Making sense of generational stereotypes at work

Look around. If you’re like many of us, your workplace comprises members of four, possibly even five, generations—and attention to age-based differences is mounting. On this episode of the McKinsey Talks Talent podcast, talent leaders Bryan Hancock and Bill Schaninger talk to global editorial director Lucia Rahilly about new research on generational preferences at work: what’s myth, what matters, and how to manage the new multigenerational team.

This transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

People are people

Lucia Rahilly: At some point or another, most of us have marveled at behaviors attributed to generations other than our own. But are we really all that different?

Bill Schaninger: The headline is that we’re remarkably similar. In our research, we looked at potential differences from a generational standpoint, but then we went further and looked at life context: Are these workers parents? Are they caring for their own parents? And so forth. While we found a lot of interesting nuances, in the end there’s not much difference between generations at work.

Bryan Hancock: At some level, people are people. They want to have meaningful work. They want to have real connections with their coworkers and their managers; they want what they’re doing to have broader purpose; they want to be fairly compensated. That’s what’s most important for everyone.

At some level, people are people. They want to have meaningful work. They want to have real connections with their coworkers and their managers; they want what they’re doing to have broader purpose; they want to be fairly compensated.

Bryan Hancock

Now, as Bill said, there can be nuances. If you’re earlier in your career, you may be willing to take a job that offers more learning opportunities versus near-term compensation. If you’re a retiree, you may be more willing to have a job that’s all about who you see every day, because we know that human connection is something some people are looking for, particularly much later in their career. Work can be an outlet for that.

Gen Z and the money myth

Lucia Rahilly: We’re now routinely seeing four, occasionally even five, generations together at work. In the interest of dispelling generational stereotypes, let’s talk about one myth you’ve identified in the research for each generation, starting with Gen Z. We hear so much about Gen Z’s financial woes, vis-à-vis diminished economic mobility. Is it true that Gen Z is motivated primarily by money?

Bill Schaninger: Not true. That doesn’t mean money doesn’t matter. What’s different here is that Gen Z is talking about money—openly and transparently. And that makes it seem more important. It’s not like Gen Xers don’t think about money. They do, particularly as they get closer to retirement. But we were raised in an era where you didn’t talk about compensation—whereas my son is 23 and just entering the workforce, and his cohort shared the details on every job offer they received. Complete market transparency.

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If comp matters to you and you talk about it, other people might think comp is all that really matters to you. But we know from asking Gen Z that that’s not the case. They are interested in development. They’re concerned about an environment that’s inclusive and makes them feel they can be successful. They talk about comp because it doesn’t strike them as a faux pas.

Also, because Gen Z verbalizes everything, you don’t need an early-warning radar system. They tell you what they want and don’t want. Whereas you have to keep tabs on Gen Xers, because they might be quietly lining up a job elsewhere and you’d never know. They’re not as overt in revealing when they’re a risk to leave.

Flexibility matters—and not just for millennials

Lucia Rahilly: We’ve often heard that millennials put the highest premium on work–life balance. True or false?

Bryan Hancock: In the research we released last year, we looked at a few nontraditional cohorts. One of those was the caregiver cohort. Whether caregiving for children, for parents, or for others, we found that caregivers prioritized additional workplace flexibility.

Bill Schaninger: It’s worth pointing out what flexibility can mean. In the fullest sense, flexibility is what work you’re doing, how you’re doing it, where you’re doing it, and when it’s being done. Is there a standard practice or not? Does it have to be done in the office? Does it have to be done with others or can I do it myself?

The “when” part is interesting. The nonlinear workday is significantly better for people who are trying to really make life and career work together. They can get up early and get going. Then they can get the kids some breakfast, get them off to school, come back for some core work hours. There’s some parenting when the kids come home, and then you come back on at night and finish up. That’s flexibility in the fullest sense.

Lucia Rahilly: Millennials are now the generation where caregiving would seem most likely to start. Do you see a difference between generations on prioritizing flexibility?

Bill Schaninger: Flexibility matters a great deal. In fact, for Gen X, in many cases their parents are unprepared for retirement, or their parents have health care needs—yet they also still have kids who need care. That’s increasingly common among Xers.

Bryan Hancock: Whether among Gen X or millennials or even Gen Z, it’s interesting to think of dual-income couples and how they’re navigating the workplace. Our Women in the Workplace research shows that women still take on a disproportionate amount of the work that needs to get done outside of the office: work in the home, caregiving responsibilities.

But across generations, we now see men looking for flexibility. They’re thinking more about how they can be dads at work. So, while women still disproportionately carry the load, we are seeing a bit of a shift, which changes the dialogue from, “Hey, moms need to take extra time off” to, “We all need more flexibility in how we can adjust our schedule to meet these needs.” It doesn’t mean we want to do less work.

Gen X’s rap for risk aversion

Lucia Rahilly: Common wisdom holds that Gen X employees are most motivated by job security, presumably due to having been disgorged into the workplace during the recession of the 1990s. What does our research say?

Bryan Hancock: The research says Gen X are no more worried about job security than any other generation.

Bill Schaninger: I’m 53. I was part of the first generation to see our parents really lose the idea of cradle-to-grave employment. In the mid ’80s, we saw firings and downsizings among classic American institutions. After experiencing that, many boomers are not prepared for retirement. Some Gen Xers will have to kick cash up to their parents to look after them. At the same time, many Gen Xers’ kids are delaying marriage and contemplating moving back home.

So, there’s an interesting pinch point for Gen X. Economically, they have a real need to continue working. But we also found that in an environment where they have choice about jobs, their work has to matter to them if they’re going to stay at their current employer.

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Lucia Rahilly: Say more about Gen X leaving their jobs if their work isn’t meaningful. That seems counterintuitive if so many of them have dual caregiving responsibilities.

Bill Schaninger: The duality is interesting because it raises the stakes. And the phenomenon is buoyed by the labor market—by the fact that many Gen Xers are not having a particularly hard time right now finding another role.

Bryan Hancock: By and large, the individuals in Gen X know who they are. They’ve had enough work experience. So what we’re seeing Gen Xers say is “To hell with being a little bit risky; I’m confident in the current environment I can find something that better lines up with who I am and what I want to be.”

Boomers beyond the benefits package

Lucia Rahilly: Boomers are sometimes said to put a high value on pay, on benefits—what we might consider more transactional features of work. What did the research say?

Bill Schaninger: Even boomers who no longer need a lot of comp sometimes still consider compensation to be a marker of perceived worth. It’s a way of keeping score. But for many boomers, work is really about affinity, affiliation, being respected. A good portion of their social life happens at the workplace.

Designing a workplace that works—for everyone

Lucia Rahilly: One of the factors the research considered was the safety of the workplace environment. Why would safety be of variable importance to different generations?

Bill Schaninger: I do think there’s a generational difference here. Safety can mean coming home from work in one piece—and of course that’s a big deal. Or it can be more like, “I can reasonably believe I’ll continue to have a job and provide for the people I love.” That’s also a reasonably big deal.

But there’s also the more nuanced version of safety, as in, “I feel safe being who I am at work.” That’s much more around the inclusive environment, the accepting environment. That’s where you tend to see some generational difference: Gen Z is more apt to wear identity on their sleeves, to let you know, “Hey, this is who I am.” That creates a very different need for safety, likely around emotional safety or psychological safety. You can be who you are and not feel like you’re being bullied or under threat or attack.

There’s also the more nuanced version of safety, as in, ‘I feel safe being who I am at work.’ That’s much more around the inclusive environment, the accepting environment. That’s where you tend to see some generational difference.

Bill Schaninger

Lucia Rahilly: What are some ways managers can foster intergenerational connections in team settings, to help colleagues overcome preconceived notions about folks from different generations? Communication is the big example everyone talks about—the notion that Gen X calls on the phone, millennials email, and Gen Z sends instant messages.

Bill Schaninger: Basically, that’s about asking, “What’s your work language?” In every case, you have to know enough about your workers to have a chance of communicating well. You have to actually talk to them. As Bryan used to say all the time, “You know how they’re doing by actually checking in.”

Bryan Hancock: In the United States, as a country and as a workforce, we have gotten more diverse generation by generation. Our future is definitely multicultural; it’s multiracial. We really have to think about how to make more diverse groups of employees feel included.

Leaders should of course focus on the great communication approaches that work for everybody. They should think about their inclusion strategy. And more senior colleagues should demonstrate what allyship looks like and how they can be supportive. Those may not be immediately top of mind, but they should be as we think about managing across different generations.

Lucia Rahilly: Any thoughts on ways managers might design rituals or events that might help bring members of intergenerational cohorts together?

Bryan Hancock: Invite them to your house. I’ve been to Bill’s house many times. I’ve never seen that go wrong. Anytime you want to make a deep connection with a group of folks, if you’re able to do it at someone’s house—somewhere where you can connect more personally—it just takes off the dynamics of, “Who should we be? What should we be saying? How should we be showing up?” You’re just Bill and Bryan hanging out.

Bill Schaninger: Humanizing is a great way to close power distance. It’s disarming. There’s nothing like having your partner or your kids come in and completely take away veil of authority. You’re like, “No, in this house I’m the gofer.”

Lucia Rahilly: There was an interesting point in this research on conversations between managers and reports—specifically on tailoring to individual reports’ needs. It talked about anchoring conversations on constraints that members of different generations might be navigating, to help them enable performance within those constraints. How does that work?

Bryan Hancock: So to be clear, the practical way of entering that conversation isn’t to say, “Tell me what your constraints are. Let me problem solve those for you.” Instead, I like to ask questions like, “What’s your ideal life five years from now? What do you want to be doing at work? What about outside? What are the rhythms of your life? What are you excited about? What energizes you?”

Imagine talking to a dad whose kids are going to be ten and 12 and are now just old enough to put on a backpack and do a long hike. You can say, “That’s cool. What’s going to be important to you in getting there? What do you want to be doing on the work side?” And maybe then he says, “I want to be doing stuff I’m really passionate about. I don’t care as much about X, Y, or Z.”

This works just as well with somebody who’s a boomer as with Gen X. Helping folks think beyond the next six months, longer term, helps you collectively say, “If that’s where you want to go, let’s figure out the best way we can contribute to that. We can’t architect what your entire life will look like in five years, but let’s think through what the work part might be together.” I find that to be helpful.

Bill Schaninger: Early in my time at McKinsey, I was having a hard time with working Fridays late at night. I remember thinking I’d like to get done by 3:00 p.m., because that’s when my kid gets home from school. One day a week of having dinner with my kid should be OK. I became fixated on regaining agency around that.

I wonder if leaders could enable people to feel they have more agency in their personal life. By the way, Fridays then became ritualistic with my son.

The slot may vary by age and by life context, but universally, people like being asked what that no-fly zone is, what the really costly time is.

Bill Schaninger

Bryan Hancock: That reminds me of a concept I find very helpful across generations: costly and costless time. For Bill, doing something from 3:00 to 4:00 on a Friday afternoon is incredibly costly because it cuts into quality time with his son. But if Bill were just sitting outside waiting for his kid’s activity to end, that’s costless time. That’s when he can afford to make up the time he took off on Friday.

Bill Schaninger: The slot may vary by age and by life context, but universally, people like being asked what that no-fly zone is, what the really costly time is. That ought to be a “101,” really.

Lucia Rahilly: Thanks, both. Great discussion.

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