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Economy, Virginia

Two generations, one workplace: Leadership expert explains Gen Y, Gen Z

Rebecca Barnabi
(© Zoran Zeremski – stock.adobe.com)

Every generation has its complaints about the next generation and today’s workplace contains two generations sometimes at odds.

“There are the same complaints in every generation,” said Katie Holland Wiesel, a 1995 UVA graduate, who has worked in leadership development for 25 years, mostly at schools, including UVA’s Darden School of Business.

Two years ago, she began her own business executive coaching and leading development.

Members of Gen Y, also known as Millennials, were born between 1981 and 1996. They were young when 9/11 happened, as well as the 2003 War with Iraq and the Great Recession.

Gen Z members were born between 1997 and 2012, and their youth included the rise of social media, artificial intelligence (AI), COVID-19 and the murder of George Floyd.

“They are the ones who are complete digital natives,” Wiesel said. Gen Z members have never not had a cell phone or iPad in their hands.

Wiesel designed the UVA Northern Virginia program based in Fairfax called ELEVATE, a women’s professional development program specifically for young Gen Y and Gen Z women. As faculty lead, Wiesel facilitates key learning and teaches strengths and values in the workplace. She also enables individuals to design personal brands.

“I am the one who gets to know them well enough to assign them an executive coach,” she said of the program, which she designed to encourage women to reduce career regrets. She said women in their 40s and 50s were frequently telling her they wish they had advocated more for themselves at work, they wish they had negotiated their salaries, they wish they spent more time on their career, instead of a job. Many also expressed to Wiesel that they felt held back at jobs.

According to Wiesel, push back in today’s workplace is necessary and many Gen Z are trying to make workplaces better by being more inclusive of minorities and LGBTQ+.

However, Gen Y and Gen Z stereotypes exist while Millennials make up the largest portion of today’s workforce in America.

“They are the ones who are thriving working from home,” Wiesel said.

For that, their focus on work/life balance and self purpose, Wiesel said that Gen Y members have been perceived by Gen Z and other generations as lazy and disengaged with work.

“It’s not so bad to take care of yourself,” she said.

And Millennials have complaints about Gen Z, who talk openly about their mental health and are super passionate about inclusion and social justice.

The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the differences between the two generations when the focus became written communication, not so much face-to-face interaction. Gen Z are great at written, but not so much in-person communication.

“Their older counterparts just don’t understand them,” Wiesel said.

A divide does not exist between Gen Y and Gen Z in the workplace, but a sliding scale does exist. The generations have similarities but also big differences.

Their communication styles are the biggest difference. Wiesel said that she teaches them both to assume positive intent, which means to assume the other is working as hard as they can and that if they criticize it’s because they want you to improve. She also teaches them both to be curious, not judgmental, and ask questions about where the person is coming from in any given situation.

She encourages members of both generations to “learn how to work together, rather than see each other as adversaries.”

Rebecca Barnabi

Rebecca Barnabi

Rebecca J. Barnabi is the national editor of Augusta Free Press. A graduate of the University of Mary Washington, she began her journalism career at The Fredericksburg Free-Lance Star. In 2013, she was awarded first place for feature writing in the Maryland, Delaware, District of Columbia Awards Program, and was honored by the Virginia School Boards Association’s 2019 Media Honor Roll Program for her coverage of Waynesboro Schools. Her background in newspapers includes writing about features, local government, education and the arts.