Global generational differences

Assessing Global Generational Differences: Is X, Y, Z as easy as 1-2-3?

There are countless articles on the differences in priorities and attitudes across generations, especially in the workforce. Gen Y (or Millennials, as they are often called in the U.S.) is predicted to be 75% of the global workforce by 2025. Whether one finds the conclusions varying, contradictory or cliché is a matter of debate. But what is overwhelmingly true is that these articles are based primarily, if not exclusively, on the US population. But are global generational differences the same as in the United States, which naturally has its own specific cultural and political references?

As the world has become more connected, many major organisations operate daily in a global market that requires an equally global workforce. For those companies, hiring and recruiting practices have to reflect what matters to Gen X candidates, who are likely to be in senior roles, versus recent grad positions that are now being overtaken by Gen Z.

Plus, of course, the huge Gen Y group that fills everything in between. To be fair, traditionally companies have appreciated somewhat the difference by geography. That’s partly because local employment laws and standards must be observed in order to be competitive in those markets.

While the literature is more limited regarding global generational differences, there are plenty of indications that those distinctions exist. Which then is more influential – geography or generation? How do you plan recruitment, professional development and retention? Do you assume French Gen Y workers are more like their American peers? Are Norwegians more like other Norwegians, regardless of age?

The answer is both. And neither. (Sorry.) It depends on which aspects of working life are being considered to really analyse the commonalities and distinctions.

Technology, generationally

There were two things that all generations, across all countries, agreed on. First, that technology is important in the workplace. Second, their organisations’ digital capabilities were inadequate. 70% agreed that workplace technology was important. Yet only 40% thought their current situation was sufficient.

This could be because Baby Boomers have dominated decision maker roles. They are the last group of current workers that spent the majority of their careers before the true proliferation of digital operation. Thus they may be less fluent in the most current or robust technology, as well as the least sensitive to inefficiencies that derive from it.

Generation X entered the workplace at the turn of the century. Email, the “World Wide Web” and even mobile technology was still in early stages. However, both the technology and that cohort advanced in the workplace mostly in step.

The comfort level with current technology, however, is where the global generational differences track more closely to age. Gen Z are likely to feel fully fluent. Gen X is more likely to say that technology can be a hurdle, especially Europeans. But in Mexico, Gen X employees were nearly as comfortable as their younger compatriots.

Training camps

Despite their professed lower level of comfort, Gen X was much more likely to choose online training. However, that generation is also characterised as being much more independent and self-taught. That’s thought to be in part due to the increase in the divorce rate on the one hand, and dual-income homes on the other. Either way, Gen X as children often came home to an empty house where they relied on themselves to figure out homework and basic life skills.

Gen Z, by comparison, was least likely to choose online training despite their professed comfort level. But, Gen Z is emerging as more offline generally than their Gen Y elders. That’s particularly true with regard to social media and other personal interactions. So, a similar outlook at work would align with that.

Corporate confidence

For better or worse, the ego is ageless — it turns out that everyone still wants to be liked. All generations expressed that they wanted to feel like they fit in at work. But confidence seems to rise with youth (Surprise.). 50% of Gen X felt their personality was in line with company culture. Millennials and Gen Z were much more confident across almost all geographies. 64% of French Gen Z respondents thought they were a match for their workplace. And Japanese Millennials were unmatched at 66% of respondents felt like they tit in at work.

Where geographical trumps global generational differences

For the most part, Europe, Japan and North America seemed more aligned by generation. The regions that were clear outliers from the global generational differences discussed here are likely due to much more impactful local factors.

For example, Millennials in Mainland China are all only children due to that country’s one child rule. Some argue they tend to be less like Gen Y in other countries – more ambitious, and less concerned about life-work balance. They prioritise performance over cultural fit. They also put greater importance on their parents’ approval – and also are more likely to be supporting them in old age.

In South Africa, Gen Y workers reflected a more difficult and more basic obstacle, putting race-based equality first. Understandably, access to the workplace far outweighed any concerns once there.

Those outliers suggest it may be best to analyse global generational differences across countries that are relatively similar in terms of cultural and political norms. In those cases, age might be a (slightly) better guide to employee priorities. The exception would be US-specific concerns around things like health insurance, total days of holiday, and parental leave. Government-provided health care and EU regulations provide a floor that is substantially higher than in the U.S., where all employee benefits are left to the employer.


Robert Kovach is the Director of Leader Success for Cisco’s Leadership and Team Intelligence Practice Area. He has been an advisor to leadership teams of Fortune 500, FTSE 100 and FTSE Global 500 companies on driving business strategy through executive leadership effectiveness and organizational agility. The opinions expressed in this blog are his own and not those of Cisco. Contact him for speaking enquiries.

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