Gen Z & Millennials: Three Key Differentiators
Tale as old as time… an exciting, sparkly young generation enters the workplace, and like they’re the new kid in high school, you give ‘em the stink eye and wonder (with a heavy dose of skepticism) “exactly why is this newbie is getting so much attention?”
Oh hi, Gen Z.
Born between 1996 and 2010, the oldest Zers are 24 years old and working alongside you right now, while their younger generational peers are devotedly getting through school in an effort to land a stable, well-paid internship (and eventually, a stable, well-paid job).
But who are they? And how are they different from those Millennials the interwebs likes to talk (aka: complain) so much about? And how will those differences impact the way they show up at work? Glad you asked! Here are three big differentiators between these two distinct generations.
DIFFERENTIATOR #1: Birth Years
Ok folks, let’s get one thing quite clear…
Millennials and Gen Z are not the same generation. I repeat, Millennials and Gen Z are NOT the same generation.
For whatever reason, there’s a common misconception that “Millennial” and “Gen Z” are interchangeable terms to refer to young people at work. Nope. That’s not a thing. These are two different generations, born in separate birth year brackets. This differentiator may elicit a "duh, whatever” reaction but it’s the foundation of understanding why Gen Zers and Millennials are distinct generations. Different birth years means different coming of age years, and those years are what form generational identities.
*roughly defined as teens to early twenties
Still skeptical that these years matter? Chew on how each of these generations experienced the following:
SMARTPHONES & THE INTERNET
Millennials: When I was a tween, I had to wait for dial-up to go through its banshee screech before I could connect to PAINFULLY slow internet. More often than not, it wouldn’t work or my mom would be tying up the line, so instead I’d run out and play Ghost in the Graveyard with the neighborhood kids. I rushed out to get the first iPhone during my junior year of college while my friends stayed loyal to their Motorola Razrs (#earlyadopter.)
Gen Z: This generation has never known a time without a smartphone and constant connectivity to the internet. Even the eldest Zers, the twenty-four-year-olds, were around eleven when the first iPhone came out in 2007. The internet, fast and furious as we now know it, has ALWAYS been their normal. Nowadays, 69% of 6th graders have a smartphone. 🤯
SHOPPING & ENTERTAINMENT
Millennials: I can recall staying up for almost twenty-four hours in college so I could record Beyoncé’s Single Ladies on our TiVo. We had to wait for it to come on. It took forever, but we finally did it. We watched that MTV clip on loop for the next few months... and maybe tried to learn the dance. It was awesome and worth every second of sleep deprivation. Music video, movie, or butterfly shirt from Delia’s… while attainable much quicker than previous generations, we still had to wait for them.
Gen Z: With a quick search on YouTube or Vevo, Gen Z has access to millions of music videos (as well as their favorite influencers) instantaneously. They don’t have to go to Blockbuster to rent the latest hit movie, they can stream it online and binge the new season of their favorite TV show one sitting. Trendy clothes are delivered at the competitive speed of Amazon Prime. Whether it’s TV, shopping, or learning to dance the Renegade, so much is (and has been) accessible to Gen Z at the simple click of a button.
Millennials: Maybe I’m showing my old fogey card, but I thank my lucky stars that social media wasn’t a thing when I was in high school. AIM Instant Messenger was the latest and greatest during my teen years, followed by a very primitive early Facebook (initially only released to select college campuses). Instagram, with its filters and selfie culture, didn’t even exist until I was well into adulthood.
Gen Z: No one knows the world of social media better than Gen Z. More than digital natives, they are social media darlings. It’s yet another thing they’ve grown up knowing and navigating their whole coming-of-age years. While Millennials learned how to use all the new platforms that emerged over the past couple decades, many Gen Zers have been on Insta since before they even hit puberty. The world of Snapchat, TikTok, and even Venmo (odd, we know) are where they socialize. Instead of hanging at the mall, they hang on social.
DIFFERENTIATOR #2: Parental Units
However grating it is to hear things like “you’re just like your dad!” the truth is that whether we want to admit it or not, our parents have a huge impact on who we become. That’s not to say that we’re replicas of our folks, and thank goodness for that, amiright!? (Love you mom!), but in the parenting process there’s definitely a shaping and molding that happens, and an infusing of some (not all and not always) of the parents’ values and ideology.
When we look at Gen Z and Millennials, they are (unsurprisingly) about as different from one another as Gen Xers (who, for the most part, are parenting Gen Z) and Boomers (who, again, for the most part, parented Millennials). The idealistic Baby Boomers were parenting Millennials in the middle of the self-esteem movement and a mostly booming economy. Gen Xers, on the other hand, who struggled through the dot-com bust, then again during The Great Recession, are taking a more straight-to-the-point, measured approach to how they’re raising their Gen Z kids.
Boomer parents’ advice for Millennials
“The world is your oyster! The only limit is your imagination.”
“Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.”
“It doesn’t matter if you win or lose. What really matters is that you gave it your all!”
“You are a distinct, unique human being who has so much to contribute to the world.”
Gen Xer parents’ advice for Gen Z
“If you can learn to count on yourself, and be self-sufficient, you might have a pretty good life.”
“Start preparing now for the inevitable storms that lie ahead (it’s just a fact of life that we want you to be ready for).”
“Work is work, home is home. Be professional, do your work well and efficiently, then come home and live your life.”
“To get ahead in this world, you need to acquire the skills and experience that set you apart from others.”
DIFFERENTIATOR #3: Workplace Mindsets
Some simple math: when you add differentiator #1 and differentiator #2, you get the reason behind the variance in this final differentiator, Gen Z and Millennial mindsets around work. Let’s take a closer look:
ON TAKING RISKS
Millennials: Encouraged to dream big and voice their opinions from an early age, you often hear Boomers and Xers grumbling about the fact that their younger Millennial colleagues or direct reports are too free in their willingness to pipe up with a plan for “a whole new way of doing things.” Jumping is a natural instinct for us Millennial folk.
Gen Z: Though they’re often thought of as the most independent and entrepreneurial generation ever, in the workplace, Gen Zers are showing a hesitancy to jump. Whether this comes from a lifetime of being able to Google the answer to any question, or the near-constant vigilance they received from parents and teachers alike, this generation will think twice before chiming in with an idea or answer that hasn’t been previously vetted. Entrepreneurs outside of the 9-5? Yes, absolutely. Entrepreneurial traits at work? Not so much (yet).
ON WORKPLACE TENURE
Millennials: “Find your passion” was a driving motivation when Millennials first entered the workplace. They were looking for that perfect job, a role that would light up their souls, make a positive impact on the world, and hopefully made them a bit of money too. Encouraged by parents, teachers, and professors alike, Millennials had no qualms job-hopping from one organization to another in the quest for the holy workplace grail. While they may be on the stability-seeking train in their current life stage, that wasn’t the case during their inaugural years at work.
Gen Z: This new crop of talent is bringing something to the workplace that might seem odd for a group still so young: the search for stability. And Gen Zers aren’t playing around. After watching older Millennial peers drowning in student debt and hearing their parents’ cautionary financial tales (centered, of course, around 2009’s recession), Gen Zers are taking a more careful approach to their careers.
ON PROFESSIONAL RELATIONSHIPS
Millennials: Having internalized the messaging that they should “always be their authentic selves,” be it at home, in school, or at work, Millennials have played a big role in blurring the line between professional and personal life. Embracing phrases like “work fam” and tagging team pics with #workfamily, Millennials have been more open to seeking and establishing strong work friendships with peers and bosses from the beginning of their careers.
Gen Z: Seventy percent of Generation Z would rather share personal information with their pet than with their boss. Kooky statistic aside, just refer to the previous point on workplace tenure, and you’ll see that for Gen Zers, finding besties at work or developing a close bond with their manager is not a top priority. The pragmatism they’re bringing to their jobs means they don’t need the social and friendship factor that Millennials sought early on.
At the end of the day, a central tenet of Good Company Consulting’s philosophy is that people are way more alike than they are different. That said, we strongly believe that an understanding of the nuances across generations is important. Whenever we hear that employers and leaders are lumping Gen Z and Millennials into the same category, we 🤦♀️because, frankly, it’s a missed opportunity. Having a grasp of generational distinctions, and tweaking your recruiting and retention strategies accordingly, is an excellent way to gain an edge in what’s becoming an increasingly competitive job market.