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Bridging the generational divide to create sustainable L&D roles

We'll look at generational differences in a changing workforce, before analysing Gen Z’s learning and managerial needs. Finally, we’ll bring it all together by asking: what is L&D’s role in bridging the generational divide? 
Dom Murray, Content Writer
2021-02-24

Generational stereotypes are everywhere. Millennials are glued to their phones and have a love affair with avocado toast. Gen Z can’t get enough of Tik Tok. You’ve probably heard them all a million times. We all fall into this trap occasionally; maybe you’re guilty of saying ‘Ok, Boomer’ once too often. 

While these stereotypes are often harmless fun, to ensure L&D remains forward-thinking and sustainable, we must look past broad stereotypes and find the substance lying underneath. 

Currently, L&D faces a unique challenge. Four distinct generations share the modern workforce, each with different approaches to work. While most sectors are grappling with this challenge in some way, L&D faces an especially tricky proposition: simultaneously appealing to distinct — sometimes opposed — generational learning styles.

So, how do we bridge the generational learning divide and create sustainable L&D roles? 

Go1 is here to help. We’ll set the scene by looking at generational differences in a changing workforce, before analysing Gen Z’s learning and managerial needs. Finally, we’ll bring it all together by asking: what is L&D’s role in bridging the generational divide? 

From A to Gen Z, we’ve got you covered. 

Generational differences in a changing workforce

The modern workforce is changing. Fast. If you’re stuck in the mindset that Millennials are the future, then it’s time to adapt because that future has arrived. According to Pew Research, as of 2017, Millennials accounted for 35% of the workforce, making them the majority. Millennials are followed by Gen X (33%), Baby Boomers (25%), Gen Z (5%), and the Silent Generation (2%). 

These figures represent a huge change from 25 years ago when the workforce was far more homogeneous. In those days, Baby Boomers comprised 50% of the workforce, followed by Gen X (29%) and the Silent Generation (21%). 

With generational diversity on the rise, it’s worth asking: what will the future workforce look like? 

What will the future workforce look like? 

According to Fast Company, Gen Z made up 40% of all consumers in 2020, with a combined purchasing power of $44 billion. This purchasing power translates into the workforce, with Inc estimating that Gen Z will make up 24% of the global workforce by 2021. 

Looking further ahead, Future of Work Speaker Anita Lettink estimates that by 2030 Millennials and Gen Z will make up 75% of the workforce. Some estimates put this number even higher, claiming that Millennials alone will make up 75% of the workforce by 2025. Either way, younger generations are on the rise. 

However, don’t expect Millennials and Gen Z to take over completely. Research by Pew shows that older workers are remaining in the workforce longer than previous generations. According to Pew, “in 2018, 29% of Boomers ages 65 to 72 were working or looking for work, outpacing the labour market engagement of the Silent Generation (21%) and the Greatest Generation (19%) when they were the same age.”  

These figures predict a generationally diverse future workforce, for which L&D must prepare.

Learning needs for Gen Z and beyond 

While a healthy mix of youth and experience can be your team’s greatest strength, generational diversity also presents challenges for L&D, as different generations have different ways of working and learning. Life experiences, societal factors, and the rise of technology make this inevitable. 

For example, it is unlikely that you would manage a team of Baby Boomers in the same way you would manage a team of Gen Zers. Similarly, learning content will look different depending on which generation you are targeting.  

To engage Gen Z and ensure L&D’s continued sustainability, we must be wary of outdated mindsets and thinking habits. It is no longer 1994, where Baby Boomers comprised half of the workforce. L&D strategies that worked then may not suit the next generation. With Millennials and Gen Z rising rapidly, L&D must adapt to deliver learning content, ways of working, and managerial styles that appeal to younger generations. 

With that in mind, it’s worth asking two big questions to safeguard L&D’s future: how do younger generations learn, and how should you manage younger generations? 

Gen Z: are you paying attention? 

There has long been a stereotype that Millennials and Gen Z have short attention spans. At best, this is a half-truth. 

While studies show that Gen Z has an average attention span of 8 seconds, compared to an average attention span of 12 seconds for Millennials, the truth is far more impressive: Gen Z has developed a sophisticated ‘content filter’.  

Because they have grown up with access to so many digital platforms and so much information, Gen Z has evolved the ability to quickly assess large quantities of information. As such, they are better able to judge what is worthy of their attention and what isn’t. 

Once something does grab their attention, Gen Z’s attention span is comparable to previous generations. Essentially, younger learners are more selective, meaning you have to work harder to earn their attention. In an L&D context, this means you may have to go the extra mile to create engaging content that immediately appeals to Gen Z. 

The exciting news for L&D is that Gen Z is very open to workplace learning. In fact, they expect it. According to Purdue Global, 84% of Gen Z expect their employer to provide formal training. 

‘Snack’ learning

Gen Z’s selectiveness is key to understanding their learning habits. Shift Learning highlights Gen Z’s love of “snack media”, finding that they can multitask between five screens at once. For L&D, this may mean short-form content and microlearning are necessary to engage Gen Z learners. 

McKinsey also highlights Gen Z’s selective approach to learning, saying, “Gen Zers...are more pragmatic and analytical about their decisions than members of previous generations were...this generation of self-learners is also more comfortable absorbing knowledge online than in traditional institutions of learning.” 

According to McKinsey’s survey, 65% of Gen Z value knowing what is going on around them and being in control. Given this, Shift Learning identifies autonomy, collaboration and human connection, visually stimulating multimedia, and flexibility as critical to engaging Gen Z learners. 

Technology is essential

Unsurprisingly, Gen Z also has a very positive view of learning technologies. According to Pearson, 59% of Gen Z and 66% of Millennials believe technology can change the way we learn in the future, with a further 54% of Gen Z saying it can enhance the learning experience. Moreover, 59% of Gen Z say YouTube is their preferred learning method (47% spend more than 3 hours per day on YouTube). For Millennials, books still come out on top — just. 

Notably, 47% of Gen Z and 41% of Millennials enjoy using interactive apps or games to learn. Plus, 44% of Millennials and 31% of Gen Z like online courses with a video component, with Gen Z watching an average of 68 videos per day across all social platforms. 

The lesson for L&D professionals is clear: video and interactive learning are indispensable to engage younger generations. 

Stronger together

These findings don’t mean that Gen Z is entirely isolated or self-directed in their approach to learning. On the contrary, many still crave real-life connections, with 37% of Gen Z worrying that technology weakens their ability to maintain strong interpersonal relationships. 

Given this, only 22% of Gen Z say they prefer self-directed learning, with 78% identifying teachers as very or extremely important in the learning process. 57% of Gen Z and 41% of Millennials also prefer in-person activities with classmates. 

Gen Z’s preference for collaboration makes sense, given a study by Barnes & Noble College found that 51% of Gen Z prefer to learn by doing, with 37% preferring to learn by reading, and only 12% preferring to learn by listening. 

Time supports these findings, with a recent survey showing that 60% of Gen Z enjoy sharing their knowledge with others online, indicating a desire for collaboration. Additionally, 64% contribute to websites because they enjoy learning new things, while 76% feel that their online experiences will help them reach their goals.

Key takeaways for engaging Gen Z in L&D

  • Gen Z expects formal workplace learning — don’t be afraid to provide it 
  • Embrace technology (video is essential!)
  • Grab their attention quickly with interactive, multimedia content
  • Provide autonomy, but prioritise collaboration
  • Favour short-form & microlearning 
  • Personalisation and flexibility are vital

Managing Gen Z

We know what Gen Z wants from their learning, but how can leaders best manage Gen Z to ensure they feel secure in their roles? There are a few key statistics that illustrate Gen Z’s expectations of workplace life: 

Let’s unpack these statistics to explore a few key themes. Firstly, it’s clear that Gen Z has different communication preferences than previous generations, as 23% think texting is essential. A recent survey even found that 75% of Gen Z would rather have a difficult conversation over text than on the phone. 

Additionally, 40% of Gen Z employees expect daily interactions with their boss, reinforcing Gen Z’s desire for continuous collaboration and human connection. 

Finally, more than three-quarters of Gen Z feel responsible for driving their career. As such, managers need to give Gen Z employees the tools, confidence, and autonomy required to drive their careers. 

Learning as you go

Deloitte highlights another notable factor in Gen Z workplace management. According to their study, Gen Z only credits school or university studies with 26% of the skills, knowledge, and experience they currently have or use in their jobs. 

In contrast, on-the-job training from employers and continuous professional development accounts for 44% of the skills, knowledge, and experience Gen Z draws on at work. Due to this, younger generations may need more on-the-job support from managers. 

Finding the right balance

Supporting younger generations to create more sustainable L&D roles is essential. However, managers must not neglect the here and now. 

According to a recent survey by Cornerstone, 53% of Millennials feel their managers help them identify the skills they need, while only 37% of Baby Boomers agree. 73% of Baby Boomers also say that their employers aren’t investing in their learning, compared to just 53% of Millennials.

To ensure L&D remains sustainable, managers must strike the right balance between planning for the future and equipping employees with the skills they need to succeed now. 

Lessons for managing Gen Z

While there is no catch-all solution for managing Gen Z, a few overarching themes emerge. Panopto identifies three essential strategies for managing Gen Z, namely: make everything mobile, include experiential learning, and encourage informal social learning.  

Forbes takes a similar approach. Their advice for managing Gen Z includes providing alternate methods to leadership, offering varied ways to communicate, and getting serious about job perks. Likewise, Shift Learning emphasises flexibility and an intuitive, easy-to-use workflow.

Similarly, HR Technologist offers four expert recommendations for managing Gen Z. They also believe that flexibility and strong internal communication are must-haves, adding that a fast-paced environment and using visuals instead of text can also be effective strategies. 

What is L&D’s role in bridging the generational divide? 

The modern workforce is more generationally diverse than ever. As always, L&D has an important role to play. 

With things changing rapidly, L&D teams must be agile, adaptable, and willing to question engrained thinking habits. As the workforce shifts away from traditional methods and towards Millennials and Gen Z, learning and managerial styles must also change to create sustainable roles for the future.

Doing so ensures that L&D roles will be attractive to future employees, and therefore sustainable. No one wants to work for a team whose methods are stuck in the 90s when the alternative is embracing the latest training methods and technologies.  

Training Industry provides an excellent summary of L&D’s role in bridging the generational divide, saying, “the answer to training a multigenerational workforce lies not in a unilateral approach to training but in a multilateral one that factors in the perspectives and preferences of the target audience...give your audience the flexibility of deciding how they will learn based on their work and life experiences as well as their professional capabilities.”

Go Fluent also offers a helpful piece of advice, saying, “to create an effective multigenerational training that speaks to everyone, have a hyper-personalised blend of these three things: tech, content and the human element.”

Bridging the generational divide is all about sustainability and changing with the times. Gen Z is coming. Fast. L&D teams need to be ready.  

For more insights, be sure to subscribe to the Go1 newsletter to stay on top of all the latest L&D trends. Or, you can book a demo today to find out how Go1 can help with your team’s learning needs.

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