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You're listening to leading up with Udemy. This podcast is your guide to developing your skills as an emerging or seasoned leader. I'm Alan Tod, your host and the vice president of leadership development at Udemy. Together we can work, lead, and live differently to create a better world. I was super excited to have Gene Twangi on the podcast today. I like how gene frames technology and how each generation grows up with different technology and that changes behavior in the workplace.


The stereotype, which does have a little bit of truth to it, is that the boomer wants to see you in person, the Gen Xer wants to email you, the millennial wants to text you, and Gen Z wants to send you their resume as a TikTok video. A little bit exaggerated and a little bit stereotypical, but it is true that those modes of communication are really different across the generation.


This week I'm speaking with social psychologist Dr. Jean Twangi, generational expert and author of many landmark books on the topic, including igen generation, me, and last year's generations, the real differences between Gen Z, millennials, Gen X, Boomers, and silence, and what they mean for America's future. Jean's work has been featured in Time magazine, the New York Times, and the Washington Post, among many, many others. You can regularly see her on news shows like Good Morning America, the Today show, and NPR. She holds degrees from the University of Chicago and the University of Michigan and is a professor of psychology at San Diego State University. Jean, welcome to the podcast.


Thank you so much for having me on.


So, Jean, you seem to have gone deeper down the generational research rabbit hole than anybody. And every time I see a graph or a chart and I look at the small print, I see your name as the source. So what is it about your work that you find so fascinating that you've devoted 30 years to deep, deep exploration?


Well, everybody loves to talk about generations and generational differences. It's such a universal topic across families and workplaces and in education. But up until fairly recently, a lot of what people would talk about with generations was based on myths and rumors and maybe some personal observations here and there. But now we're in the age of big data. And so in this most recent book, that's what I really dug into, was all of the amazing data sets we have now that go back decades. I was able to find data on 39 million people. So then we can set aside those myths or those anecdotal observations and go straight to the source and ask people how they spend their time and how they're feeling. And what's important to them and their attitudes, and compare that across decades in nationally representative samples, meaning we get people from every background.


Yeah. And I think you've looked for more correlations and you've looked for more, at least in my opinion, stories in the data and historical trends and piecing together these stories in ways that people hadn't quite pieced them together before. And you pointed out in generations that in the era before all of this data, there were more sort of people that didn't believe in these generational differences as maybe two reductionists or whatever, and pundits that didn't claim it. But I think you debunked that argument pretty well. So I read a lot of your stuff, been following you for a long time. But is there such a thing in the world as boomers and Gen Xers as kind of a bifurcation with millennial and Gen Z, or is it. No, there's just four completely distinct, separate groups. In your opinion, it's some of both.


So there's definitely distinctions that can be made between all four of those generations that you mentioned, and in some cases, like stuff around, say, individualism or self confidence, Gen Xers and millennials are actually pretty similar. But when it comes to things around politics and attitudes, and maybe particular attitudes around free speech, the break tends to put millennials and Gen Z on one spectrum and then boomers and Gen Xers in the other. Although I'm a Gen xer myself, I know better than anybody Gen X tends not to like to be grouped with boomers. But when it comes to some of these political debates, that is often where the allegiances lie.


I'd like to build the historical foundation that you discovered to set us up for the conversation about we're eventually going to get to the workplace and talk about leadership and what does it mean, and how do we think about all these generations? But before I want to sort of build this foundation, I'm going to start with John Maynard Keynes, the british economist, so famously in 1930, talking about technological progress. Within 100 years, we'll all be working a 15 hours work week. So you've actually studied all of that, and it doesn't seem like we're there. It's been nearly 100 years. And so I'd love to know, starting with this as our foundation, how has technology changed how each generation behaves?


Yeah. So the kind of classic theories of generations tended to focus on major events, wars, pandemics, economic recessions and depressions, with the idea that different generations may have experienced those things at different ages, and that that influenced everything. But the problem with that is, yeah, major events can have an impact, but not as much long term and not as much on day to day life as changes in technology. So if you consider living in our current moment, why is that so different from what it was like to live 200 years ago or 100 years ago or 50 years ago or even 20 years ago? And the answer is technology. Technology writ large. So better medical care, which has led to longer lives, is just one example. Labor saving devices like washing machines have changed our lives a lot in the way that we don't often consider. Faster transportation, faster communication, the way that we work. All of those things are completely different because we live with different technology now and then. That technology also has downstream effects on the culture. Things like technology tends to correlate with more individualism in a culture, more focus on the self and less on others.


It also, because of longer lives, tends to be linked to what psychologists call a slow life strategy, that children are less independent, teens are less likely to do adult things like go on dates, drink alcohol, get a driver's license, have a paid job. Young adults marry later, have children later, settle into their careers later. And then middle aged adults look and feel younger than their parents and grandparents did at the same age. Right. At 60 is the new 50, 50 is the new 40. All of that comes from the slowdown in the entire life cycle, because that happens when people live longer lives and when health care is better. And that's had an impact across all generations.


Yeah. So let's unpack those two things separately. First, on individualism, there's a couple of things I want to get your thoughts on, but let's start with how have we become more self focused as opposed to other focused? What is the essence of the change?


So, individualism is often discussed with its opposite of collectivism. So, collectivism you can consider as a cross cultural difference as well as something that changes over time. But let's think about it in terms of change over time. And think about the way, say, the United States was in the 1950s, that there were pretty strict social rules, often based around gender and race, about what you were supposed to do and what you weren't supposed to do. Relationships were much more stable. Divorce was less common, for example. And people worked together much more often in communities. So more people were religious and belonged to religious communities. More people would work together in the Rotary Club and the Kiwanis Club. And these community organizations were stronger. There was more trust and confidence in government and in other institutions. And that's pretty different now. And you notice it doesn't fall under a spectrum of left versus right. Politically, it doesn't fall under a spectrum of it's all good or all bad. It's a mix of some of both. But that revolution that really started to happen in the wait, why do we have these restrictive social rules based on, say, race and gender and eventually sexual orientation, of let's treat people as individuals?


And that began with the silent generation and then continued throughout the subsequent generations of changing a lot of those social rules. Another example I'll mention, because it's relevant for the workplace. In 1955, you did not call your boss by their first name. And now that's extremely common. There is a lot more hierarchy, a lot more formality. The youngest generation, my own kids, it's now really common for kids to go to school wearing pajama pants. That's the new thing.


Yeah. Another thing you wrote about kind of on this vein is trying to monitor what you say for fear of saying the wrong thing or whatever. Where are we at in terms of how we speak to each other as adults in the workplace, particularly when we're talking to Gen Z in the workplace, Gen X in the workplace, and baby boomers. You framed it, I think, as freedom of speech. Just. Can you talk about that a little bit?


Yeah, I explored that with some of the updated data in my substac recently and then looked at that in depth and generations. So, yeah, there's all kinds of things to unpack here with this. So one is, if you look at a lot of the controversies over the last five to ten years with free speech, there is often that break. It's often Gen Xers and boomers being often really shocked by their young employees on a number of levels. So whether it's saying the New York Times editor who lost his job over publishing the op ed from a senator during the summer of 2020, saying that we should bring in the military to try to control things, and young staffers got them fired for that, saying there are some opinions that we cannot air. And to a lot of boomers and a lot of Gen Xers, that's a pretty radical statement, saying that there's things that we can't talk about yet that's much more accepted among younger generations. I always want to be clear. I'm not saying there's one right answer to this. It is a generational break. These are very controversial issues where it's also come up quite a bit in the workplace, often with Gen X and boomer leaders, and then sometimes older millennial leaders as well, and then younger employees wanting corporations to make political statements.


And one, I think, context that should be put on that is, well, where did they get that idea? It's because universities began to do that about ten years ago, and they never used to do that. So I've been a faculty member at San Diego State since 2001, and I've seen this change myself. That statements about events used to be relegated to really big things that were having an impact, and they tended not to be that political. They would be okay, this big thing happened. Here's counseling services available. The campus is still open, or the campus is closed. And that was it. And now it's very common for university presidents to put out statements on everything. And then it becomes, because these are often political things, it starts to cross over into the university having a political point of view. And then as people graduate from college and then enter the workforce, those requests start to happen at corporations. So a recent example of that is Disney, where the young employees pressured the CEO to put out a statement on Florida's, quote, don't say gay bill. And that ended up being a really big mess. And even if you're looking at it from the viewpoint of that bill, never should have been passed, which is probably my viewpoint.


Still, the corporation taking a position on that didn't go well.


Yeah. And I'm wondering, is there a connection between this being more self focused and being less willing to engage in difficult, painful conversations?


In my view, just looking at the generational shifts, I think that discomfort with disagreement comes primarily from Gen Z spending so much time online because they are not spending as much time with each other face to face. And that's not just a rumor. We have actual data on that from samples of teens that they are spending a lot less time going out. And I've had so many young adults tell me things like, I prefer to communicate by text, because then I can think about what I'm going to respond with. I don't have to worry about the expression on my face if I'm upset. I just don't answer. And that's not how interaction works when it's in real time, face to face, or even via FaceTime.


Well, question for you. What do you think of that? As a psychologist, we're always taught that some crazy percentage is nonverbal communication. Like, you have to be in the room and read the face and the opinion and the eyebrows go up. And are we obligated to change that generation? Or is that generation obligated to conform to conventional wisdom or is there some middle ground? Where are we with regards to making this work? In the workplace, you can't just text your boss everything because you're afraid to talk in real time, right?


This is a big problem. And this is what I hear from managers a lot is a lot of these young employees coming in don't have the social skills that we wanted them to have. And these trends were in place before the pandemic. And then we got the lockdowns and it was taken even to the next level. So that issue around communication styles just comes up over and over with generations. I mean, there's a huge generation gap with that.


So let's pretend I'm a frontline leader. I'm a team. I've got seven people reporting to me, and some of them are younger than me, some are older than me, and I'm 30. I'm just making this up. But what do I do? How do you kind of navigate this world?


I mean, the first step just is to recognize that there are those differences, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. I always think that the best place to approach differences from, particularly generational differences, is from a place of empathy, of realizing that that person older than you didn't grow up with these technologies. They may use them just fine now, but that's not their default. And that the younger generation, so if you're 30 and you have, say, 22 year olds coming in, even though that's eight years, they probably grew up with TikTok and you probably didn't as just one example.




So that there are those differences there and then just trying to find those solutions that work for everybody. And one of those often is going to be a Zoom meeting or where you are maybe not in the same physical location, but you can read each other's facial expressions and you are communicating in real time.


If you want to develop invested leaders who motivate, inspire, and engage distributed teams across your organization, visit business or invested leaders. So we've had other guests here. Dave Ulrich, he talked about the rise of EQ in a kind of a post pandemic world where we're not together. But I'm curious, isn't it difficult to do that via text messages and via whatever, asynchronously? So what do we have to do to actually build empathy with a team on the workplace, particularly where we're perhaps meeting via Zoom every day or week and not in the same place anymore?


Yeah, I mean, that's a huge challenge. And there's some really fascinating research about this, that it's not just perception. It really is true that the asynchronous communication in particular does not build that emotional connection with someone else. And we can use these technologies for our benefit. There's lots of great things about being able to do some things asynchronously, but we're still humans who evolved to relate to each other in real time, face to face. And maybe that is going to mean sometimes having an actual physical, in person meeting, but it's definitely going to mean not doing everything asynchronously and through email and text, because that just is not as personal. It is much more disconnected. It is not as human. And I do feel the obligation to put in at this point. That doesn't mean that everything has to be a meeting, because there's a lot of stuff that it's probably better if you're editing a document. Doing that, at least partially asynchronously, can be good. But look, if there's difficult conversations to be had about this document and disagreements, trying to meet in real time, even if it's brief, makes an enormous difference, because that builds trust.


So what do you see as the differences between managing a millennial and a Gen Z?


The first is just to understand that these are different generations. I think it's now more recognized. About five years ago, people are like, wait, young employees aren't millennials anymore.




And on many traits, there is a very pronounced generational break between those two groups, particularly around optimism and pessimism and mental health. So that's what I started to see in this research that I do with these big data sets, is as young people, teens and young adults, transitioned from being millennials to being Gen Z, optimism went way down, pessimism went up, depression started to increase. That's now spread to millennials, but it's much, much higher among Gen Z teens and young adults compared to millennials when they were that age. Teen depression doubled between 2011 and 2019. So before the pandemic, that's another thing that I think is important to point out, is these changes are not due to the pandemic. They began about eight years before the Covid-19 pandemic was on the scene. So depression is at all time highs among teens and young adults, and it started to move up the age scale. So people in their late early 30s were also seeing higher levels of depression now than we used to. So that's part of that generational and time period break that occurred because, yeah, it used to be young adults were very optimistic.


I mean, the rumor with millennials was always, if you say, what job do you expect to have in five years? They would say, yours, or I'm going to be the CEO. Lots of optimism. So that had upsides and downsides. That kind of enthusiasm, if channeled in the right direction, can be wonderful if it becomes entitlement. And why didn't I get promoted? I've been here two weeks. Then you've got some problems. So there's that balancing act, and that's not as much the issue with Gen Z. If anything, they're underconfident. Not all of them, of course, but these are changes on average, but a lot less self confidence and a lot more pessimism in the workplace that often can have some advantages of Gen Z is much more practical. Their expectations are not as sky high as they were for a lot of young millennials. And so they have a little bit more recognition of what it's going to take to be successful. The unfortunate thing, and I think this is not just Gen Z, is that being willing to work overtime and saying work is a central part of life just plummeted in 2021 and 2022.


And it's interesting that is, I think, not a symptom of the TikTok videos about quiet quitting. It's the fundamental cause, because those data were collected before those types of videos became popular. I think that's an indication of what shows up in these large survey data sets of fewer young people saying they're willing to work hard.


Well, and as this population gets into the workplace, Gallup updated their four year employee engagement study last week and published. I'll read you the headline.




Employees feel more detached from their employers with less clear expectations, lower levels of satisfaction with their organization, and less connection to its mission or purpose than they did four years ago. So to me, that means that leaders aren't connecting with Gen Z and millennials in the way that they had hoped. What's your take?


Yeah, I think it's absolutely true, and I think that dovetails pretty well with those trends in the survey data, which is encouraging, because that survey data is on younger people and not necessarily on employees, and that that's also what that data on employees is showing from Gallup. Yeah, we've got some issues out there with work ethic, with connection. The pessimism that I think started to appear with Gen Z ten or so years ago has now spread upward. I think that's just the national mood just seems to be very negative. And I think that in the workplace where that's showing up is, yeah, quiet, quitting. And why should I be doing this? And there's no point. There's, in psychology, a trait we call locus of control, where if you have an internal locus of control, you say, I can control these things. It's up to me. If I work hard, good things are going to happen. And external locus of control doesn't matter. It's all just luck, and it's all just powerful other people, and there's nothing I can do. And among young people in that transition from millennials to Gen Z in particular, there's a big uptick in external locus of control.


And I think that's spread to the workplace. I think that's spread up the age scale. There's just, unfortunately, this really pervasive pessimism of I could work really hard and it doesn't matter, I won't get anything. And I think that's something we have to be aware of as well. It's trying to counter some of that.


Well, yeah, how do we change that? Right. So it seems to me, if I'm a manager, I've got to teach people that they have an internal locus of control, they're in control of their career.


But they have agency, and that we.


Have to support the grabbing and taking of agency. And I wonder, is there a distraction factor here? Smartphones and social media? And are they creeping now into the workplace?


Yeah, I mean, I think that's another element here. I think that's one of the reasons why we have so much negativity, because negative news gets clicks and negative posts on social media spread further. And then that trickles down to so many of realms, including the workplace. And that, I think, is the challenge for leaders to realize there's that pessimism out there, that it's this feeling of not having agency and trying to counter that. And some of that too, is based on how online everything is instant and instant gratification. And that model of having to wait two years for a promotion, which used to be so common, is changing. And that's probably good, especially for these younger generations. That's forever. Two years is forever. So just one small practical suggestion that I've seen some managers implement is having smaller promotions more quickly. So instead of waiting two years, then you're eligible after six months. And it's not going to be as big of a pay bump or as big of an increase in responsibility or title, but at least then there's a more immediate effect.


I like that. So if I'm a millennial or maybe a Gen Z, what do I have to do to build skills, and how do I reach baby boomers and Gen Xers and get through to them?


Yeah, well, don't quiet quit. For one thing, that's kind of a low bar, but put in the effort. And no, that doesn't mean you have to not have work life balance. Please do that. But being willing to go the extra mile, obviously, is something that managers are going to respond to and having some level of independence as well. So this is another thing that comes up a lot with generational differences in the workplace that the younger generations growing up in the education system of no child left behind and of things being much more structured and growing up more slowly, they want more structure, clearer directions. I've seen this teaching undergraduates as well. So I think managers have to recognize that they may need more direction. But on the other side, yes, if you're a young employee, ask the questions you need to ask, but then go and do it and maybe make some decisions on your own as you're going, because a lot of managers don't have the time to micromanage you. They want you to go off and do the task and be able to do so relatively independently, especially as you're starting to build your career.


And that's really impressive when you can see that. Certainly, I see that with my graduate students, for example, the ones who eventually are the most successful are those who will have a meeting. We'll learn something, then they'll go off and they'll come back to me with a finished product where I'm like, wait, wow, that's amazing. And I can tell you didn't do exactly what we talked about, but you went in a logical direction to take this to the next level. And to me, that's effectively being a manager. When I'm working with grad students, that's always what impresses me the most.


Is there any solution that you see with the next phase of technologies in particular? Let's say, like generative AI? You study generations, so there's four generations in the workplace right now. What's coming about with Gen AI?


I guess in the workplace, we don't know. I mean, it's just too early to say what the impact of these new technologies are going to be. It's going to take us, I think, some time to get data on that and to catch up to see what those impacts are. If we can use those technologies to make our lives better and more efficient, in some ways, there's going to be big benefits. That technology has done that historically has saved us labor and time. So if it does that, that's great. But I think what we have seen with smartphones and social media is when technology replaces human relationships, that's when we end up with trouble. And I think it'll be the same with AI.


Yeah. And it's really how we use technology. Is it a tool for us or are we allowing it to become that we are the tool for it?


That's right.


All right, Gene, so as we wrap up a question I ask everybody, what are you curious about in learning?


Oh, so many different things. I am very interested right now in advocating for more regulation around social media and smartphones, particularly for our youngest citizens. That two things that come to mind is I think we should raise the minimum age for social media to 16 and actually verify age, because the links between social media use and depression are the largest for the youngest teens.


The new cigarettes.


Right? So that's one thing and then another is no phones during the school day. Bell to Bell. That would help with learning outcomes and it would help with mental health. So that's one research project I'm looking at right now in a worldwide data set, the declines in learning and the declines in mental health and how smartphones might have something to do with that.


I love it. What a great topic to study, such an important societal issue. So, Gene, thank you so much for being on the show.


Thanks for having me.


Thanks again to Dr. Jean Twangi for joining us today on the podcast. Follow leading up a podcast from udemy Business wherever you find your podcast, we'll be back next Wednesday with another episode to help you level up your leadership skills. Follow the show so you never miss a new episode and if you like the show, leave a rating or a review. We love the feedback and it really helps us to find new listeners. To learn more about leading up or how Udemy can help you develop leaders at scale and move business forward, visit business The leading up podcast is produced in partnership with Podpeople. Our original theme is by Soundboard.