Gen Y, Millennials and Gen Z: Do You Know the Difference?

POSTED: Oct. 19, 2016

By now you have probably heard something about generational differences. The information is everywhere: magazine articles, news media, Internet blogs and corporate training programs. There are research institutions who are devoting entire divisions to studying the Millennial generation. There is even a TV show titled “Survivor: Millennials vs. Gen X.” The question now is not whether you have heard about generational differences. The question is “What have you heard?”

Around the year 2000 many studies were published about the unique phenomenon of several generations in the workforce at the same time. This phenomenon occurred because:

  1. People are living and working longer and
  2. People are entering the workforce at younger ages.

Consider these examples: Many Baby Boomers state that they will not retire until they have something else important to do. High school interns are working in professional jobs for an entire summer and not just performing “make-the-coffee” types of tasks, but actually doing what a professional in that line of work does. And when Baby Boomers do retire, not all of their positions can be filled with experienced employees, aka Gen X, because Gen X is the smallest population of all of the generations. This means that younger employees have greater opportunities to be promoted into decision-making or management roles faster than ever before and are, therefore, influencing the workplace earlier than previous generations had the opportunity to do. Obviously how they view “work” matters.

Many of the early resources on generational differences explained this phenomenon well and helped us to understand how shared historical experiences affect our mindsets about the world in which we live and work. Many articles and corporate training programs still use these resources. However, these sources have limitations:

  1. They often fail to mention that two people who were born on the same day may have experienced history differently due to gender, race, religion, geographical location, etc.
  2. The books describe generational differences that existed at that time. This is a starting point, but should not be considered to be the full story. A lot has changed since 2000. For example, America has its first black president. Skype and FaceTime allow families to stay connected in more intimate ways than technology of the past allowed. The economy experienced a recession. There have been many changes in history that created changes in our mindsets, especially September 11th.

Understanding generations means understanding how changes in society affect people. And the world is changing at faster and faster rates, requiring us to keep pace in this understanding. This is not intended to divide people. But by recognizing how our past experiences affect our perceptions, we can actually interact more proficiently and compassionately. Perception affects the choices we make. When we see people handling the same situation so differently, we tend to perceive this as a personal conflict. Rather, it is simply diversity of approaches based on past experience.

It is essential to understand these rapidly changing influences and not believe all of the negative stereotypes. Not everyone born after 1980 is the stereotypical young person who has no direction in life or sense of responsibility and is trying to “find themselves” by hopping from job to job. Many (who, yes, are living in their parents’ basement) have a clear career path and believe that paying off student loans instead of paying money for rent is a responsible decision. Others in this generation are all by themselves, halfway across the globe, making the world a better place. Some of these choices are because of individual characteristics, but some of these differences are because of the timing of when they entered the workforce and the stability of the economy at that time. We must understand that just because people are younger than we are, they are not all alike. Remember: only a small percentage of Baby Boomers were actually members of the hippie movement.

Many discussions of the post-1980 population lump everyone together and call them all Millennials. Increasing numbers of research studies, however, are recognizing that even a five to seven year difference in age can create significantly different mindsets. Some of these differences are, of course, due to phase-of-life differences –  those in high school versus those who are married with children for example. However, because society, technology and education practices have changed so rapidly since 1980, mindsets of the younger generations have changed rapidly as well. For example, how old were you when you received your first cell phone? There is a difference in mindset about the constant use of technology if you were in college when you bought your first phone to keep in touch with friends, versus if your parents gave you your first phone at the age of ten to keep track of you and keep you safe.  

Change happens so quickly that researchers use varying beginning and ending dates to establish generational boundaries. These dates are often chosen because of the researcher’s focus: population growth, historical event, economic change, technological change, etc. Based on a number of factors many researchers are now describing the post-1980 generations in three groups: (The dates listed here are an average of several studies.)

  1. Gen Y – born between 1980 and 1985
  2. Millennials – born between 1986 and 1995
  3. Gen Z – born after 1996 until?

Based on listening to the comments of participants while facilitating “Generations at Work” training programs for thousands of people over the past ten years, I agree with these delineations. For example, many participants in the Gen Y category have said that they may have started out exhibiting the traits that were attributed to early Millennials, but now that they have been in the workforce for a while, they believe the description of Gen X fits them more aptly. This makes sense, since many Gen Ys are supervised by Gen X. You see, it is not just historical influences that define our generational mindsets. We must consider the generation who raised, coached, taught or mentored us.

Consider this: we have noticed for quite some time the differences between Baby Boomers and Gen X. Many Millennials’ parents are Baby Boomers. Many of Gen Z’s parents are Gen X. There is bound to be a difference in these two categories simply because of parental influence. Millennials entered the workforce during a time of economic optimism. Baby Boomers told them that finding a job you are passionate about will mean that you will never “work” a day in your life; hence, the job-hopping tendency. Gen Z has seen the impact of the economic recession on their families. And, being parented by Gen X who has seen more ups and downs in the economy than any other generation, Gen Z realizes that getting a college degree is not a guarantee of career stability. Unfortunately, because of the economy, not as many entry-level part-time jobs are available to them to gain the experience they seek as were available to the Millennials. Millennials are often described as “dreamers,” while Gen Z are being described as “realists.”

One of the biggest differences between Millennials and Gen Z is technology. That might seem like a strange statement to you if you are older than anyone in this post-1980 category. We have a tendency to define them all by their use of technology. But consider this: Millennials are tech savvy. They grew up experiencing huge advances in technology. Gen Z, however, are digital natives. Flip phones are antiques to them. Millennials learned to use notebooks and tablets as those technologies became available to them. As toddlers, Gen Z played with iPads they found lying around the house. For Millennials, technology advanced faster than the guidelines for its use were established. They posted private information on Facebook then later discovered that their employer was monitoring negative postings they had made about the company, creating unforeseen consequences. Gen Z has already heard about these consequences. The cautionary guidelines for use of technology are provided to them at the moment they first gain access to that technology. Their views of privacy are different. Their views of what to share and how to share it are different. Their views of sources of information are different. Millennials find “how-to” instruction on websites. Gen Z prefers instructional YouTube videos.

Information about the differences among the post-1980 population is just now evolving. How can we know for sure what their mindsets will be about their careers when the majority of Gen Z hasn’t entered the full-time workforce yet?

One thing is for sure, the world is a much different place than when most of us grew up. We are only beginning to discover how Gen Z is distinct from Millennials. Yet, it is important to recognize these differences among our younger generations if for no other reason than to decide the best means of communicating with them: email, text, Twitter, Snapchat, etc.  

But what is the most important reason to keep up with the latest information about generational mindsets? Because the perceptions created by each generation’s experiences create diverse empathies toward the world. We learn from the experiences of our elders. We are energized by the optimism of youth. And the varied, ever-changing experiences of our younger generations can be assets utilized by all of us. After all, how many of us have had to ask a ten-year old to teach us how to turn off our new cell phone so that we don’t also take a picture of our foot?

Interested in learning more about each generation? Check out Kent State’s Strategies for Leading the New Multi-generational Team program.