The Workplace Generational Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic

In late 2019, prior to the COVID-19 Pandemic, employees in the workplace spanned 4 or 5 generations: The Silent Generation; Baby Boomers; Gen X; Gen Y; and Gen Z. Only a few of the oldest generation remain in the workforce, being 75+ and past retirement age. Baby Boomers span from 55-75 years old, either looking to retire or enjoying managerial positions they worked so hard for. Gen X and Gen Y have been part of the workforce for years, and will be for some time, whilst some organizations may have a few Gen Z employees as the newest to enter the workplace. Fast forward 6 months to mid 2020: The Pandemic has spread rapidly across the globe, causing countries to go into lockdown, enforce social distancing and implement PPE measures in the general population. Suddenly the workplace has changed, and so too have employee expectations. 

The scale of Covid-19 caught us off guard. Revisions to work patterns, shift challenges, technology use, and employee health restrictions have become challenging, weighing against cost of stay at home employees. In preparation of workforce change, each generation brings needs, cultures and desires. Accommodations for all may seem daunting, but age, perspective and gender bring vital learning experiences to how we leverage differences in anticipated traits impacted by the Pandemic. From corner offices to evolving collaborative space to assigned cubicles, every generation called back into the office will be part of a balancing act. Young workers may seem excited while older staff feels a heightened level of trepidation. Questions and concerns will arise around health and safety, cleaning schedules, disinfection of surfaces, and length of time the virus hangs in the air as it relates to ventilation and air flow.

Work-life balance has new meaning in the age of Covid-19. Business must focus on health and safety as fear for a safe return hangs heavy. Providing teams a balance at work and at home will ensure a happier and healthier workforce.

The Traditionalists/Silent Generation views life by defining moments like The Great Depression, World War II and the postwar boom. Many veterans lived with a ‘never give up’ attitude. While they account for about 2 percent of the workforce, the Silent remain valuable to every company, having a high regard for communication, communal work and collaboration.

Boomers are post war optimistic. Feeling anger towards shelter in place or optimism as they have been through enough, no virus will hold them back.  Dealing with a high level of concern over pre-existing conditions, financial and global meltdowns, and reactions to government policy, many have been forced into early retirement or face a dramatic shift around income and expenditure. Boomers make up approximately 29% of the workforce, work-life balance has suddenly been thrown into focus and all those long days at the office is no longer appealing. Those in a financially stable position may choose to relinquish themselves of the work environment all together in favor of a more predominant family life. Boomers may be attracted to flexible schedule options as they transition out of the workforce, managing health conditions and care for aging parents. Find out more…

Generation X, sometimes referred to as ‘the Slacker Generation’, account for 34% of the workforce. Xers are marked by their skepticism of authority and focus on the value of working smarter, not harder ergo i.e. the inventors of work / life balance.  Xers are entrepreneurs, creating new ways to simplify work with a strong understanding of technology and an ability to adapt to change. A recent American Management Association article notes that “…Generation X employees’ reputations for challenging traditional structures has further pushed work-life balance ideals…straddling a line between parenthood and caring for aging parents.” After years of striving to take over the managerial corner office from older generations, Gen X started to gain higher positions just as open plan offices and collaborative space took over office design. For the past few years, Xers may have felt resentful towards younger generations who denied them their corner office aspiration. Now with the Pandemic in full force and companies having to reassess office design, will we see a reversal in the office environment to return to cubicle workstations and corner offices? Some of this generation will now be dealing with their own underlying health concerns, meaning they are at higher risk of the virus: therefore, being separated from the general office population would be appealing. Find out more…

Generation Y (Millennials) are vulnerable with smaller savings accounts, less invested money, own minimal real estate, are in a lower income bracket, and less likely to have strong health benefits. They maintain massive student-loan debt, pay high rents and child-care fees. Gen Y was dealt a tumultuous hand: feeling comfortable with self-reliance and isolation yet anxious over what is normal, they wonder whether they have a place in the post-Pandemic world. Accounting for 34% of the workforce, Gen Y has only known global warfare and financial fallout, yet still maintain a positive outlook. Millennials are expected to be demanding and independent, although inclusive, tech-savvy and resilient in comparison to prior generations. They tend to be well educated, value the group experience and appreciate a flexible work environment. Most of Gen Y are now in their 30’s, have older parents (mostly Boomers), mortgages and school aged children to juggle alongside their jobs. When they first entered the workplace, many organisations adapted to collaborative working and offered flexible working patterns to attract the best and brightest. Since the Pandemic, many have been furloughed or forced to work from home, managing full-time home schooling for their children, alongside their full-time work. With the prospect of returning to the office, it will look drastically different from what they have become accustomed to. To ensure the safety of employees, organizations will be implementing adjustments such as cubicle workstations, zero collaborate space or removal of open plan zones. Socialization at the office will be non-existent for some time.  Find out more…

Zoomers have never lived in a society free of crisis, therefore they may be most capable to handle Covid-19. Face masks, physical distance and virtual work seem commonplace. Should the virus be contained, they will learn to process socialization and physical closeness they have not yet experienced. They will be expected to remain with an employer longer than prior generations, equating to higher responsibility in the workplace. Being the youngest of the working generations and at least risk during the Pandemic, Gen Z will be looked upon to get people back into their work environment quickly. Although older Zoomers may have had little job security at the start of the Pandemic whether being furloughed or not being able to find new employment, there should be a surplus of positions to fill by the generation most willing to work. Zoomers will power the return to the office, yet every generation will have the burden of dealing with how the office has changed. Find out more…

It is easy to stereotype people based on what you read or hear about their generation but to truly understand the COVID response from each generation we need to hear from those who are experiencing it. We spoke to 4 people in the key workplace generations:

Baby Boomer: 1945 – 1964

Generation X: 1965 – 1979

Generation Y (Millenial): 1980 – 1994

Generation Z (Zoomer): 1995 – 2010

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Leigh Murray

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