Leadership means having to deal with teams of employees. These are often very diverse teams consisting of people of different gender, ethnic or cultural background... and different age. And one of the most immediate question many leaders ask themselves is how to deal with a very specific age group: Generation Z, the new generation that is entering the workforce as we speak. Some of our Think Tank sessions at Global Femal Leaders 2017 dealt with this problem.

But the question is more abstract, than it seems.

XYZ... are these concepts necessary or helpful?

We tend to use social constructs of groups in order to simplify the world around us. It makes it easier to deal with. The same goes for the rules of thumb we invented to talk about different generations. We attribute different characteristics to each one so that we can compare them and create guidelines on dealing with them. This can be helpful on a broader level when we deal with, say, interns or trainees. And there have been several attempts to classify the different generations in the context of work.

  • The Baby Boomers are the generation that came after World War II. They are said to be ambitious, career-oriented and performance-oriented. They "live to work".
  • Generation X also see work as an important cornerstone in their life. But they also acknowledge the downsides of capitalism and the crises it can bring about. They "work to live".
  • Generation Y doesn't work to live, but to fill their life with meaning or purpose. They live through 9/11 and the advent of the internet. They "ask why", and that's why they are called Gen Y.
  • Generation Z doens't ask why so much. They know they have to work, but they want to have clear boundaries between work and their private life. They want self-fulfilment and to be able to freely develope as an individual.

Or that's what they say...

They being countless studies that have been done on the topic. But what help are those when dealing with individuals? The fact of the matter is, that such guidelines will always be heuristics that are interesting in theory, but not very helpful in practice. Because they aren't true for every person, and they definitely aren't true for every country! Especially this generational concept is mostly used in the United States, although it has been borrowed by European countries as well. So what can it realistically tell us about youths in Japan, South Africa or Brazil?

So why talk about Generation Z at all, right? Well, there is one thing...

Generation Z brings the reality of digitisation right into your company

This is the big difference between Generation Z and every other generation before it. These young people all grew up in a world that was already heavily connected. They grew up with smartphones, the commercialisation of the internet with its walled gardens like Facebook, Amazon and Twitter, its search engines and reddits and WhatsApps and Instagrams. And this brings a very real generational gap to every company there is.

What company in its right mind would think about using SnapChat as a tool? (Except Snap Inc.) Probably not many, yet. But there will be companies that do so even if many of us can't imagine how or why. But we just need to give it time. Right now though, we are already confronted with employees who want to use messengers instead of meetings, who are constantly on Facebook and who better understand the logic of games and apps than the logic of books and lectures.

Therefore, there are some difficult questions arising when these people enter the workforce:

  • What compromises are needed in order to bring together the different communication preferences of a diverse workforce?
  • How should a company's knowledge management work when tasks and machines become ever more complex, yet a lot of the media we use to teach skills are outdated?
  • Which will be the best recruiting methods to get high potentials on board, or even to get an invitiation to them in the first place?
  • What can be done so that older employees don't fall by the wayside and can stay productive?

These are questions in a world, where now four generations are sharing the workplaces.

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