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What is Gen Z? Conversation with a Gen Xer

Flying home from a speech I was asked by the gentleman the one question tired travelers want to avoid, “So, what do you do for a living.” Knowing that the generational topic typically sparks lots of conversations ranging from Pet Rocks to the current White House, I was prepared for a longer conversation. What I wasn’t prepared for was an argument. 

If only I would have had “35 Generation Z Statistics to Start Building the Future of Your Brand” at my disposal. It would have made my case a lot quicker or easier. Instead, the conversation began…

“I study the different generations and how differences impact the workplace, marketplace, and nonprofits.”

“Oh. You’re one of them.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Putting people in a box and labeling them.”

“Actually – I think I take the lid off the box and help people understand their employees, customers, students, donors and more.”

“So I’m one of those Boomers. And you’re younger than me…”

“I’m an Gen Xer.”

“OK. We both work hard. Raise families. I hope to retire. Are we really that different?”

I was irritated and wanted to point out that we were very different. But I was too into the conversation to pull out. 

“You are right. We definitely hit the same life stages. But here is the trick, we approach them with our own generational biases.”

“That seems ridiculous! Just because of the year I was born?”

“It’s way beyond birth years… it’s the events and conditions that take place during our formative years. I’ll give you an example since we are flying at 10,000 feet. When you were a kid, what was it like to watch air and space travel? Was it cool?”

“Oh. I remember like yesterday where I was when we landed on the moon. My friends and I had been talking about it non-stop and then we saw it live. The whole country stopped. It was one of our country’s finest moments.”

“Hmmm.” I replied. “I don’t have any memories like that. In fact, all I remember is writing a letter to a school teacher who had been chosen to go in space. She wrote back to our class too. I also remember talking to my friends about it, but on the day of – we watched her explode inside the Challenger. I still can feel the silence in the room. I was in 11th grade.”

And speaking of silence. My travel buddy seemed to suddenly be searching for words.

“OK. I see how we might have some different viewpoints. But just because we may see space travel differently, how does that impact my business. I work in healthcare.”

“Well, every industry is impacted by these differences. Spacer travel was just one example. I would be willing to bet if we kept talking (not that I was suggesting we do) about topics such as applying for a job, asking for feedback, whether to show up for a meeting on Skype, dress code, work hours and so much more – we might not be looking through the same lens.”

He was nodding slowly – he was getting it. I think.

“If you assume I look at these things on the job the same way you do – then it would get you in trouble.”

“You know – I’ve always thought that kids today are way too…”

“Ah. Stop right there.” I interrupted. “Just because another generation is looking through a different lens, doesn’t mean they are doing something wrong or even worse than you. It’s just different.”

“Oh please!” I clearly annoyed him. “When I was younger you got to the office before your boss and you stayed no matter what, until he left. You didn’t leave early for yoga.”

“I bet that’s frustrating. But I do have to ask, how did that workaholic mentality work for you and your peers? Many in the younger generation would say you paid too big of a price. They have figured out a way to get the job done AND go to yoga.”

“That’s my point! They leave at 5 pm when there are still things to do!”

“But did you ever think that maybe they went to yoga, got home for dinner with the family, and then logged on before bed and finished the work. If the work is still getting done – which I’m not hearing otherwise… then maybe they aren’t doing anything wrong.”

“I suppose you’re right. Maybe I’m just an old fart stuck in his ways. I really don’t like how the new hires show up so casual and are always on their phones. But they do good work – I’ll give them that. I suppose I just need to adapt.”

I felt like I had won the lottery… major breakthrough and also…so excited I could finally hit the play button on my movie.

“I was thinking… how are all these Millennial college graduates ever going to pay off their loans?”

Hmmmm. Do I shrug it off with a sight chuckle, put the headphones on and hit play… or do I give him the answer I think is so critical?

“Well. That is a very good question…but if you really want to tap into these insights, then I have to tell you that these graduates are not Millennials.”

“Oh, that’s right. They also like to be called Gen Y, right?”

“Sure. Same generation. But they still are not your graduates today. We actually have a whole new generation called Gen Z. Believe it or not, there is life after the Millennials!”

“What are you talking about? There’s a whole new generation?”

Now he was annoyed again.

“It’s not a bad thing. Relax. The good news is that now Generation Z is on your radar. I can’t tell you how many leaders in every industry I meet are just assuming everyone under 30 is the same and is a Millennial.”

“What makes them different?”

“Well, I’m sure if we had a Gen Zer sitting with us, he wouldn’t be talking about the Moon landing or the Challenger. He would be all abuzz Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos hopefully taking him in space.”

Phew – I got a chuckle. I explained that history was actually repeating himself. I even put it into a language he would understand. I took him back to the 90s when he and his 80 million other Boomer cohorts were clawing their way to the top. He reflected on how many policies there were to do everything – even joking – “I think we needed a policy or procedure to go to the bathroom.”

I then talked about what it was like when my generation, Gen X, showed up. I very quickly reminded him of all the frustrations he had with me and my colleagues. They hated how we dressed, our lack of interest in all the policies, our straight to the point communication style and so much more. We even both agreed that it was some of businesses most costly collisions. 

It didn’t take long for him to start making the connection I was going for. 

“You’re telling me that Gen Z is radically different than Millennials? Does anyone know this?”

I wanted to take the opportunity for a shameless plug to read my latest book on Generation Z or have me speak at their next company function, but I seized the opportunity.

“Not enough people are waking up to the fact that we have a whole new generation. The leading edge of Gen Z is already 25!”

He was sitting up and even pulled out a notebook from his bag that was stashed in underneath the seat in front of him. I kept going…

“I do think there is a small window that leaders have where they can be proactive, and not reactive. The time to get to know Gen Z is today! And if you treat Gen Z like the Millennials it will be no different than what went down when we tried to treat Gen X like the Boomers.”

He looked like he was at the starting line of a race, the gun went off, but he didn’t know where to run. I tried to make it easier…

“Look. The fact that you are aware and willing to get to know Gen Z will put you ahead of the curve. Get to know what makes this generation unique. What are their key events that shape them? What are their unique traits? How are they different from Millennials? With that knowledge, I guarantee you, once you look at your recruiting practices or marketing strategies you will likely see they are targeted to Millennials – and in need of changes.”

“Maybe they will actually figure out how to pay off their student loans.”

“Who said they are going to college? In fact, “75% of Gen Z says there are ways of getting a good education other than by going to college. I’m curious, does your company require a 4-year degree to work there?”

“Well of course!”


“Welll… ummm…I guess… it’s just the way it’s always been done.”

“Do you think you need a degree to work there?”

“I suppose not. In fact, we hired a kid over the summer who was taking a gap year and man, he could do circles around us. Especially for our social media strategy.”

And without even having to say more… my point was made, and my guess was a new policy at his company was made as well. Progress.

The announcement came on to put our seats and tray tables up. Clearly, I would catch my movie on the next flight. My co passenger seemed a little rattled.

“So, where do you think the best place is to start if we want to get our heads around Gen Z?”

This time I couldn’t resist. I reached into my bag, pulled out a copy of my book Gen Z @ Work, grabbed a Sharpie and wrote…

Enjoy getting to know Gen Z!