Is Generation Z here to save us–or shove the rest of us aside? Not long before the pandemic arrived, in an optimistic story headlined “Gen Z Are Going to Save Us All From Office Life,” the New York Times asked, “Could they be among the first to understand the proper role of work in life–and end up remaking work for everyone else?” Just two years later, though, the saviors have turned a little scary. In a widely noted piece headlined, “The 37-Year-Olds Are Afraid of the 23-Year-Olds Who Work for Them,” employers said they were taken aback by “the new boldness in the way Gen Z dictates taste.”
While everyone was preoccupied with the pandemic, a new generation started making its mark on the world of work–and things are going to be different around here. Gen Z, typically defined as the 72 million people born between 1997 and 2012, will make up an estimated 27% of the global workforce by 2025. They’ll be joining preceding generations of colleagues–including the Millennials, Generation X, and the Baby Boomers–in a workforce where age diversity is the widest ever.
What’s unusual about Gen Z is the degree to which they see themselves as the ones who will course-correct what the previous generations have wrought. Where millennials had self-obsessed icons like the Lena Dunham character Hannah Horvath, Gen Z has the likes of real-life climate crusader Greta Thunberg.
Similar to other generations, though, Gen Z is the product of the world in which they grew up. Members of Gen Z were mostly too young to remember what life was like before 9/11, but old enough to internalize major upheavals including the Great Recession, the Trump Administration, climate change, and the pandemic. Their historical context is nonstop crisis.
What’s more, they’re the first fully digital native generation, which gives them unprecedented adaptability to new technology brought into any avenue of life. “Gen Zers are shaped by and encounter the world in a radically different way from those who know what life was like without the internet; they seamlessly blend their offline and online worlds,” according to a new book, Gen Z, Explained: The Art of Living in a Digital Age. “They have had to navigate this new digital world largely without the guidance of their elders, and so have learned how to make their way within this fast-moving digital environment on their own.” The ability to share information with blinding speed made activism more feasible on a large scale.
At the same time, however, the experience of Gen Z is 'often paradoxical, even contradictory,' observe Gen Z, Explained’s authors, a team of four academics who conducted extensive interviews with members of the generation. While “they have more ‘voice’ than ever before,” thanks to the internet and social media, “they also have a sense of diminished agency ‘in real life,’” which they attribute to the failure of the institutions and systems around them. “They’re often optimistic about their own generation but deeply pessimistic about the problems they have inherited,” the authors note, and see “little chance of owning a home or improving on their parents’ level of affluence.”
In the realm of work, they're looking for purpose, meaning, diversity and inclusion, and a sense that their employers are good corporate citizens. According to research by Deloitte, “while salary is the most important factor in deciding on a job, Generation Z values salary less than every other generation: If given the choice of accepting a better-paying but boring job versus work that was more interesting but didn’t pay as well, Gen Z was fairly evenly split over the choice.”
You’ll be hearing a lot more from them. “One area that I think majorly differentiates Gen Z from previous generations is their willingness to speak up and challenge the status quo–and the openness from other generations to listen,” Kate Beckman, executive manager of community and insights at the early-career platform RippleMatch, told From Day One. “This generation has a lot of ideas and they aren't afraid to share them, but there's a level of openness from other generations that I think will lead to more fruitful conversations.”
While millennials were often stereotyped as the original slackers, in practice their work ethic has been marked by an obsession that has led to widespread burnout, an object lesson that Gen Z is taking to heart. Among the other Gen Z characteristics that will bring change to the workplace:
Understanding What Being ‘Digital Native’ Means in Terms of Workplace Behavior
As the first generation raised entirely in the era of smartphones, with the internet available on all devices, Gen Z assumes boundless information and communication. “Disruption has been their life: for them, collaboration comes in all forms, shapes, and sizes,” said Hope Bailey, global head of solution advisory for SAP SuccessFactors, in a Quartz webinar on Gen Z management. “They're seeking collaboration across multiple platforms, and they view their work much more dynamically because of their built-in disruptions.”
Where millennials were seeking positive affirmation and reassurance about their doing the right thing, Gen Z has more confidence in its moral compass. “It is very much influenced by their social networks, as in, ‘I want to do the right thing but I am likely to be influenced by X,’” said Bailey. Their collaboration style implies the existence of multiple data sources. When you want that much input, you have to be able to collaborate across platforms. “In their pursuit of equity, their communication pattern is slightly different; the signals are a little subtler,” said Paul Rubenstein, chief people officer at the people-analytics platform Visier, in the Quartz webinar. “A like button might mean something different for different generations.”
Understanding Their Different Stance on Leadership
Their comfort with collaborative work shapes the attitude Gen Zers have about how leadership should be exercised. “The vast majority of the Gen-Zers we interviewed, when asked what kind of leadership they favored, said that they prefer leaders to be respectful, caring, and willing to take responsibility for the good of the group, and some cited skillful moderators of online sites as models,” write the authors of Gen Z, Explained. To them, top-down leadership feels like a relic from the industrial revolution at a time when digital work requires new techniques to harness the combined power of workers sitting in front of their screens, with their colleagues scattered across the world. The authors continued: “Tech startups and new family structures that are intentionally less hierarchical have provided some examples, but, as with their vision of a pluralistic society, their orientation to collaborative leadership will likely be another front in the Gen Zers’ social change battles that proves difficult, requiring considerable innovation and experimentation.”
Yet it remains to be seen what is the more powerful influence: their ethos or the technological context. “Each generation, from Baby Boomers to Gen X to Millennials to Gen Z,” said Beckman, “have been provided with new technologies that have fostered stronger collaboration. The invention of conference calls was likely a huge boost to the concept of collaboration at its time, and the generation that experienced that firsthand was likely branded as ‘more collaborative.’”
Going Beyond Monetary Benefits
While pay and benefits still provide powerful retention tools, Gen Z is looking for something more. “To retain Generation Z, you need to provide a workplace that allows them to thrive professionally and personally,” said Beckman, citing RippleMatch data. “Specifically, our data has shown that the Covid-era Gen Z professional highly values work-life balance and flexibility, as well as financial security and compensation.”
This goes hand in hand with their openness about mental health. “For post-millennials, mental health challenges are normal. They talk openly about them all the time: it is a mark of authenticity to talk about what is going on in your life,” reports Gen Z, Explained, adding that stating a mental-health diagnosis can be an integral mark of their identity. While this means that Gen Z values mental-health resources as part of their benefits packages, and might not shy away from asking for a mental-health day in a candid manner, their openness to mental-health challenges also comes with lack of confidence in the workplace.
For this reason, managers need to recognize and foster a growth mindset, one where feedback is seen as valuable, skills are presented as learnable, and making mistakes is part of the process. “Some companies have promoted a culture of experimentation, which includes safe-to-fail challenges, helping them exercise their strategic thinking,” as the University of California, Berkeley’s California Management Review reported.
Parsing Their Cynicism
Generation Z has faced unique challenges. They’re accustomed to living in uncertainty, having experienced two major upheavals in the past decade as they were coming of age (both the financial crisis and the pandemic), when they witnessed people losing their jobs and corporate managers struggling to adapt to the remote-work revolution. “These experiences make it easy for Gen Zers to be cynical and hard for them to believe that a corporation or company will operate ethically,” write Robin Paggi and Kat Clowes in their new book Managing Generation Z.
This distrust extends to national institutions, which largely fell short of people's expectations during both the financial crisis and the pandemic. “Employers should realize Gen Z workers will be on high alert for policies or programs that seem to benefit the workplace over its workers,” write the Managing Generation Z authors. “So, if you are looking for loyalty from Gen Zers, you will first have to prove your loyalty to them and frequently let them know where they stand.”
Gen Z might appear oblivious to the social norms that constitute workplace etiquette, but should that be a bad thing? “Ignoring social norms stems from the fact this generation is understandably questioning why things are the way they are,” said Beckman. “The traditional advice of ‘Go to college, get a job’ was turned on its head in the 2008 recession that they saw impacted their parents and older siblings, and then it happened once again to the oldest members of Generation Z with the onset of Covid-19. Gen Z ignores social norms because there hasn't been much upside to adhering to traditional social norms.”
Gen Z members are also more progressive and diverse, having witnessed that the traditional social norms have been laced with inequities and have benefitted certain groups more than others. “This is a generation that is seeking to leave the world a better place and improve upon the status quo, so it's not surprising they're choosing to question traditional norms and traditional definitions of what it means to be professional,” said Beckman.
Considering the Side Hustle
A survey in 2020 by LendingTree reported that nearly 46% of Gen Zers ages 18 to 23 have a side hustle, while other surveys indicate that about three-fourths of 21-to-26-year-olds do freelance work on top of their full-time jobs. Much of the motivation for this extra work is financial, given that the growth in wages has lagged far behind the growth in worker productivity in recent years. Yet side hustles can also be a conduit to personal fulfillment. When they approach their day-job managers for approval of this work, their hope is that their employers will not push back.
“People have to grow, right?” said Rubenstein, speaking in his managerial role. “I can support your side gigs, but these are your accountabilities.” Side hustles can bring potential conflicts of interest regarding either competitors or intellectual property. Yet they can be enriching for the employee and the employer as well. “Companies should be excited about having employees that are multifaceted and can bring diverse perspectives into the workplace based on the activities they do outside of working hours,” said Beckman. “That said, if you’re a company that doesn't want to leave room for side gigs, own that and be upfront about it. It’s OK to stick to your identity, especially as Gen Z is not a monolith.”
Finding the Virtues in Generational Differences
While Gen Z arrives with a challenge to the status quo, their older colleagues don’t need to take it personally, despite the ubiquitous “OK Boomer” meme, which implies that “the older generation misunderstands millennial and Gen Z culture and politics so fundamentally that years of condescension and misrepresentation have led to this pointedly terse rebuttal and rejection,” as Vox put it.
To gain some personal perspective, I consulted a Gen Z member among my From Day One colleagues. “Gen Z is like this because we have to be. Because of our unsustainable economy and environment, these crises have become existential,” said Mahmoud Khair-Eldin, a From Day One data marketing assistant and teaching fellow at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art. “Gen Z can’t change this world alone, and we don’t have time to wait till Gen Z is the oldest generation to fix the problems of today.”
While appreciating generational differences is important, so too is resisting stereotypes when it comes to judging individuals, including some of the myths about older workers. The richness of thinking and experience that makes diverse companies more innovative can apply to generational differences as well. As the workforce gets more multi-generational, with people working well into their 60s alongside new college grads, managers should emphasize common goals. “By doing so,” reported Harvard Business Review, “both older and younger people can see themselves as part of the same team working toward the same outcome.”
Angelica Frey is a writer and a translator based in Milan and Brooklyn.