What is generational shift?


A generational shift refers to the gradual transformation of attitudes, behaviours and societal norms as one generation succeeds another, often leading to changes in culture, technology adoption and workplace dynamics.  

Generational shifts are driven by various factors, including geopolitical events, technological innovations, digital transformation, economic trends and cultural changes. These shifts have a profound impact on the workplace, influencing communication styles, leadership approaches and expectations regarding working conditions, benefits and career development.

Commonly recognised generations include Baby Boomers, Generation X, Millennials (or Generation Y) and Generation Z, each of which has distinct characteristics and experiences that contribute to generational shifts in society.

History of generational shifts

Generational shifts have been a recurring phenomenon throughout history, shaped by the unique experiences and influences that each generation faces during their formative years.

One of the earliest and most notable generational shifts occurred during the aftermath of World War II. The generation that came of age during this period, known now as the ‘Baby Boomers,’ witnessed post-war prosperity, economic growth and a strong emphasis on family values. This era marked a stark contrast to the Great Depression and wartime austerity faced by their parents, the ‘Silent Generation’.

Generation X were born between the early 1960s and early 1980s. Growing up amidst economic uncertainty, political upheavals and the advent of personal computers, this generation developed a more independent and sceptical mindset. They were the first to experience the widespread use of technology in their daily lives.

The turn of the millennium brought forth the Millennials, also known as Generation Y, who were born roughly between the early 1980s and mid-1990s. This generation experienced the rise of the internet, globalisation and rapid technological advancements. Their values reflected a strong emphasis on work-life balance, social justice and a preference for digital communication.

Generation Z, born from the mid-1990s to the early 2010s, has grown up in a world characterised by smartphones, social media and instant access to information. They are known for their digital fluency, desire for individuality and concerns about the environment and other social issues.

Recognising and understanding these shifts is important for businesses and other institutions if they want to effectively engage with and respond to the evolving values and expectations of each generation.

Recent trends in generational shifts

Ageing populations

Nearly every developed country is grappling with the challenge of an ageing population, which has resulted in a substantial disparity between the number of older and younger individuals in the workforce. In Japan, for example, 30% of the population is over 65. And in America, the Baby Boomer generation is living longer and retiring sooner than previous generations, meaning that the worker-to-retiree ratio is lower than ever.

These demographic shifts have significant implications for the workplace. Firstly, they place considerable strain on the economy as the population of dependents increases while the pool of working-age individuals, who can contribute to the economy, diminishes. Secondly, the extended lifespans of today are putting pressure on pension funds, depleting their resources faster than anticipated. Lastly, as older employees leave the workforce, businesses run the risk of losing valuable skills and institutional knowledge. As these experienced workers retire, it is imperative that their expertise is transferred to younger generations to prevent knowledge gaps.

Gen Z and millennials in the workplace

With the number of Gen Z employees on course to triple by 2030, the workplace is bound to undergo some significant demographic changes – many of which are already underway.

With organisations now having to appeal to younger talent, many are adjusting their structures to suit new worker priorities. As Gen Z places a premium on flexible working, this means that many companies are moving away from the traditional office-bound model in favour of remote and hybrid work arrangements. There is also growing demand for structured career development programmes amongst this demographic, where employers invest in upskilling and reskilling their workforce to foster growth.

This generation is also highly concerned with environmental and social issues – and want their personal values to align with their employer. In fact, 60% of 18–22-year-olds surveyed at BUPA said they would “stay longer than they otherwise might” at a company that commits to social and environmental progress.

Advantages of generational shifts

As younger workers join the workforce, they bring with them new ideas and skillsets. Gen Z employees, for example, are much more likely to exhibit a higher level of proficiency in IT skills and emerging technologies. This often makes upskilling easier, as younger workers are more receptive to new ideas and technologies. It also reduces the amount of upskilling required from the outset.

To go further, younger generations’ preference for flexible work arrangements has the potential to enhance work-life balance and elevate job satisfaction, ultimately bolstering overall employee morale.

The coexistence of multiple generations in the workplace also promotes diversity, resulting in a broader spectrum of viewpoints and experiences. This diversity, in turn, fuels creativity and problem-solving capabilities, contributing to a more innovative and dynamic work environment.

Disadvantages of generational shifts

Generational shifts can lead to ideological conflicts within the workplace. Younger generations’ focus on work-life balance and flexibility, for example, can sometimes be misunderstood by older generations, leading to resentment or perceptions of unfair treatment.

As older generations exit the workforce, there is a risk that valuable knowledge can be lost. As some skills can only be gained through experience, the exodus of mature employees will put those niche skills at risk.

Use case

While generational shifts can be a positive thing, they require adjustments from businesses, governments and other institutions – especially as population graphs across the developed world continue to grow more and more top-heavy.

In response to their aging workforce, Japanese companies have started offering older staff members the opportunity to continue working at the company in a lower-stress position. This allows workers to stay engaged, whilst also taking time to care for their health.

This indicates a change from the three-stage life model (education, work, retirement) in favour of a more multifaceted model, where employees consistently reskill and upskill throughout their careers. The example set by the Japanese also shows how businesses can overcome the loss of skills, as keeping older workers at the company means that they can continue to mentor and help train their younger counterparts – ensuring that their experiential knowledge is retained.