Here Comes Gen Z. Prepare for Your Values to Be Questioned

BY Angelica Frey | November 09, 2021

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.”

(Photo by Eva Katalin/iStock by Getty Images)

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.


Are You an HR Leader Who Can’t Say No? Then Maybe This Book Is for You

If setting boundaries is the right thing for your mental health, then why is it so hard to do? With all the demands on HR professionals in recent years, burnout has become a major problem. With good timing, author and playwright Kara Cutruzzula has come along with Do It (Or Don’t): A Boundary-Creating Journal, the third in her series on personal motivation. The book is rich with insights about why we hestitate to say no, how to do it gracefully, and when to know when it’s probably the best answer. In an email interview, From Day One asked her about the key lessons in her new book: Q. Why are we afraid of saying no? Is it mostly about being superstitious about missing an opportunity, or FOMO, or just not wanting to hurt people's feelings?We don’t say no to certain opportunities or people because it’s either uncomfortable, we don’t want to disappoint someone, or we think our future selves are magically less busy than our present-day selves, and a new obligation will somehow be manageable. These are valid reasons! Yet I would argue, in nearly all cases, the few minutes of feeling itchy and anxious before saying “no” are vastly preferable to giving a reluctant “yes” and then feeling resentful. It's almost always kinder to give a quick “no” than a half-hearted “yes.”Q: What are the hardest invitations to say no to?A person with a full calendar says “no” faster than a person who can fit almost anything into their schedule. Sometimes we accept invitations or opportunities because that specific time slot might be open at the moment, but we shouldn’t consider our time as “free” simply because an offer is extended. Getting clear on where you prefer to spend your time before the invitation comes your way makes it easier to deliberate what’s worth that time–or isn’t.Q. Many people in the HR profession have been suffering burnout after all they’ve endured while leading people through crisis after crisis since 2020. Do you have any advice for them about not trying to solve everyone’s problems–or how to set limits?Can you look at what is actually being asked of you, and then at what you have decided to give? We all want to achieve and, often, overachieve, and can forget that going above and beyond is not sustainable. Giving exactly what you are able to give in the moment can be the answer, even if that changes day to day or week to week. It’s kinder to yourself and the people you are trying to serve.Q. Being a good team player is highly valued in business these days, but how can workers set limits and still be regarded as a collaborative colleague?Communication is the holy grail. If you’re not going to be available one afternoon, tell someone. If your colleague’s non-urgent 8 a.m. Slack messages cast a pall over your morning, tell them–or don’t look at the messages until you’re ready to respond. Respect your own boundaries and remember that you have a choice over what you let into your day. And when you are working with a colleague, give them your full attention–the goal is to continue giving an unequivocal “yes” to wherever you are and whatever you’re working on at the moment, so that we can all do our best work together.Q. It’s easy to say yes quickly, but harder to craft a suitable no. What’s your advice about not procrastinating with an answer?Faster is kinder. Consider all the times you’ve reached out to someone with a favor or request. Getting a quick “no” might sting for a moment–then you move on. Waiting to hear back, however, ratchets up anxiety and can affect your other plans. If you know it's a “no,” say so right away. And if you're debating whether it's a “no,” here’s a hint: It probably should be.Q. Could you give us an example or two of ways to say no, but in a way that doesn't close the door on a relationship?We all have many things on our plates, and sometimes it’s fine to simply say that: I'm sorry that it’s a busy time right now so I won’t be able to join you / take advantage of this opportunity / work together on this project, but I hope you’ll keep me in mind of the future. That’s it.I also love to recommend other people, friends, and colleagues for opportunities. While you're politely declining, take one minute to think, “Do I know anyone who would love to say ‘yes’ to this?,” and then pass along their name. Share the wealth.Q. A lot of times we might say yes to an opportunity, then have regrets as the obligation approaches, but then it turns out we’re glad we did it for reasons we didn’t expect. Does this familiar sequence of emotions tell us anything about how to figure out how to make decisions?This happens so often! We dread going to an event yet meet a new and interesting person or make a business contact. Though I’d say this happens rarely. There are events and opportunities that pull us in, and those that push us away. If you have to force yourself to do something, and it goes well–fantastic! But was it really worth the days of “Should I cancel? Can I rope in someone else to go with me?” Why settle for that feeling, when we have the option to actually look forward to what’s on our calendars, instead of hoping a few items will magically disappear?Q. You describe in the book how to set boundaries by establishing the priorities you want to fence off from interference. What’s a good way to get started thinking about that?In recent months, I found myself blaming a few culprits as reasons why I wasn’t “doing what I wanted to do.” But when I looked at the boundaries I had created–or rather hadn't–around certain projects, I noticed there were zero fences or borders. My day would get chopped up into slivers by others, and it was entirely my fault. I was boundary-less. So you must start by answering the question: Where do I actually want to spend my time? Chunk off a section of your day, whether that’s 15 minutes or four hours, and actually make it a priority. Your boundaries will become a lot easier to maintain.Q. Does it help to make some commitments for yourself that you just won’t allow to be interfered with, like an appointment with a friend, therapist, or physical trainer? How does that pay dividends larger than the appointment itself?Author and playwright Kara Cutruzzula (Photo courtesy of the author)When we go to the dentist, we’re at the mercy of the dentist. Your time becomes your dentist’s time. But you can and should treat commitments to yourself with similar diligence. This isn’t about being harder on yourself. It’s the opposite: you are giving yourself the same focus and concentration as you would someone else. They’re worth it, but you’re worth it too. Q. People flake out on other people all the time, but you offer guidelines on how to “flake with grace.” Why is this OK to do, and an example of how to do it?Flaking is sometimes unavoidable, but there are ways to make it hurt less. Do it quickly, and do it with kindness. The most uncomfortable part of flaking isn’t saying, “Sorry I can’t do this after all,” but rather the billowing silence that preambles the flaking. When you know you can’t follow through, just be honest and tell the other person right away. Q. To be good at boundary-tending, one needs to respect other people’s boundaries as well. Your book offers some good advice about making the now-notorious request to “pick someone’s brain.” What should we keep in mind when asking someone for that kind of favor?Imagine a person texts you and asks if you'd like to go to a concert somewhere in a nearby state at some point in the future. They don’t explain the type of music or when or where; it's a vague, open-ended question. You wouldn’t know how to respond because you don’t have details. The same thing happens when you ask to “pick someone’s brain.” The other person doesn't have enough information to respond with a “yes” or “no,” which is why so many brain-picking requests are met with silence or long-delayed responses. So get specific! Do the work for them. What do you actually want to know? Why might they have the answer to your questions? Layer in these details in your request upfront and the person on the other end will be able to evaluate their own boundaries–and give you their own definitive yes or no.Q. How does this new book fit into your trilogy of books?Do It For Yourself is designed to help you work through a big project with reflective prompts and strategies on getting started and overcoming obstacles. Do It Today has more intensive activities like embracing percolation rather than productivity, and sharing the gifts that only you have to share. Do It (or Don't) is pinpointing a major issue: the feeling in our lives that there is too much to do and not enough time in which to do all of it. It encourages you to draw new lines around your time and energy to, ultimately, make it easier to do your most meaningful work.Q. And finally, we all need to rest. But sometimes, it’s complicated. What’s your advice about being more deliberate about this?Honestly, I’m bad at resting! I just worked for most of the weekend. But giving yourself an end date is always helpful. Maybe this is a busy period of your life and you have to accept that. Yet there is always some time on the horizon that you can look forward to–maybe it’s next quarter, or next year or, miraculously, next weekend. Build that into your schedule as downtime and be as strict with that boundary as you are with your other boundaries.Steve Koepp is From Day One’s chief content officer.(Featured image by MicrovOne/iStock by Getty Images)

Stephen Koepp | September 19, 2023

The Great Resignation Is Over. Will Employers Take Workers for Granted?

As the months of 2023 have ticked by, the Great Resignation has quietly lost something: its greatness. The worker resignation rate in June fell to 2.4%, essentially returning to where it was in June 2019. For employers who had been in a war for talent, the dramatic lack of turnover has brought welcome relief. But what does that mean for workers, who in 2020-22 enjoyed a wealth of new benefits, job flexibility, and employer concern about their well-being? Will employers start taking workers for granted?While HR experts say that most employers won’t be inclined to turn the clock back to 2019, workers will see a more miserly approach. In terms of total rewards, you could call it the Great Moderation. “Employee retention at all costs–in terms of very high salaries; PTO and other employee perks–is over,” Janine Yancey, CEO of the corporate-culture platform Emtrain, told From Day One. While she believes that job flexibility and pay equity are here to stay, “we’re moving into a time of scarcity, not abundance, which impacts the employee experience.”The Great Resignation’s obituary was written earlier this month, when the management professor who coined the term in 2021, Anthony Klotz, told Fast Company, “I believe the Great Resignation has largely come to an end.” Added Klotz, who is now a professor at University College London’s School of Management: “The backlog of quitting has certainly cleared, as has the turnover contagion and tight labor market it caused in its wake. People who had pandemic epiphanies and planned life pivots have enacted them; and in some cases, boomeranged back to what they were doing before.”Why They’re StayingEmployee surveys indicate that workers are motivated to stay in their jobs by a mixture of caution and the need for a calm stretch of time. The massive layoffs early in the pandemic, followed by the wave of austerity-inspired layoffs in the last year, have made workers less inclined to be job-hopping if they trust their situation.At the same time, they are overdue for some R and R for the sake of their sanity. “We are now in a time when stability and routine are supporting mental-health needs as many recover from the shock of unplanned life/work changes,” Laura Sewell, EVP of North American HR for the IT services consultancy Avanade, told From Day One. “It has only been in the past 12 to 18 months that more and more people have begun planning vacations, events, and other activities which were put on hold during the pandemic. As such, having access to paid time off through their employer offers them both the time they need and the financial backing to finally take those trips and plan the events. And you are less likely to switch employers when you are planning big, fun things outside of work in your personal life.”The incentive to switch jobs for higher compensation has eased as well, Sewell notes. “While the war for talent was raging, employees could often get 20%+ more by leaving their employer to join a competitor. Job seekers today may not find that same opportunity for significant increase in earnings, thus reducing a motivating factor for making that move.”Why Employers Are Tightening UpThe combination of high interest rates and slow economic growth have inspired companies to clamp down on spending as well as hiring. “2023 has been the year of massive downsizing across the board,” observes Yancey. “Capital is scarce and capital fuels business growth, so that will impact job growth. Businesses are focused on showing profitability first and foremost.”How will the austerity mindset affect employee benefits? That issue has caused tension between finance departments and HR leaders who just recently had been working overtime to create new incentives to attract and retain employees, including programs to support worker well-being and family caregiving. “We’re in this constant battle with finance,” said Ken Wechsler, VP of total rewards at Akamai Technologies, in a recent From Day One webinar on employee benefits. “We’re fighting for it, and I guess my colleagues on this call will also fight it. We might not get as much moving forward, but we will fight.”Benefits leaders are finding that they need to justify spending much more than they did in the recent past, said Todd Cowgill, VP of global rewards for Equinix, a digital-infrastructure company. “If you cannot tell what the return on investment of your program is, you will lose that program,” he said in the webinar. “You have to understand what the company as a business gets because of the program, what it costs, and what it gets back.”Which Workplace Improvements Will EndurePart of the reason for low turnover right now, Avanade’s Sewell points out, is the enhanced working conditions that were inspired by the hardships of the pandemic. “Over the past three years, inclusion and well-being have rocketed to the top of our people priorities. With this increased focus, employees are feeling better supported at work, have access to more resources and benefits to take care of themselves, and in general, most have greater flexibility in how and where they get their work done.”Despite well-publicized efforts by some major employers, notably in finance, to bring workers back to the office for a majority of the workweek, job flexibility is a value that has become well-embedded in the expectations of most workers. Asserted Emtrain’s Yancey: “I believe the need for job flexibility is here to stay and employer's obligation to create jobs with pay equity and a healthy, inclusive work culture is here to stay.”So is the inclination for workers to negotiate their terms. “Everything is in play now­–things I had never even thought of when it comes to total rewards,” said Akamai’s Wechsler. “We give employees the choice of where they want to work, and 90% of them have said they want to work from home. They’ll self-select. We make the effort to do things in the office a lot–but now a lot means quarterly. We know that most will not want to come, and some folks will want to attend an event because they get to go to the office.”  Trying to Reach an EquilibriumWhile turnover may be low at the moment, forward-looking employers know that future job shortages driven by an aging population and new attitudes toward work mean that they can’t forget the lessons learned during the Great Resignation. “It’s a new culture of work,” behavioral scientist Laurel McKenzie told Fast Company’s AJ Hess. “No one’s staying at organizations for years and years. The new culture of work is that people are willing to leave and find something better. There’s not a sense of loyalty to organizations anymore. People are more focused on taking care of themselves and finding organizations that will enable that.”Avanade’s Sewell says her company keeps close tabs on employee-engagement surveys to pick up on trends in employee sentiment. “We take nothing for granted. There will always be cycles, which can often be unpredictable. Our goal is to maintain the hearts and minds of our employees through all of the ups and downs and be prepared for what is ahead. By building loyalty now, we are creating a stronger foundation for whatever wave comes next.”In a book to be published next month, The Retention Revolution: 7 Surprising (and Very Human!) Ways to Keep Employees Connected to Your Company, workplace strategist and bestselling author Erica Keswin calls for a new paradigm in thinking about the relationship between workkers and employers. “The time is now to reconsider everything we know about the employee journey and why linear thinking is being replaced by the more human reality of cycles, revolving doors, and dynamic change.” Steve Koepp is From Day One’s chief content officer. 

Stephen Koepp | August 16, 2023

Older Workers and Technology: How They Approach It With a Different Mindset

Karen Fleshman is a 54-year-old CEO of a small workshop-facilitation company based in the world’s tech capital, the San Francisco Bay Area. Recently, a potential client approached her about creating some anti-harassment videos, but before they would award her company the contract, they wanted to see a sample. Fleshman’s expertise is content, not tech. To win the job, she would need to deliver both.“I was like, ‘Oh God, this is not something I can record on my phone,” said Fleshman. “I’m really going to have to work to make this look up to their standards.” Video creation and artificial intelligence is new territory for Fleshman—for the project, she’s teaching herself Descript, Loom, StreamYard, and—but resourcefulness comes naturally. “I’m not the most technologically proficient person to have walked the planet,” she said. “But I am a very creative person, and I’m also a very strategic person.”Fleshman is careful to not live down to the stereotypes about people in her age bracket when it comes to technological proficiency. “There is the assumption that I won’t be technologically proficient, so I’m trying to not play into the stereotype that I’m going to ask for help because I’m frustrated,” Fleshman told From Day One. “I try to do what Millennials do and look for a YouTube tutorial.”Most mid- and late-career workers know the preconceived notions counting against them: bad with tech, slow to learn, resistant to change. A survey by found that people 45 and older commonly cite their age as one of the most significant barriers to getting hired. If indeed “every company now is a tech company,” like the pundits declare, where does that leave older workers who are especially susceptible to the ageist stereotype that the older you are, the fewer tech skills you have and are capable of learning?Karen Fleshman, CEO of a workshop-facilitation company in the Bay Area (Photo courtesy of Karen Fleshman; featured photo by Gorodenkoff/iStock by Getty Images)  In some cases, Gen Zers and Millennials do outperform their older peers when it comes to tech. There’s data to support this. In 2021, the Urban Institute found that, generally, adults aged 50 and older have fewer digital skills than those under age 50, though the gap is not particularly wide. Simple exposure is likely to blame. If Gen Xers wrote their term papers at terminals in the university computer lab, Gen Zers dictated theirs to a phone that autocorrected their spelling and generated perfect MLA citations. “People say, ‘I want to hire digital natives because they’re more adaptable and more skilled with tech,’ but I’ve never seen any empirical evidence that that’s true,” said Paul Leonardi, a professor of technology management at UC-Santa Barbara and co-author of The Digital Mindset: What It Really Takes to Thrive in the Age of Data, Algorithms, and AI. Yet in some cases, older workers aren’t given the opportunity to learn new tech skills because it’s assumed they either don’t want to or aren’t capable.  With the quantity and variety of technology available to the average consumer growing relentlessly, it’s becoming harder for anyone to be a true expert on the innumerable choices at hand. “So many of these technologies are new for everyone, not just the older folks in the workforce,” said Loren Blandon, the global head of learning and development for advertising agency VMLY&R. “We’re all on this learning curve together, so from that perspective, there’s an even playing field.”If more seasoned workers express resistance to new tools, it’s not on stubborn principle, but because they’ve seen tech trends before, said Heather Tinsley-Fix, a senior advisor at AARP, which offers a multigenerational skill-building platform. How many promising new ideas have been adopted only for them to be made obsolete or replaced just as quickly? “Whereas a younger worker who’s 20 years old, this might be their first or second change of processor platform,” Tinsley-Fix observed.Older workers pump the brakes out of judicious caution while “young workers charging ahead, and it looks like younger workers are better at this,” said Leonardi.The distorted notion that older workers look unkindly at change can do a lot of damage to a well-developed career. According to the study, hiring managers said that reluctance to learn new technologies is the No. 1 characteristic most likely to limit the success of job seekers 45 and older. No. 2 is the inability to learn new skills. In addition, hiring managers tend to think of workers under age 45 as being more “application-ready,” that they have more relevant experience and are a better culture fit.But those same managers fail to support their own beliefs. The same survey found that when asked about overall performance, 87% of hiring managers said that their older workers perform as well or better than their younger peers.Given the penalties for being “old” in the workplace, mid- and late-career workers worry about looking like the stereotype. “There’s this internalized ageism, where they’re afraid that they’re going to be perceived as slow and not able to do it better or fast enough,” said Tinsley-Fix. “If I don’t know how to do something on, say, LinkedIn, I will go to someone and ask them to teach me, but I will never admit it openly because I’m mid-career, and I don’t want people to know that I don’t know.”Kyra Sutton, who teaches at the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations, said the ability to use or learn new skills isn’t usually what divides the generations, it’s the format. Sutton is currently surveying her students about their learning preferences, and the unofficial results indicate that “those under 25 prefer mechanisms like TikTok and YouTube. People that are 45 and older still want technology, but they want it consumed in a different way. TED Talks or podcasts are very popular among that group.” Blandon at VMLY&R flagged something similar. “I think learning styles are more personality-based than age-based, but if I had to say where age differences emerge, it would be in attention span. For our entry-level folks, we need to come at them with short-form video.”Leonardi notes that motivation can also vary across generations. Older workers, he’s found, have less patience for learning things they aren’t interested in. Employers may be wise to have senior team members take on new tech that corresponds to a totally new skill they’re interested in learning. “Let your older workers surprise you,” Leonardi said. “Give them the opportunity to use a new tool not for the sake of using a new tool, but to expand their own knowledge, and they will have the motivation.”For many, interest is self-generated. “There have been times in this when I’ve become incredibly frustrated,” said Fleshman, the Bay Area entrepreneur. The video tools she’s teaching herself don’t integrate with each other, and the standards for video production are exceedingly high. “Because we have all these tools at our disposal, the standards of what things should look and feel like are so high. And then it’s me and my laptop.”Why, then, didn’t she just hire out the work? Wouldn’t it be easier to write the content herself and hire experts to do the video production? Because it’s new, she said. It could land her this new client, and now she’s considering recording other sessions and gating them behind a paywall. “I wanted to develop a new skill, and I wanted to see what these different things are capable of doing. I’m doing this on contract for another company, but I can apply this to my own. I’m excited about that possibility.” Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza is a freelance journalist and From Day One contributing editor who writes about work, the job market, and women’s experiences in the workplace. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, Quartz at Work, Fast Company, Digiday’s Worklife, and Food Technology, among others.   

Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza | July 26, 2023