Generations debate: The prologue — One size does not fit all

An experimental approach to uncovering untold stories in the fast changing world of work

by Elisa Nicolini


Artwork by MAIZE

It’s been a few years since the media started to share stories about people’s unexpected career changes: just think about the quiet-quitting phenomen. The changes brought by the recent pandemic, ongoing conflicts in different parts of the world, and environmental anxiety, made people reconsider their lifestyles and mindsets.

Values drive employment choices

Online repositories collecting “green jobs” or “social impact jobs”, such as Jobs for started popping up in response to a growing interest in leveraging one’s skills and time for good. 

A 2022 study commissioned by the platform Supercritical on over 2,000 UK office workers found that 35% of UK employees would be willing to quit their job if their employer didn’t take adequate action to reduce their carbon footprint. This number rises to over half (53%) among people aged 18–24.

While some people were forced into a situation that led them to change their employer because of layoffs, others, such as the younger generation, paved the way to new trends in job preferences. That is, they didn’t reassess their values and power, rather they kept walking their already extremely conscious path, driven by strong social and environmental justice values.

A 2020 survey conducted by resume tool Zety found that 71% of Gen Z workers would be willing to accept a pay cut to work for a company that aligns with their values.

Work less, work better

Other signs of change stemmed from people reevaluating their time and realizing that life is more than just work. Employees started demanding more flexibility to be able to dedicate time to pursue personal interests, to be more present in their family life, or just organize their day in a way that’s more suitable to their lifestyle. 

A 2022 study by ADP Research Institute found that 64% of US workers would quit their job if required to return to office full time, and the percentage grows to 71% among employees aged 18-24.

In this context, several employers started offering shorter work weeks with no reduction in salary, and even entire countries began giving incentives to organizations willing to test reduced working hours. Iceland pioneered, launching a pilot between 2015 and 2019 offering equal pay to employees for 35 hours of work instead of the traditional 40 hours. U.K., Belgium, Portugal, Scotland, Ireland and Spain and others followed.

Well-being over power

Finally, people in executive positions have been resigning after having to make tough decisions during the pandemic and struggling to keep businesses afloat during the economic recession.

Deloitte found that approximately 70% of top executives are seriously considering quitting their positions, primarily to improve their emotional well-being

These are just a few cases depicting the many ways people have been coming to their decisions regarding their employment and career path. Certainly the massive shift that has been going on in the world of work is driven by a change in priorities for a workforce that is made of multiple generations with diverse experiences and desires.


Artwork by MAIZE

At MAIZE, we thought…

As a group of multidisciplinary designers, or in fact, just curious human beings, learning and discussing these phenomena brought us to more questions and considerations. 

Our organization itself can be considered a living experiment – we call it yogurt organization.

Imagine a CEO born in 1968 – let’s call him Tomas – and a newly hired employee born in 2000 – her name is Sofia. They are perched over the latest report about the most recent transformations in the job landscape. They read and interpret the data from two substantially different backgrounds: Tomas has lived a few different entrepreneurial experiences, while Sofia has recently graduated and this is her first job. They stand far from a generational point of view and their career span and expertise differ. Nonetheless  their attitudes towards work are quite similar, as in the yogurt organization there is no hierarchical relationship among them, they act on distributed responsibilities and their interpretations of the data align.

They are both deeply aware that the storytelling proposed by that trend report is biased, as most of these documents are built for business and marketing purposes. The story they tell is only a portion of reality: editors create sections that highlight new product opportunities because they try to make predictions on upcoming consumer behaviors.
Tomas and Sofia also agree that quantitative data analysis can only tell so much about the intrinsic motivations behind people’s actions. Numbers can support the storytelling created by directly listening to people’s experiences, but they cannot bring a comprehensive answer to questions like:

What’s the story of people living in these situations? What role did their upbringing play in how they conceive work? What influence did their family have in choosing a school path or their career? What circumstances kept them from pursuing their dream career? What was the turning point that made them realize they were meant for another job?

Moreover, most of the data available is sourced in the United States and elaborated with a US-centric perspective. Being based in Italy, we believed it was worthwhile to investigate changes regarding work and shifts in the job market with a European perspective.

How did social changes, political events and technological innovations influence people’s career paths? What opportunities did they have while growing up?

All of these questions became the seed of a new research: we wanted to understand the perception that people from different generations and backgrounds have of the world of work. We wanted to give depth to these phenomena and portray the complexity of these multifaceted topics.

We call our research The Generations Debate project. We start from hard data: a 30 questions survey is being distributed to 5 European countries in collaboration with international market research and data analytics firm, YouGov

Then, we add the human experience: we create an opportunity to hear directly from startuppers, corporate employees and academic workers, as we believe there is great value in going beyond the surface and letting real life know-how emerge. For this purpose, we are designing an experimental, in-person event mixing group interactions and 1:1 discussions with us, the facilitators. We see it as a sort of performance where we can elicit verbal answers, and where we encourage people to move in the space and interact with others at the same time. The different intertwining interactions are going to be recorded through videos and pictures. Each participant is invested in a dual representation: on one side one speaks for themselves, as a person living in a defined location, with a defined background and career path, but they also speak for the generation they belong to.

Both the quantitative and qualitative aspects of our research consider four different generations: from the so-called ‘baby boomers’ (born between 1946 and 1964), to Gen Y (1965-1980), to Gen X (1981-1996) and Gen Z (1997-2010). 

We expect to bring together bits of qualitative and quantitative information to create a rich picture of people’s perception of the past, current and future world of work.

As you can tell, the project is ongoing, and we expect to have more exciting updates around September 2023. If you are interested in knowing more about the project, receiving updates and learning about what the outcome will be, let’s keep in contact!


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