Generations at Work Study 2020
November 24, 2020

The future workforce—new research reveals how Millennials and Gen Xers approach work

By Alex Shootman, CEO


History shows that who is in the workforce changes what gets done—and how. Each generation brings different cultural, educational, and technological context and expectations to work. Improving work productivity and culture requires the same thoroughness in understanding your multigenerational workforce that you invest in understanding your customers. You need to discover what matters to your employees to make work meaningful for them.  

When it comes to Millennial and Generation X employees—and their workplace expectations—we’ve run the numbers for you. Our Generations at Work research, conducted with Jason Dorsey and the Center for Generational Kinetics (CGK), investigated how different generations experience work, revealing fascinating insights and valuable takeaways for leading multigenerational teams.    


The “Digital Natives” hypothesis.

I made several observations about the future of work back in 2017, including what I called “the rise of the digital natives.” What I saw as the burgeoning influence of Millennials in the workplace (who at the time were in their early 20s to mid 30s). 

My hypothesis, drawn from spending time with our customers, was that a new set of generational attributes was emerging: 

  • Egalitarian vs. hierarchical

  • Just-in-time skills vs. acquiring skills ahead of time

  • Connections vs. knowledge

  • Nomadic and task-switching

Workfront partnered with Jason and the CKG team to take a more scientific approach to finding out how Millennials and Generation X approach work—and what their attitudes are toward the technology they use to get work done. CGK interviewed a representative sample of more than 5,700 knowledge workers aged 23 to 55 in the United States, Germany, The Netherlands, Sweden, and the United Kingdom in the first calendar quarter of 2020. All of them worked in companies with 500 or more employees. 


Key insights from the Generations at Work Study.

You can read the results of our Generations at Work Study here, but some of the key work environment findings were: 

  • A caring culture is the most internationally appealing work value. 

  • Cross-team collaboration is key to retaining talent. 61% of Millennial international workers say collaborating across many teams is critical to them staying at a job.

  • Doing great work is as important as pay. 81% of Generation X international workers say being able to do their best work is as important as pay.

Not surprisingly, the right workplace technology helps all workers do their best work. Echoing the digital natives hypothesis, Millennials are highly invested in workplace technology and significantly less satisfied with technology at work. Next-generation leaders expect more from workplace tech:

  • 34% of managers, directors, and executives have turned down a job because the technology was out of date or hard to use. 

  • Millennial leaders are between 6% and 18% more likely than Gen Xers to turn down jobs because of bad tech.

  • More than a quarter of Millennial workers say they had already quit a job because workplace technology made their job harder.  

Getting culture right has alway been vital, and our Generations at Work research tells us that getting the technology right is critical too. Companies cannot provide Millennials—who expect the same caliber of digital experiences at work as they do off the job—with inadequate tools to get their work done.


Lessons for leaders of the future workforce. 

With 78% of our own workforce being Millennials or younger, Workfront is putting these insights into practice. We know that our success depends on understanding how different generations approach work and what they expect from the job—from the technology they use to get work done to the culture and work values that empower them and make work meaningful. Mobilizing cross-generational teams will help us evolve what we’re doing to create great experiences—for our customers and our employees. 

Work today is less about hierarchies and becoming more egalitarian. Leaders of the future workforce need to shift from telling people what to do, to providing context so they can determine what needs to be done. That shift from dictating tasks to communicating context isn’t easy, but giving every level of the organization the same context that leaders have—and then releasing them to make good decisions—is what creates a culture that empowers everyone to do their best work, regardless of the generation they belong to.

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