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Generational paradox: what influence do “Gen X” have on “Gen Z”?

It becomes obvious that Generation X and Generation Z have grown up in completely different realities, resulting in fundamental differences in their values, beliefs, and ways of perceiving the world. For Generation X, whose coming of age coincided with the turbulent political, social, and technological times of the 1980s and 1990s, life was full of uncertainty and attempts to find stability in a rapidly changing world. Generation Z begins their life journey in an era where digital technology and globalization are common elements of everyday life, opening up unlimited possibilities and potential.

Zers are considered a transitional generation. Born after 1995, raised in the era of apps for everything, they don’t know how the world functions without the internet. Innovative in the workplace, they break away from the work norms of their parents and generate a generation of independent, courageous individuals, where a profession is merely a means to an end, not an end in itself. Above all, they respect their mental health, relationships, hobbies, and also do not suppress curiosity about the world, where trips abroad become a norm at a very young age. Work provides them with the means of living and realizing dreams, but an increasingly smaller percentage chooses to pursue a profession conflicting with their values or interests. When they don’t see a prosperous path of development or at least the prospect of getting a lucrative position, their willingness to work decreases, and the need to find another occupation or source of development increases. For employers, they pose a challenge; on one hand, they are a creative acquisition who, with the help of technological innovations, can perform tasks several times faster than an “older” employee, but on the other hand, they are considered disloyal, not hesitating to resign shortly after employment. Raised in the era of social media, with immediate and direct contact with literally everyone, they have no sense of geographic, linguistic or social barriers. In many situations, skills such as quick action, such as networking or gathering information, are incredibly valuable and desired in the job market. On the other hand, employers accuse them of lacking patience for assigned tasks, excessive frustration and resignation when things don’t go well, and difficulties in completing assigned tasks. By 2025, Generation Z will constitute as much as 27% of the workforce in the job market. Professor Ewa Flaszyńska, Director of the Labor Market Department at the Ministry of Family, Labor, and Social Policy, when asked about the presence of young people in the labor market, as well as the diverse approaches of generations to the profession they perform, responds:

Contemporary organizations operate in a constantly and dynamically changing external environment driven by technological advancements, generational evolution, and the labor market’s response to these stimuli. One of the key challenges for managers leading their teams, as well as HR departments, is leveraging the advantage of generational diversity. While generations may differ from one another, why should this be a disintegrating factor for employee teams? A significant age, personality, interest, and viewpoint diversity presents an opportunity for intergenerational dialogue and exchange of experiences, as well as similar benefits for the organization. Each individual brings a unique set of knowledge, skills, and talents to the organization, and differences further deepen generational diversity. As indicated in the report ‘Generations in the Polish Labor Market’ by Grafton Recruitment Poland, age-heterogeneous teams are key to the efficient functioning of a company. ‘It is worthwhile to look at generations not through the prism of often harmful stereotypes, but of the potential arising from both their similarities and differences,’ notes Danuta Protasewicz, Regional Manager at Grafton Recruitment. Although Generation Z and Generation X often represent opposing poles of views on life or work, their strengths balance each other out. Both sides must make an effort to meet on common ground. If not excessively disrupted by regulatory mechanisms, the labor market will flexibly and quickly respond to generational change. This is already happening; one just needs to look at the benefits offered by employers, which increasingly correspond to the requirements of both Generation Z and X, who, in the past, didn’t have much influence over their working conditions in the job market.

As evidenced by a study conducted by the Barna Group, compared to the generation of their parents (Generation X), for the vast majority of young people, personal and professional development is more important (43%) than starting a family and raising children (34%). Only 20% of respondents plan to get married before the age of 30, while at the same time, 66% prefer to pursue education and develop their careers. Generation Z is the most educated generation in history, yet many of them fear they will not surpass their parents’ economic status. The mentioned ancestors belong to Generation X, the generation born between 1965 and 1980. Currently, they constitute 31% of the world’s population. In terms of digital and media literacy skills, they are not far behind the younger generation. An analysis conducted by the media agency Wavemaker proves that although no more than 5% of advertising campaigns on TikTok are targeted towards “Xers”, they are the fastest-growing audience group on this platform. Growing up during the political transformations in Poland, taught the value of hard work, they are characterized by a steadfast approach to their profession, typically striving for many years to achieve a specific position, which becomes their hallmark. Unlike their children’s generation, they are seen as individuals attached to one workplace and residence, where any process of change poses a much greater challenge. As Professor Flaszyńska points out, the aforementioned data are not stereotypical, as they align with the results of a survey conducted by Grafton Recruitment Poland, which surveyed 1011 respondents from a representative sample of working Polish citizens aged 22 to 65. 

However, it is not advisable to attach too much importance to this data, to avoid stating that this is the reality and we cannot change it. The success of Generation X was built on difficult and turbulent times, first the crisis of the 1970s and 1980s, then in the 1990s, a difficult job market and a turbulent period of change. In such conditions, characteristics such as resilience, perseverance in overcoming difficulties, as well as self-belief and business optimism were forged. They are often workaholics, focused on success, unfamiliar with the concept of ‘work-life balance’. 

Data suggests that Generation X is indeed the wealthiest generation in history. Professor Flaszyńska adds that although the bar is set high, Generation Z is capable of surpassing this threshold.

However, they can achieve the same goal through simpler means by utilizing their greater skills in work optimization. They can work faster, more efficiently, and more productively because they know more ways to streamline and automate tasks, and even use artificial intelligence. Thus, each generation has its strengths upon which it can build an advantage. However, this should not be a competition or a generational race. Modern organizations should develop models of synergy between these generations. Their integration, rather than fostering a competitive atmosphere, should be the key to developing the labor market.

Professor Chantal Delsol, as cited by Professor Piotr Czauderna in the article titled “The Generation of Nihilists?” asserts:

In contemporary culture, there is a very strong nihilistic trend that questions the existence of absolute values and objective truths, ultimately leading to the questioning of human dignity, which takes on a purely contingent character. A utilitarian view of human worth begins to dominate, leading to phenomena such as the promotion of abortion or euthanasia. As a result, the principles that constitute community and allow for its survival begin to fade, and societies undergo atomization.

The current generation of forty and fifty-year-olds was largely brought up with values rooted in Christianity, based on pillars such as family, home, work, church, and community of loved ones. However, the emerging Generation Z strongly advocates for overturning this hierarchy upside down. As mentioned above, there is a significant minority interested in starting a family, and there is also a noticeable trend of moving away from the cult of work as a marker of value and prestige. The church, once seen as a place of solace and stability, has begun to be associated with boredom and politics. They rebel against the framework of stationary work imposed by their elders, the boss-subordinate hierarchy, and certain relationships that are expected to be formed at a certain age. Instead, they strive to explore the world, travel, and pursue work that brings pleasure while not encroaching on their private time and social life. They also fight for ecological changes and equal rights for all. They are identified as a conscious generation—conscious of themselves, their environment, and their work. This represents significant progress in societal development compared to, for example, Generation X, which took years to learn to delineate boundaries between personal and professional life.

In principle, Generation Z should be a society with infinite horizons and possibilities, without the slightest cause for concern. However, in practice, we see alarming data from the WHO, which reports that depression affects 280 million people worldwide, and in Poland alone, sales of antidepressant drugs have increased by 59% over the past 10 years. Even more disturbing information comes from the Polish Police Headquarters, where in the span of 10 months in 2022, 1715 cases of suicide attempts among children and teenagers were recorded. There is also a sharp increase in demand for psychologists and therapists. So where does this need come from? Why do young people currently have so many problems? Why wasn’t this such a popular topic during the upbringing of Generation X, or perhaps it was a taboo subject? Professor Flaszyńska explains that although she is not a psychologist, she works in a ministry with “family” in its name, and the best psychologist is indeed the family.

Family supports us when we face difficulties in everyday life, and we turn to a psychologist or psychiatrist when family support is lacking or insufficient. These are simple and traditional values with which Generation X shaped their lives. As we know, representatives of Generation Z are often not interested in starting families; they have a different hierarchy of values. The coming-of-age period for Generation X, transitioning into adult life, was not an easy journey. Many representatives of this generation remember the times of the People’s Republic of Poland, and later, the job market summed up by the quote ‘if you don’t like it, there are ten others waiting to take your place.’ Zers don’t know this, and ‘Difficult times create strong people, strong people create good times, good times create weak people, and weak people create difficult times’—this quote from the novel ‘The End’ by G. Michael Hopf. Whether accurate or not, I leave it to you to decide, but it certainly forces reflection on the mental state of Generation Z. Of course, today’s Zers have different problems, but their significance is entirely different.

Aristotle wrote in the “Rhetoric” that “the young think they know everything, and are always sure about it”. Is self-confidence a flaw or an asset at work, especially as a young person?

Self-confidence is an asset in any job and generally in every aspect of life. Self-confidence is the foundation upon which we can build relationships with other people; it’s not possible if we don’t have it. But excessive self-confidence can lead us down a blind alley. We all know this when quietly we realize that our parents were right when they informed us about the consequences of certain actions or ways of thinking. Balanced self-confidence gives us the opportunity to learn from the mistakes of more experienced people. If self-confidence is excessive, we choose the path of mistakes, for which we pay the price. This doesn’t mean that only the young need to learn humility and listen to their elders. It goes both ways; more experienced ‘Xers’ can learn from the fresh and new approach of ‘Zers’. That’s why the exchange of views, experiences, knowledge, and interests between generations is so important, not only between X and Z, but among all.

– Professor Ewa Flaszyńska summarizes.

[1] Gen Z: Your Questions Answered; accessed [5.03.2024] https://www.barna.com/research/gen-z-questions-answered/

[2] Generation Z – what is it? Characteristics of Gen Z in the job market; accessed [5.02.2024] https://www.livecareer.pl/porady-zawodowe/pokolenie-z/ 

[3] Forgotten Generation X. The richest generation in history has disappeared from radars; accessed [5.03.2024] https://sukces.rp.pl/spoleczenstwo/art39167911-zapomniana-generacja-x-najbogatsze-pokolenie-w-historii-zniknelo-z-radarow 

[4] The Generation of Nihilists?; accessed [5.03.2024] https://wszystkoconajwazniejsze.pl/prof-piotr-czauderna-pokolenie-nihilistow/ 

[5] WHO: By 2030, depression will be the most common disease in the world; accessed [5.03.2024] https://www.termedia.pl/neurologia/WHO-Do-2030-r-depresja-bedzie-najczesciej-wystepujaca-choroba-na-swiecie,50568.html 

How Millennials & Gen Z Are Stepping into Generosity; accessed [5.03.2024] https://www.barna.com/research/young-adults-giving/ 

Wavemaker unveils first-of-its-kind global research into Gen X on social; accessed [5.03.2024] https://wavemakerglobal.com/genx-report 

Cover photography: Unsplash

Marta Sikora
Written by:

Marta Sikora

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