OPINION: The future of work is changing. Which generation is ready?

Employees at Mic, a company developed by and for millennials, high five in the company’s newsroom in this pre-pandemic photo. But the past two years has dramatically altered the traditional workplace and generational diversity is the key to a successful future, said Atlanta-area experts.  (Jennifer S. Altman/The New York Times)
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Employees at Mic, a company developed by and for millennials, high five in the company’s newsroom in this pre-pandemic photo. But the past two years has dramatically altered the traditional workplace and generational diversity is the key to a successful future, said Atlanta-area experts. (Jennifer S. Altman/The New York Times)

Credit: JENNIFER S. ALTMAN

Credit: JENNIFER S. ALTMAN

Building a better workplace requires multigenerational collaboration

It is customary in the final days of December to spend time reflecting on the year that has passed.

Year-in-review stories allow us to take stock of all that has happened, but I won’t do that here, mainly because I’ve blocked out most of the past two years.

We all wanted something better in 2021 and we did get things like vaccines, in-person reunions with friends and family, and a return to school, but we can’t shake those feelings of uncertainty about the future. So here we go again into a new year, with a new variant of COVID-19, unsure how it will all play out.

What we do know, is that our relationship to work — the one thing most adults do at some point in their lifetimes — is forever changed.

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A few weeks ago, I served as moderator for a panel discussion hosted by Little Pink Book that focused on the workplace of the future and the many ways in which the pandemic has changed how we do our jobs.

We covered a lot of ground in that conversation ranging from the Great Resignation to imposter syndrome and it struck me as a looked across the stage at the panelists that this collective of mostly Gen X employees (and maybe a geriatric millennial) are some of the highest ranking executives at metro area companies.

In recent months, as I’ve watched boomers and millennials exit my own workplace and members of Gen Z begin their careers during unprecedented times, I wondered how the pandemic was impacting members of different generations and more importantly, which generation was most equipped to usher us into the workplace of the future?

Georgia is home to about 2.2 million Gen Zers or post-millennials (anyone born after 1996), 2.8 million millennials, 2.2 million Gen Xers, 2.2 million Baby Boomers and 784,000 members of the Silent and Greatest generations, based on 2016 estimates.

Just by their sheer numbers, millennials should hold the most sway in determining how our future working lives may look, but some generational experts suggest geriatric millennials, and even young-at-heart members of Gen X, are key to building a workplace that meets the needs of all workers.

Each generation has had a slightly different response to the pandemic, said Tim Elmore, founder and CEO of Atlanta-based Growing Leaders, a leadership training curriculum that prepares tomorrow’s leaders. “The anxiety seemed to go up a bit in each generation because there was more of the future ahead of them,” he said.

Despite being heavily impacted by the pandemic, members of the oldest generations were the least nonplussed. These Depression-era babies who came of age during a major world war have been through hard times before, Elmore said. Boomers are mostly worried about the state of their retirement. Gen X was never optimistic and pretty much agrees that life is hard, while millennials wondered how they would ever afford to buy a home, Elmore said.

It is Gen Z, for whom he reserves a healthy dose of empathy. They felt as if their lives had been postponed and they were being penalized, he said.

“I am seeing more and more distrust in Gen Z. They tend to be untrusting of institutions but they are trusting of people they know. Relationship is key. For me, that says I have to build a relationship with these 22-year-olds,” Elmore said.

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Gen X, millennials and Gen Z are accustomed to change at a faster pace than other generations, Elmore said. If they can just learn to work together, maybe they can move the world of work forward.

Technology is often considered the great divide between the generations and nothing has shown us the importance of technology more than the pandemic.

In his 2018 book, “Zero Hour for Gen X,” Matthew Hennessey swung hard at the impact technology has had on our lives. He has since recognized that the very innovations he railed against — smartphones, apps, the gig economy, online dating, virtual meetings — have helped us survive the past two years.

We have grown even more dependent on technology as a result of the pandemic but, as we move into a new era, the generations that bring some balance between virtual reality and real reality are the ones who will bring the most value to the workplace, Hennessey said.

“People over the age of 40 have a lot more experience dealing with real human problems than dealing with virtual human problems that require different skills to handle,” he said. “There are things we can do to create a saner future with this technology.”

Hennessey’s personal epiphany is that as a Gen X parent, he is at least able to shape the future through his Gen Z children.

“My job is to make sure my kids have a well-regulated relationship with devices. I can’t control the pandemic, I can do that,” he said.

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Gen Z and millennials, unbound by the traditions of other generations will bring innovations to the workplace, said Elmore.

Already he has heard from millennials who are lobbying for a four-day work week and Gen Z workers who want to be paid daily instead of the more traditional paycheck every two weeks. He also noted a recent study indicating that 72% of today’s high school students plan to be entrepreneurs, which means many of them won’t be working for anybody but themselves.

But for those of us who are not willing to go it alone, what will best guide us through this uncertain future of work is a spirit of collaboration, he said.

Elmore’s forthcoming book has the working title, “A New Kind of Diversity” and the content suggests it is generational diversity that we are most missing in the modern workplace.

All those Gen X managers will have to learn to view millennials and Gen Z employees as individuals, Elmore said. And instead of asking that new Gen Z hire why they are on TikTok, maybe ask them to show you how to use it.

I am a Gen Xer and while I haven’t yet graduated to TikTok, I have relied on my younger colleagues to educate me on other social media platforms. We are in the middle of a workplace revolution and the best thing we can do is pool the knowledge and talents of multiple generations to figure out how to move forward. Our future depends on it.

Read more on the Real Life blog (www.ajc.com/opinion/real-life-blog/) and find Nedra on Facebook (www.facebook.com/AJCRealLifeColumn) and Twitter (@nrhoneajc) or email her at nedra.rhone@ajc.com.

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