Clash of the Titans: How Millennials and GenZs are reshaping the workplace (in their own ways)

Written by
Monica Pillai

At 440 million (1), Indian millennials are the largest working cohort on earth. GenZ, who entered the workforce a mere three years ago, are 20% of the Indian workforce already. While their touchpoints with the HR/ People teams might remain largely unchanged, the manner, tone, and degree of engagement with these elements has undergone a drastic shift. To just review the questions that generational cohorts have asked their HR / People teams, is to hold a wealth of data on how corporate India has been shaped by its two mightiest cohorts. You will notice in the instances shared here, how each cohort has encouraged deep questions as they change and strengthen the fabric of how organisations function. 

On finding their next opportunity

From “What are opportunities for growth?” to “I want to check if our values align” 

Millennials were told, “finish an engineering degree, then follow your dreams”. That entry path to work caused early millennials to take personal ownership for professional growth that reflects in their first path of inquiry when evaluating a new employer. Their questions are about growth paths available, scope to grow at scale, and possibility of ESOPs. I recall a hiring drive ten years ago where the standard question among tech hires was, “Talk me through my career path.” “How long till I become a manager?”, “What are the levels of growth beyond that? and then “How many levels, all the way to CTO? What is the roadmap to that?”

Time was, when folks with a storied tech degree didn’t often make offbeat career options. Those anecdotes don’t seem unusual anymore, as the millennials learnt to rely on and invest in their own abilities, over where they studied. The younger millennials wear their self-learnt tags with pride. As markets began to saturate, intentionally small, craft-focussed organisations sought out niches to thrive in.            

Conversation starters for the GenZ cohort vary, in that they are about values and culture alignment. Opportunities are not a rare commodity and they are confident of creating their own. Many have trodden the liberal arts or design school path to the workplace. The cohort has greater innate confidence in their ability to design their own professional growth. Their priority is to assess if they will have the agency to craft their own journeys, and therefore, the values alignment exploration. With this cohort, I invariably run into questions like, “What is a typical day at the company like?” “What is my working relationship with the immediate manager / function head / CEO likely to be?” “Who are mentors that people at my level look up to within the org?” “What beliefs and values drive the company?”

Settling down into the new organisation 

From “How / Can I bring my whole self to work?” to “I am bringing my whole self to work”

The early days in an organisation are universally a period of mutual adjustment. Millennials largely spent this time understanding policies and practices from the perspective of professional growth and understanding where they need to fit in. In time, with more comfort within the organisation, they feel safe to be themselves, and stand out in their unique ways. 

GenZ are the cohort most comfortable in their own skin. It shows up visually in how they look or how they are not apologetic for seeming bedraggled at 9:00 a.m. meetings. Then it shows up everywhere: being vocal about their needs, speaking about side hustles, not separating their personal from their work selves. You can safely anticipate that side hustles will see a surge as this cohort gains more influence. 

This is the first generation in India, where, among the urban, at least, they have guidance from parents who have had experience with their own corporate careers. In consequence, there is deeper awareness of toxicity in the workplace and a strong unwillingness to live with that status quo.  

Diversity Equity and Inclusion

From “Can we have a real conversation about diversity that goes beyond tokenism?” to “How else can we mirror our real worlds and be an even more equitable workplace?”

Millennials have shouldered the heavy lifting on bringing the language of diversity, equity and inclusion into the workplace. All the company’s embedded awareness on the need for a variety of voices and the business case for it, is all thanks to sensitive folks asking, “How come I am comfortable working with people exactly like me, and why are we getting away with it?” This generation has had to fight for the idea, to deal with glib, “We are already unity in diversity” comments. 

Millennial women will have stories of being called “diversity candidates” by hiring managers and line managers. In professional forums, I have heard women dropping off at the interview / hiring stage if they got a whiff of this pattern in the company they are applying to. The cohort has also redefined allyship, as the generation assesses their own privilege and uses that currency to support others. I recall a male colleague telling me during a stay interview, that the reason they picked that organisation to work with because they had menstrual leave and that gave them a measure of support for colleagues, and that helped them think, “This is the kind of organisation I would have built, and so, I am reasonably sure I will be at home here”. Their idealism has made DEI a mainstay.    

GenZ is realistic enough to know that all diversity equity and inclusion work is ongoing, and they will need to, often patiently, explain the newer frontiers of this to the old guard. They also assume that they are not required to come in and initiate this at the ground level. Not having that space for plurality is often a deal breaker for them. This generation deals the most calmly, with the elephant in board and conference rooms: that of plurality within India, across linguistic, classist, regional and other axes. They calmly challenge a lot of “givens” such as suitability of work in the disabled spectrum, reframe it as a myth, and explore workarounds. They question biases and othering embedded in daily language, for instance, they question the “should-ing” that we subject ourselves and often others to.  

Engaging in nuanced growth conversations 

From “How can you make growth parameters more realistic and relevant?” to “How can I convert my dreams into goals and then realities?” 

Millennials engaged with HR about their careers by asking, “How do we evaluate business parameters but also respect human endeavours?” This moved the needle on finding alternatives to practices like the deeply detested bell curve. That more humane review systems exist that are respectful, inclusive of mistakes and risk-taking is thanks to millennial leadership. They invite frequent reviews and emphasise the need to overhaul these systems as the organisation goes through its metamorphosis. 

GenZ’s questions often feel to the People team fielding them possibly like a conflict of interest. They fearlessly ask, “If I can meet the established growth criteria, what can the organisation do to help me meet my path to professional growth, which may not be aligned to the business’s roadmap?” 

This line of questioning takes the People folk by surprise. Especially for those of us conditioned to think on the lines of, “How do we keep team members engaged,  motivated and within the organisation”, the realisation that they are able to speak about their long-term dreams which may not include the present organisation, that takes some getting used to. It also takes courage on both sides to authentically talk through the high likelihood that their path diverges from the organisation’s in the near future. If it happens respectfully, and the organisation demonstrates grace and support, it gains a long-term ally. 

Opinions on how they prefer being led

From “How can I best work with my lead?” to “How can I influence my lead to my perspectives?” 

Millennials had to run the gamut: from gaining comfort with a flat hierarchy, first name basis relationships with leadership, to greater ownership of building strong functional relationships with those who led them. They got better at navigating relationships with positional power. They would typically talk about, “I am not able to understand my manager’s needs clearly and they are not being consistent in articulating their needs”, “I can see bias in my manager’s behaviour towards me due to linguistic / regional / other areas of divisiveness, and even if it is unconscious, it is still hurtful. What can I do about it?”  

GenZ stands on the millennials shoulders to take that relationship forward. They have clarity of understanding positional power, to not fear it, to recognize span of control and reserve the bulk of their energy to building associations with people they see with greater personal power (powers of expertise and referent power). They have low tolerance of what they would term toxic, and are unafraid to call it out. They prefer to give their allegiance to leaders whom they identify with, and have common beliefs and values. These relationships tend to outlast workplace associations. 

Finding newer pastures

From “I would like to stay in touch” to “I am leaving the organisation, not the relationships I have built here”

The offboarding conversations are drastically different between the cohorts. There is more professionalism with millennials but also a clear closing of contracts and therefore a level of formality. Notice period is a time to informally relax, take longer breaks etc., but put in time to get handovers ready. 

The GenZ folk on their way out often need to be reminded that notice period is still time when they are working. In their heads often, if they are switched off, they are not to be found. On the other end, they tend to find it easier to seamlessly stay engaged alumni. Between being digital natives and being secure about opportunities, this cohort makes more genuine and sincere bids for alumni connect.  

Looking back, I am finding that I am in deep appreciation of millennials and GenZ folks for making the workplace significantly richer and more nuanced. There is a level of expected psychological safety that was missing in organisations at the start of my career. I have learnt to create environments where there is psychological safety and there are ongoing conversations about what that means, sharpening the outcome as we go. Another opportunity for learning for me has been the expectation that I am responsible for bringing about and maintaining a universal level of respect embedded into the cultural DNA of the organisation. Where, early in my career, I would experience helplessness at not being able to make the workplace respectful for all folks, now, I have the freedom to drive for respect as a non-negotiable and a constant. What started out as a retrospective has ended up being a gratitude note to both these generations.  


Work-life conversations that question the status quo.
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Work-life conversations that question the status quo.
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