This blog is part of our Expert Commentary series, bringing you insights into some of the unspoken challenges people face in the workplace, from experts with lived experience. The series explores a range of topics and perspectives to highlight the ways inclusive and compassionate leadership practices can benefit everyone.
What (or who) do you think of when you read the following descriptors?
Fickle. Inexperienced. Entitled. Oversensitive.
You’re not alone if your mind went to the ‘yoof’. These are the divisive stereotypes tossed around about young people, especially in workplaces.
I aim to bust these myths about younger workers. I want to show how Gen X and Baby Boomer colleagues and leaders can learn different ways of working from them.
And how a simple reframe can flip those descriptors so we can see them as eminently desirable qualities.
I am privileged to nurture young leaders through my involvement with Camp Cooinda, where I’ve volunteered since the late 1980s. In recent years I’ve helped with recruitment, training, program management, and mentoring. Most of our volunteer leaders are between 19 and 30, so I’ve learned a bit about Gen Z and Y over the last few decades.
If you’re unsure what the difference is:
- Generation Z was born between 1995 and 2009. In 2023, the youngest is 14 years old; the oldest is 28
- Generation Y, also known as Millennials, were born between 1982 and 1994. They range in age from 29 to 41 years.
They are at different life stages. And I find them fabulous.
Where some people see fickle, I see flexibility.
A Deloitte survey in 2020 found that 47% of Gen Z workers planned to leave their current job within two years. A LinkedIn study found that Millennials switch jobs every 2 to 3 years. It’s really not that much less than the median job tenure of 5.2 years for all Australian employees – and these are workers at the starting point of their careers.
But it’s not all individual choice.
Think about the volatile environment these younger workers have entered. Companies scale up and scale down. Ongoing fixed employment is less and less likely to be offered in any industry. The gig economy demands flexibility by its very nature.
So what do younger workers do? They seek opportunities, not certainty. They build flexibility into their planning. I know a couple of fantastic Cooinda leaders who negotiate their short-term work contracts to be able to volunteer at camp.
Inexperienced can also mean green – think growing and flourishing.
Another thing I love about our leaders at Cooinda is how keen they are to learn. New ways of doing things, new ideas, and new skills. There’s no fixed mindset with our volunteers; it’s all growth and adaptability.
They want to learn about communicating, interpersonal skills, and being a good human. They want to see and understand the positive impact they have.
They are willing to say “I’m not sure”, then go and find out what they need to know.
Are they entitled or assertive?
Entitlements are fundamental in workplace law. When we’re offered a new job, we look to see what the pay and entitlements are before accepting it. Yet a ‘sense of entitlement’ is used as a sledge against younger workers.
There’s conflicting evidence about whether these generations actually do have a sense of entitlement, but even if they do, let’s think about how it plays out.
What I see is assertiveness.
Younger workers look at things with fresh eyes. They’re unwilling to accept bad behaviour or poor leadership – they’ll challenge it or leave.
It’s not cocky to ask ‘why’ rather than accept the status quo; it’s confident. Maybe they’ll ask for special privileges or a pay rise, but they are prepared to hear no if you tell them why.
Recognition of reality, not oversensitive.
We’ve known for years that mental ill health is prevalent and growing.
The 2021 National Study of Mental Health and Wellbeing found that an estimated 1 in 5 Australians aged 16–85 experienced a mental disorder in the previous 12 months.
But we’ve rarely talked about it. And we especially haven’t talked about it at work for fear it would count against us. This is not an unreasonable fear. I interviewed workers with disabilities in 2021, and found that those with ‘hidden’ disabilities such as depression or anxiety experienced more discrimination when they disclosed at work than those with obvious physical disabilities.
Our leaders at Cooinda talk about mental health, neurodiversity, gender identity, and the world at large so caringly. They introduce themselves with their pronouns. They check in with each other. It gives me hope for more inclusive, flexible, and human workplaces.
In his book The ABC of XYZ, demographer Mark McCrindle writes his research has found that 35 per cent of workers are age agnostic – age doesn’t matter to them. A further 33 per cent think that working with colleagues of a mix of ages is better.
So let’s stop with the stereotypes that oversimplify.
Let’s leave the labels behind.
So we can all enjoy the range of ideas and experiences that diversity in age (and gender and cultural background) brings to the workplace. Perhaps my next piece should be in praise of older workers!
About Louisa Coppel
Louisa Coppel is passionate about working on the things that make a difference – in people, in organisations and the wider community. She’s the strategist of choice for many public sector and not-for-profit organisations which value her ability to cut through internal clutter, challenge cloudy thinking, and draw clarity out of confusion. Her work includes strategic and business planning that delivers results, organisational and program reviews,