Gen Z in the Workplace: How to Prepare for the Next Generational Wave

by Kaitlyn Wallace 

Millennials have long been the scapegoat of the contemporary business world. Aside from being accused of killing almost every industry (chain restaurants, diamonds, fabric softener, and yes, hospitality), millennials are disdained in the public eye as lazy, entitled, selfish, impatient and thoroughly imbued with special-snowflake syndrome. “These young people!” we hear, “are destroying the workplace! What with their Facebook and avocado toast – what will become of this nation when millennials are at the helm?”

Here’s the catch – this young, tech-obsessed, and yes, avocado-toast-eating generation are not millennials – they’re Gen Z. And you’ve got them all wrong.

At this point in 2018, the oldest millennials are turning 40. Many of them have obtained upper management positions and have families, houses, and complaints about taxes like the rest of us. The image of millennials as brunch-obsessed and apathetic individuals devoid of the responsibilities of older generations no longer stands up to scrutiny.

Yes, millennials – the young, the tech-savvy, the destructive employee – are out. Gen Z is in.

GEN Z – WHO?

Gen Z has managed to fly somewhat under the radar in the media and business world: They were born after 1996, making the oldest among them only 23 – they are just beginning to enter the workplace). They have avoided the intense scrutiny and negative stereotypes of millennials. Unfortunately, this means that the business world is largely unprepared for their entry into the workforce.

This will be a mistake.

As of now, Gen Z numbers somewhere between 65-71 million American individuals, making them 20-35% of the population of the United States and larger in number than Gen X (and ⅔ as large as the Baby Boomer generation). By some estimates, Gen Z will make up 20% of the workforce by 2020.  And we need to be prepared. Gen Z is vastly different than any generation that has come before it, and requires new and different attitudes and actions by employers in order to be successful.

Before we can begin to solve the Gen Z problem, however, we must first try to understand them. Who is the Generation Z, anyway?

SOME BACKGROUND INFO ON GENERATION Z

Gen Z has grown up in an increasingly uncertain world. They have watched the generations before them (millennials, in particular) struggle with crippling student debt and a rapidly changing job market. Institutional and economic unsteadiness, widening political rifts, job insecurity, depleting resources and climate change have characterized this period, influencing this generation to be more anxious and uncertain about the future than ever before. But with the growth of technology and connectivity, Gen Z is also the most globally competent and informed generation to date. The combination of these factors has led to a variety of social movements led almost exclusively by young people, making Gen Z (in general), the most socially-conscious, making a difference-focused, and diverse generation of any to date. And, of course, they are the generation that has grown up with almost unlimited access to technology, with smartphones at their fingertips, and with both the best and worst digital citizenship of any generation.

SO WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR THE WORKPLACE?

Here’s the good news: Gen Z is driven, pragmatic, and determined to do good work and make an impact on the world. They are multi-talented, creative, quick to learn, and eager to contribute. They undoubtedly will change the American and global landscape forever with their cross-cultural and innovative methods, and will continue to drive social and technological change and innovation.

Sound too good to be true? As wonderful as Gen Z may be in certain aspects, they, like any other generation, also have (sometimes crippling) downfalls and a culture altogether unfamiliar to today’s employers.

Gen Z thrives in group psychology and social connection. They have created an online community that universally and almost intentionally excludes other generations from participation by use of new, radical, and divergent slang and culture that is virtually unintelligible for those outside of the community. Their humor is pessimistic, fatalistic, embodying a strong us-vs-the-world attitude rooted in their uncertainty about the future. It is random and nonsensical, designed to create an exclusive community in the uncertain world in which Gen Zs feel that they do not belong and which holds for them precarious futures. And these attitudes translate to social interaction within the workplace.

This social culture will lead Gen Z to tend to want to blur the lines between employer and employee. They want friends, coaches, confidantes, mentors – something to make their world more friendly and more certain. Many require frequent feedback, and validation when necessary. They thrive with a management style that is completely nontraditional, one that might be unfamiliar and uncomfortable to established managers.

And it’s not just social interaction that is driven by their formative environment of uncertainty. It also has lead to major weaknesses in Gen Z concerning anxiety. Not only does this generation have a higher rate of anxiety disorders than any other preceding it; their experiences with adjacent generations have given them fears of the future, their place in the workplace, and general life satisfaction. These anxieties give rise to fears of underperformance and invisibility in the workplace. Managers will need to work harder to make Gen Z feel heard and valued as a part of a team, and will need to create a stronger, more inclusive environment for all of their employees.

THE ANXIOUS GEN Z

And of course, this anxiety can be directly connected to Gen Z’s most concrete and tangibly problematic flaw – a lack of experience with face-to-face interaction.

While many stereotypes concerning today’s youth and technology are flawed, there are a few that stand up to scrutiny. Gen Z has grown up hand-in-hand with technology, and though this is useful in technological proficiency, a significant fraction of Generation Z used the Internet to replace much of their social interaction in their formative years. This means that though Gen Z’s technical skills are much stronger, their soft skills are in general much weaker than those of their predecessors. Many activities that established professionals find easy and intuitive can be extremely difficult for Gen Z – including skills such as writing professional emails, meeting new people, and answering the phone.

So…what can we do to prepare for the Gen Z wave?

As Gen Zs flood the workplace, we will begin to see a wave of change in the business world. This is a wave we need to follow. No matter how irritating and disruptive you might find this generation, they are the future – and with the pace at which society is accelerating, we all know getting left in the past will not enhance one’s chances for success.

These changes in the workplace could be simple, such as better utilizing online communications and changing managerial attitudes toward the work-life or employer-employee divide. However, the most comprehensive changes will be the most effective. For example, making technology a culture in your workplace, and being as cutting-edge in your usage as possible (using up and coming technologies such as AI, machine learning, and complex analytics) can and will attract Gen Zs and make your workplace as innovative and efficient as possible.

Even more comprehensive changes might include restructuring of the division of labor in the workplace. Gen Zs enjoy learning, variety and creativity, and it has been suggested that a more fluid organization of the workplace (including rotational programs, shadowing, and increased opportunities for learning and development) would benefit not only Gen Z employees, but employees of all generations.

But the most important change employers can make in transitioning Gen Z into the workforce lies in training. Expanding new employee training into soft skills will reduce stress and make the workplace run more efficiently for Gen Zs and older generations alike. Though soft skills training is most effective face-to-face, other specific skills could be more efficiently delivered through micro-learning – a new type of training that styles lessons or Youtube-like videos into small segments, making them less time-consuming, easier to fit into the work week, and better at taking into account the younger generations’ fascination for learning new things and sometimes shortened attention span.

Finally, we must acknowledge that with Gen Z’s entrance into the workforce will come a shift in employee recruitment. Though employers won’t want to hear it, their companies are about to become a commodity just like everything else. With the rise of the Internet comes the rise of review culture, and with the rise of Gen Z comes the rise of an attitude that a workplace should do as much for them as they do for it. Young people will no longer be satisfied with a boring, unsatisfying work life, especially if that comes with poor benefits and low pay in proportion to their effort, time commitment, and education. As companies become commodities, they will have to work harder to gain and retain employees. This means having a better, larger, and more active online presences, as well as a more attractive workplace. It means catering to young people in a way that companies have never had to do with previous generations, and viewing employment as more of a give-and-take than a privilege.

Gen Z is a generation unlike any the professional world has ever seen. Their influx into the workforce will change the culture of employment, recruitment, and management style, and their contributions will leave unadaptable industries and employers behind, while catapulting companies that embrace their eccentricities to new successes. This generation – despite their modern flaws – is innovative, hardworking, and more globally aware than ever before. They are starting to graduate high school and college, and are ready to change the world. Whether you like it or not, Gen Z is coming to the workplace. Are you ready?

MM&E

(Kaitlyn Wallace is a contributing writer from St. Louis, Missouri)

About the author

Joe Clote

Joseph W. Clote is owner of Publishing Concepts, LLC a communications and marketing firm based in Saint Louis, Missouri. Mr. Clote is Group Publisher of MeetMed™ and Missouri Meetings & Events™ (MM&E) magazine, a quarterly publication read by thousands of meeting and event professionals, and producer of the St. Louis and Kansas City trade shows under the MM&E name. Mr. Clote has extensive sales and marketing expertise in the travel, tourism, fine art, insurance, and software development industries.