is the demographic of people born between 1996 and the early 2010s (the exact start and end dates for this generation vary by publication). They range from about 8 to 24 years old and are currently the youngest generation in the U.S. workforce. Gen Zers were born into a world of technology, making them digital natives. They tend to be very competitive and career-driven, and they place high importance on diversity and inclusion initiatives.
Key similarities between millennials and Gen Z in the workplace
Millennials and Gen Z both grew up with technology, struggling economies and open communication. These factors contribute to a few common characteristics that employees from both generations value in the workplace.
1. Both generations want to know that they (and their company) are contributing to the greater good.
Corporate social responsibility is important for millennials and Gen Z employees alike. Both demographics seek employment from organizations that align with their values and strive to help society.
"Both millennials and Gen Z employees want to know their work is valued and contributing to the greater good," Fowler said. "As a manager to both generations, it is important to connect the work your organization is doing to outside factors, such as your environmental and social impacts."
Victoria Roos Olsson, senior leadership consultant at FranklinCovey and co-author of Everyone Deserves a Great Manager: The 6 Critical Practices for Leading a Team, said leaders should involve their team in the dialogue and enhancement of company values, and emphasize how each employee contributes to the products and services that their organization provides to the marketplace.
2. Both generations expect to use technology whenever possible.
Millennials and Gen Z employees are accustomed to using technology in their everyday lives, and they expect the same in their workplaces. As digital natives, they are comfortable learning and utilizing new technology. If a business process can be digitized, these employees expect their organization to make the necessary investments to do so.
Since both generations spend significant time on their smartphones, they also expect mobile integration. They are used to communicating on platforms like email, social media, instant messaging apps (such as Slack) and video chat (such as Zoom), and they expect employers to accommodate.
3. Both generations expect clear communication and consistent feedback.
Millennials and Gen Zers grew up with parents and teachers who facilitated open communication techniques. Although millennials tend to favor encouraging feedback and Gen Zers prefer straightforward feedback, they both want consistent and open communication. Both generations want to be informed about employers' expectations and have regular meetings to check in about performance.
"As a leader of both millennials and Gen Zers, you want to provide frequent, regular feedback," Olsson said. "Create a clear structure – for example, weekly one-on-ones with employees, where expectations are known in advance and you both come prepared and ready for the discussion."
4. Both generations favor instant gratification.
If your employees are doing a good job, they want to know. Although millennials tend to need instant gratification more than Gen Zers, both demographics appreciate it. Acknowledge hard work through employee recognition programs and performance-based incentives. Knowing they've accomplished small wins on the way to a big goal can help these employees stay motivated and boost company morale.
Key differences between millennials vs. Gen Z in the workplace
Although millennials and Gen Z employees have some commonalities, there are a few key generational differences regarding management preferences and incentives.
1. Millennials prioritize job flexibility; Gen Zers prioritize job stability.
Millennials, sometimes referred to as the "job-hopping generation," value job flexibility and want careers that can adapt to them. If they feel their current career no longer serves them, they are likely to seek employment elsewhere.
Conversely, Gen Z employees favor job stability. A recent study by Tallo showed that 51% of Gen Z employees expect to stay at their first full-time job for at least three years, and less than 6% said they were "very likely" to participate in the gig economy after graduation.
"While millennials are drawn to the gig economy for the flexibility, the young Gen Z workers are among those who have been hit hardest by unemployment," Welch said. "Gen Z wants to play the long game with employers, and part of that longing for job stability may be due to the turbulent job market that many Gen Zers are entering this year."
For greater job satisfaction and higher retention, managers should offer millennials flexible career opportunities and provide Gen Z employees with a sense of security and opportunity for internal growth.
2. Millennials value work-life balance; Gen Zers value salary and career advancement.
Generation Z tends to be more financially motivated than Gen Y. Gen Z employees value money, tend to be risk-averse, and are willing to undergo as much training and education as necessary to advance in their careers. Millennials, on the other hand, value experiences and benefits that contribute to a positive work-life balance.
Motivate Gen Z employees with monetary incentives like salary raises and career advancement opportunities. Motivate millennials with work-life balance incentives like flexible work schedules, additional paid time off and flexible benefits.
3. Millennials prefer encouraging feedback; Gen Zers prefer straightforward feedback.
Millennials and Gen Zers had slightly different childhoods, which has impacted the way they receive feedback. While many millennials are used to participation trophies and coddling, Olsson said there has been a shift in the parenting mindset that many Gen Zers have experienced: Don't protect your children from the truth.
"Although both millennials and Gen Zers crave feedback, millennials have had a lot of 'fluff' in the feedback they have received growing up, while Gen Zers, in majority, have been given more straightforward feedback ('the way it is')," Olsson said.
Because of this, leaders must pay attention to their feedback style for each generation. Give Gen Z employees feedback that is clear and gets straight to the point; give millennial employees feedback with positivity and encouragement.
4. Millennials respond to written and visual communication; Gen Zers respond best to short-form video communication.
The platforms and communication styles you use for millennials and Gen Zers may differ slightly. Millennials spend more time on text- and photo-based platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, whereas Gen Zers favor video-based platforms like YouTube, Snapchat, and TikTok (both generations favor Instagram).
Leaders can use this knowledge to modify the platforms and content types they use to connect with each demographic. While millennials may respond to PowerPoints and written guidelines, Gen Z employees may require short-form video presentations.
Tips for managing millennials
We asked Welch, Fowler and Olsson for key pieces of advice on how to best manage millennial team members. Keep in mind that every employee is unique and may require a different management style.
- "Millennials are constantly looking for the next best thing. In order to appeal to this desire for flexibility and mobility, managers should work with their millennial employees to help them explore various roles within the company. Team structures and individual roles will likely change more often than overarching company goals and values, so maintaining millennials as dynamic employees is worth the ROI." – Welch
- "Give millennials tasks that help tie to the greater good. Paint the big picture for them as to how a single task plays into a larger vision of societal improvement in terms of the environment or social causes." – Fowler
- "Use their digital know-how; keep their attention by enhancing your own communication by learning and applying how they communicate." – Olsson
Tips for managing Gen Z
Welch, Fowler and Olsson also weighed in with advice on how to best manage Generation Z employees.
- "Gen Z employees are focused on workforce ethics. Having a fair and ethical boss is very high on Gen Z's list of priorities for future employers, and 68% said that it was important for their employer to support a cause they care about ... Managers should display their commitment to social issues such as human rights and healthcare and human services." – Welch
- "Be sure to lay out a clear path of advancement within your organization for Gen Z. Ensure your organization has a strong mission that includes its commitment to diversity and inclusion." – Fowler
- "As a leader welcoming the new workforce, be ready to invest more in training your employees. [Gen Z employees] might have a lot of 'in theory' knowledge, and they can quickly Google an answer, but they lack in practical experience. As a leader, show them the way. Invest in getting them up to speed by creating ways for your new employees to learn as quickly as possible." – Olsson