Are You Ready for Gen Z?

by Alexandra Levit

Millennials have captured the global workforce’s imagination. And Millennials are important, of course, as they are our current and rising leaders. But what about Generation Z, born 1996-2012? This year, the oldest Gen Zers will enter the professional workforce, and they are very different than what we’ve come to expect from the Millennials.

Comprised of the children of late boomers and Gen Xers, Generation Z is a relatively small cohort. And, at least in developed countries, Generation Z is so racially and ethnically diverse that they are less attuned to what they look like and more focused on what they believe. As an example, my 10-year-old son has a friend who is one-quarter Taiwanese, one-quarter Mexican, one-quarter African-American, and one-quarter Jewish. If you ask him about his race, he’ll look momentarily confused. “I’m not really anything,” he’ll say. “Well, maybe American?”
Like their older Millennial brothers and sisters, Gen Zers don’t particularly understand the purpose of diversity programs that aim to get equal numbers of diverse employees in the same room. “Why do we even have to force this diversity thing?” one college student recently asked me. “If I can’t walk into a company’s lobby and automatically see a whole bunch of different-looking people, there’s something wrong.” To Gen Z, true diversity and inclusion is cognitive, meaning that employees are respected for their individual backgrounds, perspectives, and opinions, regardless of their level or role.

When I researched Gen Z for an article in the New York Times, I learned that this generation is independent and resourceful. As the first digital natives, Gen Zers grew up learning to ask Siri or Google (rather than their parents or teachers) if they wanted to know something. They have hacked their own education and, because of the Internet’s reach and access to global connections, are jumpstarting their careers and solving society’s problems at a far younger age than previous generations. They wait for nothing and no one.

When I started talking about the Millennials in 2004, the oldest ones had just entered the workforce, and to put it bluntly, companies didn’t care. I warned leaders that they were going to need to change the way they did things, but until Millennial workforce participation reached critical mass a few years ago, the uptake of my advice was slow and painful.
I’m hoping that we don’t make the same mistake with Generation Z. We are at an inflection point right now: if we make the effort to understand what they want and need, we can pivot accordingly, and our mid-century organizations will be exactly the places Gen Zers want to work, thrive, and eventually lead. These additional insights about Generation Z, derived partly from a recent Universum study and partly from my own experiences working with this group, should assist you.

  • Make early connections. Gen Zers form deep, employment-related bonds at a young age. Develop relationships with your local high schools and invite Gen Zers to tour, take coursework, and shadow employees at your site. Once you meet a promising Gen Zer, keep in touch and offer ongoing career guidance.
  • Evolve your viewpoint on higher education. Gen Zers believe that college may not be necessary unless you know what you want to do and that path requires a particular degree. They aren’t necessarily convinced they should spend the money, so if you are mandating a degree, be prepared to explain why. Also consider partnering with colleges to develop relevant curricula and incorporate real-world experience
  • Recruit with the right messages. Gen Zers are appreciative of job security, competitive salaries and benefits, and clear promotion opportunities. Purpose is important, but they want to find it themselves rather than relying on the company’s. Promote a culture where rewards are based on performance rather than tenure, and new hires will have opportunities to shine among their colleagues.
  • Step away from the screens. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that Gen Zers only want to be engaged by technology. According to a recent RainmakerThinking study, Gen Zers demand that leaders commit even more to the fundamentals of highly-engaged management: meeting regularly 1-on-1, coaching performance every step of the way, and supporting career development within your organization.
  • Adopt a gig mindset. The ideal company for Gen Zers is less bureaucratic, less hierarchical, and more entrepreneurial. Gen Zers enjoy project-based work, pursuing many career paths at the same time, and launching ventures designed to make money from hobbies and other interests.
  • Expose them to variety. Gen Zers will appreciate trying their hands at various functions, and learning as many transferable skills as possible in their first year of employment.
  • Nurture their Achilles heel. Gen Zers can suffer from a deficit of interpersonal skills. However, they earnestly want to improve and enjoy exploring questions like, “when are emojis appropriate?” “Why shouldn’t you shorten ‘you’ to ‘u’ in a business email?” That said, Gen Zers also value independence and privacy so don’t force-feed constant collaboration via open offices and group initiatives.
  • Leverage their tech savvy. Gen Z will lead the way in adopting new technology in real-time and building hybrid human and machine teams. They will become leaders even earlier than the Millennials for this reason.

Alexandra Levit is the author of the new book Humanity Works: Merging Technologies and People for the Workforce of the Future (Kogan Page, October 2018). A partner at People Results, she helps Fortune 500 and government organizations and their leaders prepare for the future of work through proprietary research, consulting, and program development.

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