We are in an era of labor scarcity that will last for many years, and this situation creates more complexity for leaders and managers at every level who are keen to lead high-performance teams. When employees don’t need your job (they can get a paycheck anywhere), managers have to be more attuned to the subtle differences between what draws each generation to work. We are at the lowest unemployment rate that we’ve seen since the Vietnam War. There are more unfilled jobs (7.2 million as I write this) than there are unemployed people to fill them.

Under these conditions, leaders need to do everything they can to hold on to the talent they have because with every passing day, it becomes more difficult to replace them. Organizational leaders need a retention strategy more than a hiring strategy at this point – and nothing is more important than understanding and encouraging conditions that pull people to the workplace.

As I discussed in my blog post last week, even though Millennials have a higher expectation to find meaning and purpose in their work and to receive validation, recognition, and feedback than Boomers and Gen Xers, when the older generations receive these, they get the same release of “feel-good” neurochemicals in the brain as the younger generations do. Employees across all generations respond positively to being seenvalued, and recognized for their good work. So, it’s a good thing that the expectations of Millennials and Gen Z will push us as leaders to perform these pro-social practices more consistently.

Characteristics of Millennials

Millennials are now the largest generation in the workforce at 35 percent. They are between the ages of 23 and 38 years old.

It’s important to highlight specifically what made growing up as a Millennial different from Boomers and Gen Xers. For one, Millennials were more likely to interact with adults from the time they were young (less structured social and familial conditions), and with a more saturated exposure to news and current events, they view authority differently. A person’s title is important, but equally so is their worldview, personal accomplishments, and values.

Those who make up the Millennial generation are more likely to be independent thinkers. There’s more self-determination and variance in what they do because they’ve grown up in one of the most prosperous economic times in our history. We’re now in our 104th month of continuous economic growth. Unlike previous generations that endured extended periods of deprivation (World War, depression) and viewed work as a key element of basic survival, Millennials have grown up in a relatively prosperous era, so they’re looking for higher-level needs well beyond a paycheck. They want to extend their social network on the job and are much more interested in the role of emotion and connection in the workplace than previous generations are.

Millennials also value finding meaning and purpose in their work. They want to do work that is not just secure, but that also makes a positive impact – work that is helping to save the planet or improve the community, for example. They aren’t just working for the weekend, as the Baby Boomers did. The work that Millennials do on a daily basis needs to feel as fulfilling as the things that they get to do on the weekends.

The Millennial generation prefers flexibility in their work schedule (recently rated higher than a raise when asked about potential benefits) and more autonomy at work. Millennials also question work in new ways and value efficiency. They ask: “Why should I work several hours when we can use a software program to do this work more effectively?” Millennials want to work smarter, not harder.

Characteristics of Generation Z

Members of Generation Z are anyone born between 1997 and 2012. Gen Zers are between the ages of 7 and 22, which means that they’re just now getting into the workforce. They only make up 5 percent of the workforce in the United States. Many are just leaving college, potentially taking a gap year, or not going to college.

Gen Zers are entering work with a different lens. Because they’re only 5 percent of our workforce, we are still learning how they’re truly going to make an impact on the workplace, but we can expect they will influence it as much as the Millennial generation has.

Gen Z has especially grown up in the era of social media. Frequently, their own sense of success is more driven by what they see online than what they learn inside of an organization. The result is that Gen Z is feeling more isolated than any previous generation. With a lack of face-to-face social interactions, the number of Americans overall reporting feeling alone and isolated in their lives has doubled to 40 percent of the U.S. population over the last three decades, and it’s especially high among Gen Zers.

As a leader, it’s critical to understand the differentiated needs of the four generations now comprising the workforce, and most specifically, the conditions that Millennials and Generation Zers value. One key point to reiterate is that the things that resonate with each generation are likely to be valued subconsciously by the others from a brain-based perspective. For example, while the need for validation may be higher for Millennials and Gen Zers, the positive neurochemical outcomes are the same for every brain regardless of age.

Key Takeaways:

  • In today’s environment of labor scarcity, it’s critically important for leaders to understand the workplace conditions that employees from each generation work best in and know how to meet those needs.
  • Because of the environment they grew up in, Millennials and Gen Zers value finding meaning and purpose in their work to make a positive impact much more than Baby Boomers and even Gen X.
  • Although Millennials and Gen Zers have a higher expectation to receive validation, recognition, and feedback than Baby Boomers and Generation Xers, when the older generations receive these from their leaders, they have the same release of “feel-good” neurochemicals in the brain as the younger generations do. That’s why it’s crucial to provide effective validation, recognition, and feedback to employees of every generation in your workplace.

Be sure to read Part 2 of this blog post, 3 Essential Guidelines for Engaging Millennials and Generation Z at Work, to learn some great strategies for creating the work environment where Millennials, Gen Z, and all generations can do their best work and thrive.