Connecting state and local government leaders
Managers can benefit by better engaging and communicating with the newest generation of workers in cities, counties and states.
Several weeks ago, Melissa Jones arrived in her statehouse office at about 8:00 a.m., and as she was settling in, she received a text from a recently hired 23-year-old assistant. It said she was not coming in until noon “because I worked a couple hours more than usual last night.”
Recalls Jones, who asked for her name to be changed so she wouldn’t be complaining publicly about an employee, “I thought, ‘But your work isn’t done.’ I’m working so hard, and I see her chatting with friends and then she takes off a half a day of work because she worked two hours extra the day before.”
While one might guess Jones to be typical of older generations, she is, in fact, only 35—right in the middle of the Millennial generation. Her assistant is a member of Generation Z, defined as people who were born between 1997 and 2012.
Jones’ story is not a surprise to Kristin Scroggin, an expert in generational differences who frequently gives speeches and training sessions to state and local agencies and public sector associations. The two youngest generations in the workforce often do not get along seamlessly, she’s found. “The Millennials are definitely frustrated with Gen Zs,” she says, adding that this is not an unusual phenomenon when one generation follows another into the workforce. “That’s part of aging. You get frustrated by youth.”
While supervisors and managers like Jones are extremely cautious about publicly airing their observations about their employees, Scroggin, who launched her company genWHYCommunications in 2017, has heard plenty of similarly candid comments—some positive and some negative—before, during and after her speeches as she traveled across 43 states in the last year.
There are some clear ways in which the newest workplace generation stands out. In general, Gen Zers are entering their first full-time jobs with dramatically less previous work experience than previous generations. “They didn’t start at age 12 as a paperboy, like I did,” says Robert Neiuber, a member of Generation X and senior human resources director for the City of Rancho Cucamonga, California. This sometimes means, he says, that they aren’t always aware of workplace etiquette, which increases the importance of communication and setting clear expectations.
While all generalizations are hazardous, members of Gen Z—who tend to come from more diverse backgrounds than previous generations—have lived their lives in a volatile environment in which the internet and social media have turned the world into a frantically fast-moving place.
While members of Gen Z share several traits with generations that preceded them, one of the most common differences is that the youngest employees have a strong need for clarity in what the job is and what’s expected of them. “They don’t need to know the base reasoning on every single thing the way Millennials did, but they want to be clear on the process, what you want them to do, and the steps that they need to follow,” Scroggin says.
The need for rules and clear instructions on how to carry out tasks can prove particularly frustrating for individuals from Gen X—those born between 1965 and 1980 and the first generation where both parents were far more frequently in the workforce. By reputation, these former latchkey kids tend to shy away from rules and don’t need a lot of feedback, so they may find it frustrating to supervise young people who “want very specific directions on every single thing.”
Scroggin hears bosses in multiple professions express frustration about young workers’ dissatisfaction with the money they’re earning and with the enjoyment they’re finding in the job. She observes that there’s an unrealistic idea among the newest employees “that every day is going to be happy and enjoyable, and your work is never going to be tedious.” This connects with what she hears in the focus groups she runs each quarter with about 20 participants, and from a 600-person survey that she puts out every year and a half. Common complaints often focus on feelings that the job is not what they expected, with frequently repeated phrases such as “I’m not appreciated,” “I’m not fulfilled,” and “I’m not challenged.”
Both Scroggin and Neiuber emphasize the importance of providing a full picture of what a job is going to be—a recommendation that was also strongly made in our recent Route Fifty article about onboarding. “We’re very clear that if you’re working in the animal center, you may be shoveling things that aren’t pleasant and that’s part of your job,” Neiuber says.
Yet another issue that some members of previous generations have with Gen Z employees is the sense that the newest workers are not putting in the hours they should. This may be particularly aggravating to Baby Boomers, who remember their early careers when they were often encouraged to stay in the office after their supervisors left—a visible signal that their continued presence showed a devotion to their work.
In today’s world, this annoyance may not be entirely justified. Young workers with a high level of comfort with technology have access to “significantly more shortcuts than any of the rest of us have had,” says Scroggin. “Their whole lives, the prevalent message has been to work smarter, not harder.”
Some cutting-edge organizations are taking advantage of this generational difference by actively turning to their youngest workers to teach older employees easier ways of getting work done. “Lean into our ability to use technology,” a young paralegal specialist with the Connecticut Division of Criminal Justice advised in a Gen Z video interview with Scroggin at the annual conference of the National Association of State Personnel Executives in July. “Use us to teach folks. If we are saying, ‘This system can work faster.’ Listen to us,” he said.
Neiuber has been listening. “I’m excited by this group coming into the workplace and what they bring. This is a thoughtful and innovative group with new ideas and new ways to do things.”
Scroggin fears that this is a difficult path, as some members of older generations may have their egos damaged when they’re told that people young enough to be their children can teach them how to do their jobs better. Though that may be an impediment to acceptance of new ideas, it can be ameliorated by conversations that bring the generations together to talk, better understand the worlds in which they each grew up and welcome what each brings to the changing workplace world.
Last April, officials from Rancho Cucamonga handled those conversations through a discussion session that focused on a specific issue—how different generations preferred to receive feedback.
In Jefferson County, Colorado, Chief Human Resources Officer Jennifer Fairweather says the topic of generational differences is frequently covered in supervisory training and classes focused on equity and inclusion. “There are different expectations as new individuals enter the workforce,” she says. “That’s been true for every generation. We do classes around inclusion and microaggressions—around respect in the workplace and around how to have good conversations.”
One key to these critical conversations is for generations to meet one another on a common ground. As Ryan Jenkins, author of the book, Connectable: How Leaders Can Move Teams From Isolated to All In, suggested, efforts to understand other generations’ communications preferences can pay off. “For example,” he wrote, “Baby Boomers who want to connect with Gen Z should not call and leave a voicemail. Instead, defer to texting or instant message. Conversely, Gen Zers who want to connect with Baby Boomers should not FaceTime or DM them on social media. Instead, defer to a phone call or face-to-face meeting.”