I was born in 1998, technically making me a member of Gen Z (generally considered those born between 1997 and the early 2010s—so I just about make the cut). As a consequence, I’ve always felt sort of half millennial, half Gen Z, relating heavily to some of the stereotypical experiences of both.
Why is this relevant? I hear you ask. Well, every other day I read an article about how Gen Z is causing chaos in the workplace. The media would have you believe we’re all “quiet quitting”, writing incredibly rude out of offices and rolling our eyes at our older colleagues. Obviously, I think the situation is much more complicated than that, but don’t worry, I’m not just here to write a Gen Z defense rant. I think this is about a wider issue and that’s how the media is perpetuating generational divides and leading us to misunderstand each other based on assumptions. I think this is especially true in the workplace.
It’s not just a Gen Z thing
I’m going to be using Gen Z for a lot of the examples here because that’s my experience, but I want to stress that this isn’t an issue unique to Gen Z. Do you remember when every headline seemed to be about how Millennials could definitely afford to buy houses if they just ate fewer avocados? Or when the media decided that Boomers were entirely to blame for the housing crisis? The reality is that the media loves a clickbait headline—and as someone who works in the media, I think they serve a purpose for sure—but these generalizations are making us resent and misunderstand each other. They don’t encourage us to examine wider factors or consider the political, economic, and social context that any of these generations grew up in.
We need to examine why generations think differently
For one, people are more than the generation they were born into. Not every Gen Z thinks the same way and not every Gen X does. Secondly, when there are generational shifts in attitudes; it’s time we think about what the causes of those are. And we need to think about those causes critically, rather than what I often see which is writing every next generation off as lazy, disrespectful, and rebellious. And let’s be honest, that’s not a new phenomenon. Look at how teenagers were thought of during the 60s and 70s vs how they’re seen now upon reflection.
Take Gen Z as an example, I don’t believe Gen Z are approaching work differently because they’re lazy and afraid of hard work (I understand I’m biased here, but I mean come on). I actually think what’s happening is that we’ve simply been raised during a time with different expectations of flexibility, fair pay, good work-life balance, and a tendency to prioritize good mental health over climbing the corporate ladder. This means we might not make the choice to work super late that our older colleagues may have felt obligated to. It’s not that we’re afraid of the extra work. It’s simply that our priorities are different. And so are our opportunities. Declining to work late might not have the same negative consequences on our careers now as it did for other generations. And I feel incredibly sorry to think of all the times older generations might have had to compromise their mental health for fair pay and equal opportunities. That wasn’t fair to them.
The world is changing at a faster pace than ever before
In today’s world of quickly advancing technology and access to minute-by-minute news updates, it feels like the world is changing more rapidly than ever. We physically can’t keep up. We won’t understand the true impact of social media until an entire generation grows up. We won’t understand the true impact of the pandemic for years and years to come. It’s much easier to understand with hindsight—it allows us to analyze the wider context in a way that we’re unable to in the present moment.
Things are hard, right? It’s hard to always make the right choice and choose the right approaches, and deal with everything life throws at us. It always has been and always will be. The challenges each generation faces might be different, but it doesn’t make it easier. Things are just challenging in different ways. And for the most part, we’re all just doing the best we can with the hand we’ve been dealt.
The confusion makes sense
I completely understand it can be confusing for someone of a different generation to relate to the thought processes and expectations of those younger. I feel the same way about teenagers now. I’m only 25 and I feel like I can’t relate in the slightest. They don’t know what a videotape is, rarely send letters, and find me confusing for reasons I can’t really understand. And I know Gen X feels the same way about me. My boss thinks it’s hilarious that I WhatsApp her to ask if she’s free for me to call. And this is yet another example of something that could be drastically misunderstood. It’s not that I’m against talking on the phone, it’s that I don’t want to bother her if she’s busy or in the middle of something, etc. It’s actually something I think my generation sees as an act of thoughtfulness. While she doesn’t see it as necessary at all—“If I’m busy I just won’t answer.”
So, what am I trying to say?
Rather than making negative assumptions about why different generations think the way they do, can we not instead make an effort to consider the experiences that informed that attitude? Can we even go as far as to consider what we can learn from those experiences? My parents gave me the foundation I have as a person. My boss taught me everything I know about my work. I have huge respect for them—they have knowledge and experience that I will never have. Boomers and Gen Xers went through things that I will never have to. And I’ll be the first to admit there are times when I forget that. Though I realize it might ruffle some feathers, I implore older generations not to forget that there are also things that Gen Z and Gen Alpha have had to go through that they will never have to face.
It’s easy to just be angry. To read the headlines and feel frustrated that other generations will never understand what it was or is like. What’s more challenging, but by far more rewarding, is being curious and open to what we can learn from each other. The media is always going to use headlines and examples made to evoke a visceral reaction. That’s its job. But surely, we can all understand that in reality, we’re multifaceted beings and sweeping statements will never do any of us justice.
Final food for thought
As I wrap up this article, I started to wonder what I would think about it in, say, five or ten years’ time. I’m sure my opinion will have evolved. I’m sure that societal opinion as a whole will probably have evolved. I wonder if there will be headlines about how the Alpha Generation is causing chaos. More power to them!