Generations in the workplace: setting the record straight

A middle aged man and a younger male colleague sit in comfortable chairs having a conversation to illustrate a conversation between generations of workersIf there were an algorithm to create a word cloud in response to searches for ‘What millennials want in the workplace?’, you’d expect to see Google spew out terms such as ‘flexibility’, ‘meaning’, ‘fairness’, ‘equality’, ‘inclusivity’, ‘opportunity’, ‘connections’, ‘socialising’ and ‘experience’. Do the same with ‘Gen Z’ replacing ‘millennials’ and – guess what – you’ll see the exact same word cloud, although perhaps in a different colour and order so you don’t think it’s based on the same homogeneous assumptions about younger generations.

An academic research paper entitled Generations, We Hardly Knew Ye: An Obituary suggests that “the relationship between generational membership and work-related outcomes are moderate to small, essentially zero in many cases”. Its authors argue that generations and generational differences are “socially constructed phenomena based on widely-held generational stereotypes” and that such “generational labels” are too narrow in scope to derive any real value or insight. “It is clear to us that the generations concept is slowly, albeit steadily, beating a path toward the proverbial empirical dustbin,” it concludes.

It would seem the workplace world does not agree with that perspective, if event programmes and the volume of articles on the topic are anything to go by. Since I joined the sector seven years ago, there’s been an ongoing obsession among the more mature to understand the supposed complexities of their younger colleagues.

[perfectpullquote align=”right” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]We’re part of the new world. We don’t know what it was like before[/perfectpullquote]

The generation debate is usually underpinned by an ‘us & them’ rhetoric. Once upon a time, it was millennials that were considered weird and wonderful creatures to try and make sense of. Now it seems the new fascination is Gen Z – super demanding individuals that expect workplace leaders to overhaul work models and strategies in their honour. Or so the chatter goes.

Following a session on ‘Gen Z and the Lure of the Office’, chaired by Unispace’s Stuart Finnie at CoreNet Global’s EMEA Summit last month, I spoke to some Gen Zedders at one (of the many) parties I attended. The gist was, “Yeah, we’re demanding. Why wouldn’t we be?” They know there’s a war for talent and they’re milking it.

I also had conversations with millennials and boomers. “When I first entered the world of work,” one said, while sipping a glass of champagne, “there was a recession, and I was just grateful to have a job”.

When I myself started work back in – ah hem – the day, I didn’t expect anything more than a pay slip at the end of the month and, depending on whether I hit sales targets, perhaps a telling off. There was no such thing as the employee experience back then. It was employers saying to their employees, “do your job or go home”. Now it’s the employees saying to their employers, “do your job or I’ll go home”. Or worse, somewhere else.

So, is it really generational differences in play, or is it socioeconomic factors that sway employee sentiment? Either way, how do workplace priorities swing when employee attitudes and expectations shift? I spoke to some workplace experts at CoreNet to find out.



Is Gen Z really that demanding?

Natalia Vavilina, Marketing Coordinator, Sharry (Gen Z): We are, and why wouldn’t we be? The majority of Gen Zs entered the job market when the transformation to a hybrid work scheme was already in motion. Organisations had already started to focus on delivering a better workplace experience in order to bring employees back to the office. Gen Z doesn’t know how it used to be.

Cas Verdonk, Real Estate Coorinator, Rivian (Gen Z): We are hybrid natives. We entered the workforce in 2020 when shit had hit the fan. We’re part of the new world. We don’t know what it was like before. We’ve heard about it, and seen movies like Wolf of Wall Street, but we’ve not lived it. For us, there’s no way back.

Lisa Venhaus, Coordinator Property Management, Mapletree (Gen Z): Gen Z have strong opinions and strong values. If an organisation’s values don’t match theirs, they will quit and find another opportunity.

Kay Sargent, Senior Principle and Director of WorkPlace, HOK (non-Gen Z): I believe every generation in their 20s was demanding. Perhaps to a different degree, and perhaps not so vocally, but there are more similarities between generations than difference. And frankly, everyone is more demanding right now because it’s an employee-driven market. But a recession could temper that down some. Change has always been a constant, and each generation has brought in its new ideas, new tools, and new ways of thinking. As each generation matures, their experiences, expectations and situations change.


Studies suggest different generations have different expectations. What’s your take on that?

Annabelle Kiff, Executive, Magenta Associates (Gen Z): I think different generations very clearly have different expectations. How we are raised shapes us as individuals and this has a huge impact on expectations. As a Gen Z person, I have grown up in a world of fast developing technology and immediate problem solving. Therefore, I expect the same at work – an environment that allows everyone to share and evolve ideas, and a virtual or physical workplace that inspires confidence and enables the conversations necessary to come up with new solutions and approaches.

Kay Sargent: I do agree, but again I believe it’s more related to life stages then it is generational. The millennials are now having families; hence many are headed to the suburbs or communities that are more affordable, have better schools, and where they can raise a family. And Boomers and Gen Xers are increasing becoming empty -nesters and their needs are shifting as well.  We are seeing similar dynamics in the workplace. Younger workers tend to be in “sponge” mode, while the role of older or ‘seasoned’ workers shifts to more managerial and client facing.

Arlette Mensing, Senior Commercial Manager, EDGE (non-Gen Z): I think Gen Z has started their careers in a market much different to that of 10 years ago. With workforce shortages in many sectors, the power lies with the employees. They have had the luxury to always choose from a wide pool of options when it comes to job opportunities. This has made employees more demanding in general but as Gen Z does not have any frame of reference, they might consider the current situation ‘normal’, whereas older employees remember times when things were quite different.


How much (if any) bearing do you think market conditions have on employee expectations and the workplace experience on offer?  

Natalia Vavilina: The pandemic has shown us that people prefer average home office experience over average office experience. Before the pandemic, the time for commuting to the office was considered a ‘cost of living’, and now employees view it more as a ‘cost of working’, which they don’t get compensated for in most cases. Employees are now keen to experience more flexibility, work-life balance, fair compensation, and well-being benefits provided by their employer.

Bruno Artus, Executive, Magenta Associates (Gen Z): Now that we know we can work effectively from home, not being granted that freedom can easily be interpreted as a lack of trust from the employer, or an unappealing desire to exert control.

Kay Sargent: We have a very empowered workforce, driven by a war for talent and resource shortage, so many feel they have the opportunity to ask for more. And frankly, many feel they need more options, choice, and control because the old way was working wasn’t sustainable for everyone. Today people know they will likely be working longer and want more work-life balance.

Arlette Mensing: I think market conditions greatly impact employee expectations. It is all about the power dynamic between the employer and the employee. When it comes to the workplace design, I do think that the current market conditions are driving employers to upgrade their office space to meet the demand of their employees. However, if these conditions were to change, I do not think the workspace design philosophy will change. Employers need to invest in their office to entice current employees to come back to the office and to attract new talent.

Oliver Baxter, Insight Programme Manager MEA, Miller Knoll (non-Gen Z): Gen Z are entering the world of work at a time where it is and employee market for recruitment. So, when you have a plethora of options, it is understandable that one can be selective. However, with the looming recession on the horizon, the job market will once again switch to an employer centred model, and the younger generations will have to adapt. When the recession fully hits, I think we will see what we saw last time which is a heightened level of employee presenteeism – everybody starts to descend physically on the office so that they can be seen to be working and therefore hopefully secure their jobs. My only hope is that we don’t lose this positive forward momentum around, distributed and flexible working in the process.


What do you think the different generations look for in their workplace experience?  

Lisa Venhaus: Approachability gets lost when working from home. In your early career, you want to learn, overhear conversations that may shape your own development, and get noticed – that level of connection is what can get lost when you’re not in the office. I think that’s what younger generations in particular look for.

Rowan de Bruin, Head of Global Workplace Asvisory, Mapiq (non Gen Z): My team, many of whom are Gen Z, have a desire to be part of a group and so the social aspect is key.

Kay Sargent: HOK’s recent studies have shown that younger workers tend to spend more time in group settings congregating, learning, and socialising. The 30-60 set spends the most time contemplating, in meetings and is in desperate needing for space to refresh. While the over 60 group spends the least amount of time in group settings, congregating, learning, contemplating, and socialising. So yes, age demographics can play in role in the types of spaces needed. But so can work styles, culture, and organisational structure so those things can’t be overlooked.

Oliver Baxter: I think it’s really important to distinguish between anecdotal evidence that is qualitative in nature and numerical data that is quantitative. If you look at the data coming out of the Leesman Index, a bigger predictor of whether the employee is catered for within the workplace design is the role complexity versus setting complexity, choice, and availability. The very nature of junior roles often means they have low complexity, which means their requirement for a high variety of settings, to choose from, might not be as large as someone who with greater tenure and activity profile… which means they’re typically happier with the office then older generations.


Final word?                                                                

Natalia Vavilina: There is no formula for a perfect workplace experience, even across one generation. There is the power of individuality and choice. The only thing that companies can do is listen to their employees’ wants and needs.

Kay Sargent: For all generations, work is about what you do, not necessarily where or when you do it. We are focusing less on WorkPLACE and more on WorkHOW. As a side effect to this new paradigm of work, the very purpose of an office will change. Instead of being a place that you go to for 40 hours a week, the office will morph into a place where you go to engage others. After all, work can happen, and is happening, anyway, or what is the real purpose of the office? It is a connection point. We need to create space that are enticing and where people want to be.

Oliver Baxter: I think the generations are more similar than they are different, and I think what unites us all is that we’re looking for a sense of belonging, a sense that we are part of something greater than ourselves. Something to get out of bed for.

Cas Verdonk: Work is becoming increasingly independent of time and location. So, stop trying to solve new problems with old tools.

Images: Sedus