Updated: Apr 18
On your first day at a new job, do you: a) drink an Ensure and hang up photos of your grandchildren while sitting quietly at your desk awaiting instruction; b) arrive at work before the boss, in order to make a good impression, but have difficulty figuring out how to turn on your computer; c) wear a Sonic Youth T-shirt under your suit, kicking yourself for working for “the man”; d) send a picture of your new participation trophies to the group text; or e) FaceTime in from your couch while recording the meeting to upload to TikTok later? Answer honestly: Your response will help your workplace determine which generation you’re from, what sort of worker you might be and how to get you in the door at the company.
For the first time, five distinct generations of employees — traditionalists, baby boomers, Generation Xers, millennials and Generation Zers — coexist in the workplace, all gathering around the same water cooler or washing their dishes (or leaving them for someone else to wash) in the same communal office sink. In 2018, more than 4 percent of Americans age 85 or older were still working; the millennial generation makes up about half of the American work force. The culture clash rooted in the vast age differences among colleagues — who in some industries, like retail or service, can be competing for the same jobs — is amplified by young people arriving with a digital skill set that their managers often need but might not have. Across industries, hiring managers and recruiters have had to fine-tune their strategies to attract a new hiring pool: both because of the sheer number of potential workers and because no one else can figure out how to embed a GIF.
Enter the generational consultants, the astrologers of the workplace: making broad assessments of a person — and millions like them — based on when they were born and advising hiring managers and human resources accordingly. A primer: Growing up after — or through — the Great Depression and World War II made traditionalists comfortable with sacrifice, hard work, rules and authority; baby boomers were likely to privilege their careers above all else, competing for the big title and the corner office, leaving their personal lives at the door. Next came the 65 million people in Generation X, latchkey kids who came of age during the 24-hour news cycle and were disenchanted because of it. Boomers raised millennials, who were coddled by open communication, collaboration and casualness; they love team meetings, regular feedback and calling parents by their first names. Xers are raising tech-savvy Zers, who are pragmatic, driven and competitive digital natives — which is to say they’re on Snapchat, not Facebook.
Imagine putting all these people together on a project. The multigenerational workplace has turned this sort of consulting into a growing — and lucrative — industry. David and Jonah Stillman, a father/son, Gen X/Gen Z team, operate a consulting business, Gen Guru, that tries to explain the differences — and expectations — that the younger work force brings with them to the office. Jonah says he would never fill out an online application if he could help it: he’d prefer to submit a video, or ideally email the hiring manager, upload his résumé to the company’s Dropbox or Google Drive, then grab coffee with someone who might be on his team, or even the C.E.O., to ensure that he can connect with the people in charge.
Once he got an offer, orientation and skill building wouldn’t have to happen in person — he could watch a YouTube video, or better yet, he could just jump headfirst into the process and learn training on the job, being encouraged to work through the problem himself instead of being told a specific way to do it. On his first day, he’d like to be welcomed into his office as an individual, not just another employee, so perhaps there’d be a customized sign waiting for him on his desk — if he even has a desk, because, as a member of the “phigital” generation, he doesn’t discern between physical and digital spaces, and assumes he’ll have the ability to work remotely. He’d expect to have access to his higher-ups for the occasional brain pick, and perhaps even set up a two-way mentorship, because he has things he can teach, too.
Jonah’s not insane: He’s just 20, and while he has never applied for a job, this is how he would like it to go if he did. And if companies want to hire people like him — the 68 million Generation Zers who have or will one day enter the work force — they may have no other choice.
In 2016, The Times published a generational workplace story in which Joel Pavelski, a director of programming at a media company and a millennial, told his boss that he needed to take time off from work to attend a funeral. Pavelski was lying: He was feeling burned out and really just wanted some time off. He built a treehouse during that week, then wrote the article called “How to Lose Your Mind and Build a Treehouse,” which began, “I said that I was leaving town for a funeral, but I lied.” When it was published, he tweeted it out for all his co-workers to see. Pavelski got off with only a warning — his boss was also a millennial.
These sorts of age-based punch lines — having strong preferences for the kombucha flavors on tap, requesting a budget for desk plants, demanding organic snacks, bringing in their S.A.D. lamps — abound, constructed like the titles of “Friends” episodes (“The One Where the Intern Called the C.E.O. to Give Her Some Advice”) or popular memes (“that feel when you accidentally reveal the new prototype on your Snapchat”). But these young people — myself included, an oversharing 20-something who requires constant feedback and thinks her boss is such a Libra — are direct conduits to current trends and technologies, able to explain, say, how to download the Gmail app or what, exactly, a “hot girl summer” is. This “techno-viral” fluency goes beyond understanding pop culture, though: Brands use this to attract both a young work force and a young consumer base.
Lindsey Pollak, the author of “The Remix: How to Lead and Succeed in the Multigenerational Workplace,” thinks generational identity is not dissimilar to Myers-Briggs results or a personality assessment based on birth order: a way to understand how individuals see the world based on the events or circumstances that have shaped them. In the workplace, that can include things like how many years a baby boomer worked before email existed or how many years (or months) millennials expect to work before receiving a promotion. She likes to think about what an employee might expect to see on her desk her first day at work: a desktop computer? A laptop outfitted with Wi-Fi? A desk phone? Will they want to instant message their co-workers? Maybe they hope to use only their cell?
Pollak told me about a consulting project she had with a bank: Its young tellers were having difficulty with the general phone line, struggling with the variety of questions they could receive from callers. Some of them didn’t know they were allowed to put a customer on hold. Managers couldn’t figure out why — until Pollak pointed out that many Gen Zers didn’t grow up with landlines and had never answered a phone call not intended for them. They were experiencing a type of culture shock. “Everybody doesn’t have the same common knowledge,” she said. “It’s important to think about the experiences that people have or don’t have before you judge them to be incompetent or lazy.”
When the Virgin hotel chain began planning to open a new hotel in New York, Clio Knowles, the vice president of People (its rebranded human resources division), knew that she wanted to hire a number of Gen Zers — particularly college students — to be the backbone of the work force: The jobs, which included positions like working the front desk and bartending, were fun, public-facing and easily made part time. The Stillmans suggested Knowles’s team embrace personalization, a deeply valued trait among Gen Zers, in the company’s offer and onboarding process. David wanted Virgin to follow in the footsteps of Iowa State University, which informs applicants of their acceptance via a homey but hokey comedy video, in which the president of the college and CNN anchors announce the news with dropped-down banners and fake chyrons bearing the students’ names, celebrating their acceptance. Knowles loved this: “Everybody ultimately wants to feel recognized as an individual in today’s society,” she told David during a consulting call in January. “And I think Gen Z is driving that.” Inspired, she wanted to implement even more personalized touches: The company already had a V.R. training seminar, but wouldn’t it be neat if you put on the headset and the program addressed you by name?
David emphasized that he believes this generation has a different approach to the traditional professional ladder of high school, then college or trade school, then finding a job. Virgin had already been recruiting on college campuses, but David suggested the company start offering field trips and career days with high school students, in order to catch kids who weren’t considering college at all. His polling data showed young people would also find the company appealing if they could be open about their “side hustles,” or additional streams of income generated outside a 9-to-5 job. (Think driving for Uber, working for Postmates, walking dogs or selling clothes on eBay.) The Stillmans had just completed a national poll of 1,000 fully employed Gen Zers and found that more than 50 percent had side jobs. Knowles’s team already embraced employees’ hobbies — hiring their bands to perform at the hotel, or having a concierge with art skills design a piece of merchandise, but David suggested that they create a program that allowed employees to teach their peers skills that they’d picked up in their side hustles.
Jonah and David also reviewed Virgin’s internal corporate newsfeed, where employees receive updates about events and happenings in each hotel. Knowles asked Jonah for feedback; she was eager for a Gen Z perspective. (Jonah’s advice doesn’t come cheap: A website review can cost between $2,500 and $5,000.) He was impressed by what he saw and suggested only minor adjustments. He wanted the site to “pop” more, calling for increased color contrast and animation. Instead of a stagnant calendar running along the sidebar, the company could integrate push alerts to notify people of coming events. Years earlier, Virgin had contracted with David to advise them about the platform, when the company found that millennials weren’t engaging with the service as much as they had hoped. David understood the problem immediately: The results of a recent survey he had created showed that millennials prefer to communicate in symbols rather than words, to give a thumbs-up rather than say “I like this.” He told Knowles exactly what the service was missing: emojis. The company has used them ever since.
Companies use these insights to seem less square, taking cues to foster culturally diverse and collaborative environments (millennials expect a diverse workplace), promoting unlimited vacation policies and flexible work schedules (Gen Zers love a work-life balance) and keeping their social media channels up-to-date (both generations love Instagram). Aram Lulla, a manager at the recruiting firm Lucas Group, has found that if millennials are proud of their workplace, they’ll start to organically promote it in their networks, so he encourages clients to use their social media channels to demonstrate what it’s like to work at the organization itself, through videos and photos. Ally Van Deuren, a consultant who focuses on college recruitment, finds that companies do well on campuses when representatives discuss their philanthropic efforts — millennials and Gen Zers are attracted to companies with corporate social responsibility. Last year, she noticed that plastic straws were in the news and that young people were embracing alternative options, so Van Deuren advised one of her clients to give out metal straws during a campus recruiting trip: “A small way of saying, ‘We are aware, we are ahead of this and we trust that our employees are also very ecologically savvy and friendly.’ ”
In order to apply for a position at Virgin Hotels, people can first take the Virgin Hotels Compatibility Test, a multiple-choice questionnaire to establish whether the applicant is the right fit. It’s rife with cheeky references to the double entendre of the hotel chain’s tagline — “We make love and steal hearts.” The application reads: “Does stealing hearts come naturally to you? Maybe we were meant to be together. If you’re interested in making a career out of making love, we can’t wait to get to know you.” If an applicant selects the wrong answers, they get let down easy: “At this time, we don’t think we’re a great match, but we invite you to try again in the future!”
Knowles — a Gen Xer, but whom David describes as “generationally fluid” — is steadfast in the company’s need to find new ways to attract talent. “You can’t just keep doing the same things that worked for one generation,” she said. Millennials are collaborative, so they have open corporate work spaces to accommodate that. Gen Zers like to try out various jobs within the same company, so they created a program in which that’s possible. People hate filling out forms, so they blew up the application and created the quiz to make it less stuffy. Rather than starting with the traditional suit-and-a-handshake interview process, Knowles and her team enacted “speed-date interviewing,” in which applicants meet with three different interviewers for three minutes each, as a way to discern who moves on to the next round. “We really tried to build our programs and our approach to meet those millennial expectations or desires,” she said. And they’ll do the same with Gen Zers.
This sort of generational programming, though, seems more targeted to what the young work force supposedly wants, but not necessarily what it needs — fixes to some of the deeper, structural issues that millennials and Generation Zers encounter when they join the economy. While the nationwide effective average minimum wage is $11.80, the average American millennial has a net worth of less than $8,000, and 17 percent of Gen Zers live below the poverty line. In 2018, people between the ages of 19 and 29 had more than $1 trillion in debt, most of it from student loans. The influence that the young work force has on recruiting and retention efforts will only increase over time, but the feel-good benefits that have arisen in response — corporate philanthropy, personalized welcome kits, managerial feedback — still ignore the brutal realities of capitalism. What emoji can you use to signify housing instability?
I asked Jonah how more conventional industries could integrate his consulting — how would he advise, say, a paper company? He emphasized philanthropy: “You can still have an exciting and engaging giveback plan, whether that be the foundations you support or opportunities to volunteer,” he said. “I think that aspect of it shouldn’t be impacted by the industry or the company you work for, because you should still be able to support or provide the ability to give back.” If you wanted to attract young people to a paper company, he suggested, why not get the staff together to fight deforestation? Why not, indeed? The success of this sort of consulting suggests that companies don’t necessarily have to do good to be attractive to the young work force: They just have to look as if they do. Until, that is, these generations start to see the forest and not just the trees.