The next generation of workers is upon us: Generation Z, or the iGeneration, has begun to enter the workforce, and the first class of college degree-holders will graduate this spring. So what does this mean for the future of work? Researcher and Generation Xer David Stillman and his son, member of Generation Z Jonah Stillman, have studied this cohort and explain who this generation is, what has shaped them and what they will expect from work.
What is Generation Z, and what are some of its defining characteristics?
David: Gen Z is the generation that comes after the Millennial generation. They were born between the mid-1990s to the early 2000s, so roughly 1995 to 2010. Many are surprised to hear that the leading edge of the cohort is already graduating college this spring and heading to work. They are 72.8 million strong. Like all generations, Gen Z has its own unique events and conditions that have shaped them, resulting in a different outlook.
Jonah: As my dad said, we have our own conditions that have shaped us, plus our parents. Where Millennials were raised by self-esteem-building, optimistic Boomers, we were raised by tough-love, skeptical Gen Xers. At a young age, we were told by our Xer parents that there are winners and losers, and that more often than not, you lose. In addition, we grew up during the Great Recession, so we’re pragmatic, independent and in survival mode when it comes to looking at our future careers. We’re also the first true digital natives. We have only known phones that are smart and have been able to get our hands on any bit of information 24/7. While this makes us very resourceful, it also creates challenges in that we suffer from FOMO (fear of missing out)—big time. Gen Z is always worried whether we are moving ahead fast enough in comparison to everyone else. We are definitely not the most patient generation!
Why is it important that organizations and leaders begin thinking about Generation Z now?
David: We have a golden opportunity to be proactive rather than reactive. The leading edge is just starting to enter the workplace. If leaders get to know what makes Gen Z tick today, then they can better prepare to recruit and retain them. It’s not about “out with the old and in with the new;” it’s about anticipating where the conflicts might be and how best to prepare. In the 90s, leaders were not ready for Gen X when they showed up, and they paid a serious price for it. For example, Gen X entered the workplace skeptical and wanted to keep close tabs on their performance. Once-a-year formal feedback that worked for the Boomers was not enough for Gen X. Many Xers left their workplaces in search of companies that would give them more information more often.
Jonah: We see a lot of leaders look at someone young and assume we are all the same. Even more so, it is natural to look at someone from my generation and assume we are Millennials. The mistake is to then treat us like Millennials. If leaders do that, it will backfire again, as our national studies have proven we are drastically different from the Millennials.
What will Generation Z be looking for in a workplace?
David: One thing is for sure, they will not be looking for the same things we saw Millennials look for when they started out. Millennials were all about finding meaning in their jobs and how best to make the world a better place. With Gen Z coming of age during the recession, they are putting money and job security at the top of the list. Sure, they want to make a difference, but surviving and thriving are more important. The cultures that can foster that are the ones that will win the war for talent with Gen Z.
Jonah: The cultures that he is referring to will be those where we can showcase our own individual talents. Being in survival mode has made us very competitive. In fact, 72 percent of Gen Z said we are competitive with those doing the same job. Where Millennials had more of a collaborative mentality with everyone pitching in and working together, we are more independent and want to be judged on our own merits.
How will Generation Z transform the workplace?
David: Gen Zers are true digital natives. Ninety-one percent of Gen Z said technological sophistication would impact their interest in working at a company. As the workplace continues to figure out how best to incorporate technology, this generation will lead the way. This will not feel natural, as usually it is the older generations to lead the way. However, this is the first time we have the youngest generation as an authority figure on something really important. This will change the typical corporate hierarchy.
Jonah: More than technology, I believe my generation will bring an important entrepreneurial spirit to work. We will constantly look for ways to streamline processes and procedures. One thing we hear from a lot of Gen Zers is that we think the other generations overcomplicate things. We have grown up in a time where often the middleman has been eliminated so we will look for ways to do things more efficiently when we show up at the office. We truly are a DIY [do it yourself] generation and will bring this mentality with us to work.
What was one of your most surprising findings?
David: With Gen Z being the true digital natives, we had assumed their preferred mode of communication was texting or via one of their social media platforms. However, in our national study, 84 percent of Gen Z said face to face is their preferred mode of communication. Having seen so many organizations and leaders called into question as well as struggle in the recent recession, Gen Z is looking for honesty above all. Only 5 percent of Gen Z said they were motivated by a company’s reputation. In order to find that honest and transparent workplace, they want to be able to look their leaders in the eye.
Jonah: I was also surprised to hear that so many preferred face-to-face communication. However, I found it fascinating that 61 percent of Gen Z said they would stay at a company for more than 10 years. We are looking for stability and opportunities to advance and are willing to stick around if we can find it. However, we won’t be motivated if those opportunities to get ahead are based on how long you’ve been in a job. That will make no sense to Gen Z. In our eyes, it should strictly be based on performance, whether you’ve been there three weeks or three years.
How should employers react to the finding that 75 percent of Generation Z wish their current hobbycould become their full-time job?
David: This is a big concern. Gen Z is very entrepreneurial. Ideally, leaders will find ways for Gen Z to own their projects and become more entrepreneurial. However, a lot of Gen Zers figuring out how to create [job] security on their own will pursue hobbies that can generate income on the side. The difference with this generation is that they won’t see getting a job or pursuing these income-generating hobbies as an either/or. They will likely try to do both. Sure, this happened with other generations, but it was kept quiet and referred to as moonlighting. Today it is known as a side hustle. From Uber driving to selling stuff online and beyond, Gen Z will for sure have side hustles.
Jonah: The first comment everyone makes is that if they hire my generation, they don’t want us to pursue an outside work opportunity when we are working for them from 9 to 5. This seems fair; however, who works from 9 to 5 anymore? If it’s not OK to work on outside projects during the day, then why is it OK for my day job to e-mail me and expect answers after 5? If a Gen Zer is not getting the job done because he or she is too busy during the day working on something else, that’s a problem. But if we are getting our job done efficiently and effectively, there shouldn’t be a problem. We believe those workplaces that can handle our side hustles will find increased retention and loyalty amongst Gen Z.
How is Generation Z different from the generations that preceded them?
David: The key here is the word “different.” Where leaders have gotten into trouble with the generations in the past is when they try to debate who is better, worse, right or wrong. The problem is that they never get an answer and only build more gaps between the generations. Those leaders who accept that it is not about which generation is better, worse, right or wrong and instead embrace how each generation is different are the ones who always win the recruitment and retention game.
Jonah: Our biggest difference will be our independent and competitive nature. Workplaces have become so used to Millennials’ collaborative style that this will throw them off—or even worse, have them accusing us of not being team players. Take something as simple as office space. Collaborative Millennials have pushed for the open office concept where they can all work together. Gen Z’s independent nature doesn’t work in an open office. Thirty-five percent would rather share socks than an office space.
Where does Generation Z find common ground with earlier generations?
David: Gen Z will find common ground with all the generations. Like the Millennials, they will continue to push for as much transparency as possible at work, as well as career paths that can move at a fast pace. Being that they were raised by Xers, there will be a natural connection and understanding—especially when it comes to Gen Z’s desire to work at their own pace and in their own space. As for Boomers, if any generation is going to love Gen Z’s competitive spirit, it’s the 80 million Baby Boomers who have always felt pressure to keep up with the Joneses.
Jonah: Our Gen X parents drilled into us that our opinions aren’t always the best and that we have a lot to learn from others. Because of this, we will be very open to being mentored. It’s never easy to be the youngest or newest employee, but because we know we have to start at the bottom and are not delusional about what it will take, we’re hopeful we can create the common ground we need to be accepted and get ahead. Where Millennials came across as feeling the job was lucky to have them, we feel we are lucky to have the job. Seventy-six percent of Gen Z said we are willing to start at the bottom and work our way up. Paying dues is back on the radar!
What will be the most common conflicts to arise between Generation Z and other generations in the workplace, and how should managers prepare and respond?
David: A big conflict will be talking to Gen Z about career paths. Millennials paved the way for pushing career paths to advance at a much faster pace. Gen Z will continue to push for fast advancement; however, it will go way beyond just pace. As mentioned, Gen Z suffers from FOMO. Because they can see on their social media feeds what everyone else is doing at all times, they will want to pursue multiple paths at the same time. In fact, 75 percent of Gen Z would be interested in a situation where they could have multiple roles within one place of employment. It will make complete sense to them to work in marketing two days a week and product development the other three. Ideally, managers can figure out a way to offer multiple career paths, but if they can’t, creating environments where Gen Z can be exposed to as many roles as possible will be critical. Initiatives like rotation programs will hit a home run with Gen Z because they’ll get to feel as though they are working in many areas and therefore not fear they are missing out on anything.
Jonah: Another conflict that will arise with my generation is around communication. We are truly the emoji generation. Where other generations think in words, we often think in symbols. The problem is that traditional communication on the job has been about being very clear and concise with what you want to say. It was about being black and white with not a lot of room for gray. With the use of emojis, there will be a lot more room for interpretation and ambiguity. For example, let’s say I sent my boss an e-mail that said, “I sent the proposal to our client” and put a tears-of-joy emoji at the end. What if my boss didn’t know what that emoji meant? My boss might think I was sweating, crying from sadness or had a problem.
How are companies adapting and preparing for Generation Z?
David: The first step will be recruiting them. Smart companies are figuring out what value propositions they need to put forth. For Millennials, it was all about how they could make a difference in the world, even more than a paycheck. For Gen Z, it will be about salary and benefits first and how they will be able to advance. That’s a huge shift. In addition, companies trying to recruit Gen Z are realizing that it is all about hyper-customization. This generation has only known a world where they can download their own playlists, design their own Nike shoes and create a customized college degree. For Gen Z, everything has always been about standing out from the crowd. Therefore, it will be important that each Gen Z recruit feel that the job being offered to them is unique. Our national studies show how Gen Z is looking for customization: 56 percent of Gen Z would rather write their own job description than be given a generic one, and 62 percent of Gen Z would rather customize their own career plan than have the organization lay one out for them.
Jonah: Companies on the leading edge are getting on our radar as early as possible. Because we are in survival mode, we are focused on creating security at a younger age. Fifty-five percent of Gen Z feels pressure to gain professional experience in high school. Traditional industries are struggling with Gen Z because they are not on our radar. We are daydreaming out the window [about working] at companies like Netflix or Google. We aren’t likely thinking about agriculture or manufacturing. Usually companies think about reaching out to college students or they offer internships. But innovative companies are looking for ways to partner with high schools to get on the radar even sooner.
How is Generation Z disrupting education?
David: Unfortunately, higher education is one area that missed its window to be in proactive mode and is now in reactive mode. Gen Z has completely disrupted higher education. It used to be that you went to college to figure out what you wanted to do with your life. Gen Z feels you should only go to college [if] you already know what you want to be. However, most higher education institutions are still pitching an old value proposition to students to come find themselves at their college. This falls flat with Gen Z, where 61 percent said they need to know what career they want to pursue before they go to college. Colleges need to position themselves like trade schools. The other big disruption comes from Gen Z’s fear of college debt. Sixty-seven percent of Gen Z indicate their top concern is being able to afford college. Unless Gen Z can see a connection between what they are learning and how it will apply to their future, they will feel like they are wasting money. Classes like art history or Greek civilization will feel too focused on the past. Institutions that are incorporating real-world experience are connecting more with Gen Z.
Jonah: Technology has definitely been a game changer when it comes to education. Since ninth grade, I have had an iPad at school. It used to be you looked at your teacher as the one to know it all. They called this “sage on stage.” For my generation, we will look to Google and the Internet for answers. We still need our teachers’ help sifting through and analyzing answers, but it has changed their role. The new model is “guide on the side.” This might cause problems with our future bosses when we don’t look to them for all the answers. There could be a few bruised egos. The other part technology has played in education is our comfort level with where and how we learn. Online degrees are normal for us. Fifty percent of Gen Z said an online degree is the same as a traditional degree. The other generations don’t necessarily feel that way.
How did each of you become experts on this topic, and how do you each lend a different perspective?
David: For the past 20 years, I have been researching, writing and speaking about all the generations in our workplace and marketplace. I have written two books and have been able to prove that understanding generational gaps can improve connecting with a multigenerational workplace as well as selling and marketing to different generations of customers. This expertise comes from conducting continuous primary research and focus groups, as well as interviews with thousands of leaders across industries. Having seen so many leaders make the mistake of treating a new generation like the one that came before it, I knew it was going to be important to get a jump-start on Gen Z. Being the father of three Gen Zers, it felt only natural to bring them into the process.
Jonah: I’ve grown up my whole life watching my dad study the generations. Many of our dinner conversations have been about the differences among Traditionalists, Baby Boomers, Gen X and Millennials. Every year, each kid got to go with my dad to a conference that was in a great location—usually Disney. As much as we went with him for the chance to hit the pool or rides, I always loved going with him to hear him speak. I never got tired of listening to him talk passionately about the topic and especially about his generation. I always wondered when he would talk about my generation. When Gen Z started to make its presence known, I was intimately involved in helping my dad conduct the three national studies. I’m sure there will be lots [of discussion about] Gen Z by experts and speakers out there. There will never be one voice of Gen Z, but there is something to trying to be one of the first to put it on the radar. We have found a great balance, where my role is to shed light on who Gen Z is, while my dad can tap into 20 years of experience to explain where we will likely click and clash with the rest [of the generations] and what we can all do about it.
If you had to describe Generation Z in one word, what would it be?