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The Stats Guy: Conflict between Boomer bosses and Gen Z workers is no surprise

This is where the real intergenerational conflict is and where the misunderstandings begin.

This is where the real intergenerational conflict is and where the misunderstandings begin. Photo: TND/Getty

Around the country the same intergenerational conflict is playing out daily, and it is driving the young and the old mad in equal measure.

Young people entering the workforce at the moment are driving their old bosses crazy.

When we analyse the very different circumstances under which Gen Z (born 2000-17) and the Baby Boomers (born 1946-63) were raised, and the broader economic environment at the start of their careers, we understand the source of this conflict.

Baby Boomers were a gigantic birth cohort.

After the terrible collective experience of living through the First World War, the Great Depression, and the Second World War, the nation was finally optimistic about the future again. As the young men returned home, there was pent-up demand for baby making.

The fertility rate surged from around two births per woman to around 3.5 births per woman. There were just heaps of kids around.

Baby Boomers didn’t always finish their full 12 years of schooling.

Many entered the workforce after relatively rudimentary schooling and only a small share went on to university. For a good chunk of them university was free, too.

When it was time to get a job, there were many Baby Boomers competing for relatively few jobs. The strong competition for employment helped to keep wages down. Securing employment was a big success. Once you scored a job you had to work hard to keep it.

To make up for relatively low wages, Baby Boomers became the first generation where women entered the workforce at scale. Australia went from one household income to 1.5 household incomes. This rapidly increased the spending capacity for young Baby Boomer households.

Instead of scraping by on a small wage, Baby Boomer households felt buoyant and started families in their early 20s. Housing was cheap and around three or four times your annual income bought you a home.

Let’s compare the upbringing of the Baby Boomers with young Gen Z. Born between 2000 and 2017, only the older quarter of the generation has entered the workforce.

Gen Z is a small birth cohort (around 1.8 children per woman), especially when compared to the big Baby Boomer generation. The reason Gen Z is so small is that they are the children of Gen X (born 1964-81).

Gen X is an infamously small generation because when they were meant to be born, the introduction of the contraceptive pill and no-fault divorce rapidly drove down the birthrate.

On top of this, the 1970s were a decade of low migration intake. Gen X therefore was always only going to produce another small generation. Gen X saw their parents work themselves to death and focussed on improving work-life balance.

Their Gen Z kids embraced that lesson and don’t see work as the most important aspect in their lives. Almost half of Gen Z will end up going to university – they truly are the most highly educated generation in history.

On top of this, Gen Z lived though the pandemic in their formative years. In generational research that roughly refers to the period from your early teens to your early 20s.

Whatever we experience in our formative years, the broader political and economic circumstances shape our worldview forever.

If you are older than say 30 today, you were annoyed by the pandemic, but you weren’t shaped by it to the same degree that Gen Z was.

They are also the first generation that grew up constantly glued to their smartphones. Jonathan Haidt masterfully explains how this turned a whole generation very anxious in his latest book (a must read if you are a parent or educator).

Communication moved away from face to face and moved online.

Communication moved to texting away from phone calls.

Now the first members of Gen Z enter the workforce in times of record low unemployment and during a prolonged skills shortage.

As Gen Z applies for their first “real” job they often find themselves sitting in a room with the Baby Boomer owners and leaders of organisations.

Conflict

This is where the real intergenerational conflict is and where the misunderstandings begin.

The job interview increasingly gets flipped. The young applicant interviews the employer about the values of the organisation, asks about holidays, flexible work arrangement, parental leave policies, environmental impacts, and bonuses. This drives the Baby Boomer bosses mad.

“These folks haven’t worked a day in their life and are making demands left, right, and centre!”

“Working from home?! I went to the office every day for the last 40 years and never complained once!”

“ESG? We run a business here, not a charity!”

“I can’t believe how entitled young workers are!”

Baby Boomers and Gen Z view the world from different perspectives. Work was much more central to the identity of Boomers. The “work hard, buy a house, raise a family” approach to life worked well for Boomers but is an empty promise for Gen Z.

Even if you work hard and get a juicy pay rise, home ownership still is out of reach. So why bother? Work as much as you need and seek meaning in life elsewhere. Gen Z is also only too aware of the leverage they have when hunting for a job.

There are few of them around and businesses are desperate for workers. Whether Baby Boomer bosses like it or not, the power has shifted in favour of young job applicants.

Giving up power is especially hard for Baby Boomers.

They are nearing retirement and spent the past four decades climbing the career ladder. They obviously compare young job seekers and their attitudes with their own past experience.

That comparison then results in unfavourable views of Gen Z.

Nobody is better off that way. The goal of organisations must be to explain to senior staff the differences in values and help them to navigate these predictable intergenerational conflicts.

Gen Z in turn must adopt some of the established workplace practices. Receiving a phone call that wasn’t previously scheduled isn’t an invasion of their privacy but part of having a job.

Organisations that proactively facilitate meaningful communication among different generations are better workplaces for everyone.

Demographer Simon Kuestenmacher is a co-founder of The Demographics Group. His columns, media commentary and public speaking focus on current socio-demographic trends and how these impact Australia. His latest book aims to awaken the love of maps and data in young readers. Follow Simon on Twitter (X), Facebook, LinkedIn for daily data insights in short format.

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