It's human nature to categorise. In an increasingly chaotic world, there's a comfort to be found in fitting whatever we can into boxes. There's certainly value to be found, too: in the case of our growing fascination with generational groups, discussions of how the Millennial workforce would impact our workplaces have been a positive force in the move towards flexible working and employee welfare.
At some point, though, the baton must be passed. The Millennials who became writers and thinkers are now engrossed in the task of figuring out their successors: Generation Z.
As a recent professional who by most accepted definitions classifies as Generation Z, but only just, I've found reading articles discussing this group to be a complicated experience. Whilst I have enough perspective to recognise the characteristics being discussed, my experience leads me to feel defensive of the negative spin they often receive.
It's worth noting (though I'm not the first to do so) that, to an extent, these labels will always be arbitrary. Especially to the people who get given them. When we fixate on generational difference, what we're really noticing is a rapidly changing world that presents new challenges every day.
Those with perspective of this change use observation of generational 'types' to crystallise their own understanding of what they are seeing in their surroundings. The generation themselves, however, know no different. It can, therefore, be somewhat alienating to hear the things you do simply to get by, things that you've always done, being analysed and scrutinised.
So, I've taken five assumptions commonly made about Generation Z in the workplace and had a look at how well – in my experience – they stand up.
- They have less work experience
This might not be the most common suggestion, but it's the one I find most jarring. When Wharton Business School deduced this from the statistic that only 19% of 15 to 17-year-olds reported working in 2017, they failed to mention a few things: not only is it harder to get jobs than ever (be they Saturday jobs or full-time work), but the pressure on young people to commit most of their available time to education is at an all-time high.
This statistic also misses that it's frequently post-17, with university on the horizon and A-levels almost achieved, that young people will fill up any available time with work experience. Even then, they'll have to strike a balance between part-time work to start making their own money and unpaid career development.
Young people at this age are receiving increasingly mixed messages: they're told that their education is their most valuable asset, and to give it everything they've got. As soon as that's done, they're told that education isn't enough, and to throw themselves into work experience. Often, by the time they hear the latter, it's too late.
If Generation Z appears to have less experience in jobs, it won't be for lack of trying while navigating one of the most high-pressure periods of their lives.
- They're wedded to social media and technology
This is one of the most common assumptions about Generation Z. When presented positively, the fact that Gen-Z 'live and breathe' technology means they will be great assets if given the opportunity to use technology in the workplaces. In more negative takes, Gen-Z will refuse to work if they aren't plugged into the matrix all day and will flounder in face-to-face contexts.
There's no point denying that social media has permeated our everyday lives, especially the lives of the youngest generations. But to reduce these generations to the tech they use underestimates their nuance, capability, and unprecedented engagement with the world (enabled by that very tech).
When something is as ubiquitous as social media, it becomes practically neutralised and shouldn't be seen to impact the formation of well-rounded young professionals.
What's more, a presumption that Gen-Z will take to tech in minutes shouldn't leave businesses complacent about proper, in-person training in essential tools; IoT doesn't necessarily mean intuitive.
This is connected to a general assumption that they won't be confident in face-to-face situations. A survey by Employee Benefit News found that in fact 75% of Gen-Z employees expect to learn from co-workers, and more than half prefer to work in an office rather than from home.
The presence of social media doesn't stop people growing into functioning adults. Every generation contains those who are great with people and those who aren't, and the right to training in new skills is timeless.
- They want competition in the workplace
Gen-Z's desire for competition has been often compared to the collaborative culture Millennials wanted. This point is particularly complex.
Generation Z are certainly used to competition. The high-pressure educational environment discussed above has instilled a competitive drive, and many people of Gen-Z age have grown up working in this way. But that doesn't necessarily mean they've enjoyed it.
In fact, it's likely that many Gen-Zers associate this kind of competition with burnout, feelings of inadequacy, and a stressful work ethic. They will have found university to be a place where being treated as a mature student meant a collaborative, seminar-based environment.
Generation Z are acutely aware that if employed, they are lucky to be so (a context that should shed light on each of these assumptions). As such, they are likely to adapt to any working culture they're presented with and work hard either way. Again, enjoying competition is something that defines individuals, not whole generations – and if encouraging it misfires, things can get unpleasant pretty quickly.
As Gen-Zers move into their first jobs they will expect to be treated like adults, and with respect. There is a distrust inherent in a competitive workplace that encourages people to work for gratification rather than for progress and personal achievement.
What can be confidently assumed about social media is that it has led young people to feel detrimentally dependent on validation. Breaking this habit with a positive, collaborative, and encouraging environment will be well received by Gen-Z employees.
- They care about Corporate Social Responsibility.
This one is largely accurate. If there's one thing that defines Generation Z, it's their awareness that on almost all accounts the world is getting harder to navigate, with uncertain times ahead. As a result, their concern for the environment, equality, and diversity is at a high-point.
But there's a key difference in this case between awareness and action. Depending on the size of an organisation, many claim sustainability and diversity as priorities and have public CSR policies. But very few will turn this word into tangible deed, and it's the latter that Gen-Z will have an eye for in the day-to-day running of a business as well as in long-term strategy.
This can create friction if Gen-Z employees identify room for improvement but have few channels to voice it and make change happen. Organisations of any size can fall down, from micro-issues like recycling provision all the way through to systemic diversity problems.
It's likely that all organisations want to do their best in these areas, so make use of the insight of your Gen-Z workforce by making it as easy as possible for them to voice concerns.
- They're risk-averse and timid...but also industrious and entrepreneurial.
While, of course, you're unlikely to see these assumptions in the same sentence, there is an inherent contradiction between analyses of Gen-Z thus far. To me, this is a manifestation of the complex and contradictory world they're entering as young professionals.
Recently, a Buzzfeed article by Anne Helen Petersen on How Millennials Became The Burnout Generation went viral. Amongst the praise, the article received some criticism that Petersen unnecessarily confined her observations to Millennials – indeed, I'm sure that Generation Z made up a large portion of its digital dispersal.
What Petersen describes is a generationally specific experience of the relatively universal condition of work and its hurdles. As such, there's a kind of pre-empting of burnout in takes to-date that recognise a rigid work ethic co-existing with fragility in Generation Z.
It's true that Gen-Z may be risk-averse. The sense of precarity that can be instilled by an unlucky round of job rejections would make it hard not to err on the side of caution once security is found. At the same time, they are likely to become increasingly aware that an entrepreneurial attitude could be one of the most promising pathways to success in an unprecedentedly competitive jobs market.
Essentially, if Gen-Z employees are made to feel secure, valued, and heard they are more likely to bring to the table the skills and assets that are specific to them as an individual, rather than as an applicant trying to tick all the boxes
Rather than picking apart the characteristics appearing in the young workforce, organisations should consider the conditions of the world of work that have made them that way – and how best to nurture them through it.
Matilda Strachan - https://guild.co/
Matilda is Marketing Executive at Guild, based in London, UK. She writes Guild’s newsletter and content for their online Journal, which broadly explores the future of work and what it means for professionals.
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