One of the reasons I love my job is the panoramic view that it offers of multigenerational interactions in the workplace. It’s one thing to read about the trivial differences between Millennials and Gen Z—where should I part my hair and which emoji is considered de rigueur?—and quite another to see some of the more salient distinctions shape office cultures around the world. Mutual contempt between generations is a grudge as old as human civilization, but in our current world blessed and fraught with technological change and global contact, these differences seem starker, more frequent, and at times more alienating.
Ultimately, though, a lot can be gained once we put aside hard feelings. For example, is a strict 9-to-5, in-person workday necessary? Do people who put in more hours at the desk actually achieve more for themselves and their organizations? A common stereotype about Gen Z is that they don’t have the rigorous “work ethic” of previous generations. Millennials joined the workforce around the 2008 Great Recession, and they found that putting in the hours helped stave off anxieties caused by unreliable job security and unaffordable housing. While much of this anxiety was justified, over time the expectations became habitual rather than a direct response to economic hardship or organizational needs.
Gen Z is now joining the workforce, having come of age during a pandemic with unorthodox working hours, home offices, and a shrinking labor pool. More than ever, these younger workers are demanding a better work-life balance and challenging traditional workplace hierarchies, as one Millennial chief executive’s quote in a recent New York Times article illustrates: “When I was entering the workforce I would not have delegated to my boss. Gen Z doesn’t hesitate to do that.”
If you are older, the idea of a report asking a manager to handle something might seem, at best, rude—at worst, insubordinate. I find that the questions to ask in these culture-shock moments are: 1) Was this likely intended the way you are emotionally interpreting it? 2) Once you put aside your knee-jerk response, is this actually a better way of doing things? Your answers may challenge assumptions about the necessity of hierarchies in particular situations, and while this can feel destabilizing at first, in the end, you might find a stronger support structure emerges with some accommodating adjustments.
The key is to separate meaningful traditions from outdated habits that are damaging morale without improving business operations. The gift that a younger generation offers is a fresh pair of eyes trained on systems that, to them, do not seem as inevitable or monolithic as they might to someone who has functioned that way for years without bothering to question. I was born at the cusp between Boomers and Gen X, but I find that my profession demands a constant reevaluation of norms if workplace cultures are to continue thriving. Change is the only constant across generations, and I cannot afford to assume a protocol is important simply because it has existed for decades.
Business leaders depend on self-confidence and experience, but one underrated facet of that confidence is the strength to question one’s own assumptions without feeling threatened. It does not undermine your authority to fairly assess a respectful challenge before accepting or dismissing it. If it seems to stem from a generational difference rather than an individual preference, all the more reason to consider its accommodation. Say what you will about “kids these days,” but younger generations are more reliably sensitive to the time they live in, and your business needs to adapt to this currency. Emojis may come and go, but entire generations do not reorganize fundamental values on a mere whim.