The youngest generation of people entering the workforce today comes with unique characteristics and traits—some positive and some a bit more challenging—all of which require business owners to adopt new management techniques and retool their work environments—like it or not.
By Phillip M. Perry
Generation Z—people born from 1997 through 2012 (ages 11 to 26 in 2023)—composes the fastest-growing portion of today’s workforce (in the U.S., the working-age population is defined as those ages 16 to 64). Also known the post-millennial generation and the iGeneration, this youngest group of workers is having a major impact on businesses everywhere. “Gen Zers are the new workforce—whether management from previous generations likes it or not,” says Zachary Ginder, PsyD, MSW, executive director at Pine Siskin Consulting in Cherry Valley, Calif.
To deal effectively with Gen Zers, employers will likely have to retool their work environments to meet the needs of this generation, which sees the world in a radically new way. This can include emphasizing stability, prioritizing communication, encouraging autonomy and connecting business activities to larger social concerns. In addition, while Gen Zers are typically bright, eager to please and technology savvy, they often need coaching to improve their performance in personal communications and team environments.
Natalie Griffith, director of Product & Content at Collage Group in Bethesda, Md., points out that the most visible change is racial and ethnic diversity, which is also apparent in the nation’s customer pool. “Businesses must understand the massive demographic shift toward multiculturalism that Gen Zers represent,” she instructs. “This is the first American generation in which multicultural groups make up more than half the population, and that diversity is here to stay.”
This new diverse workforce is also demanding that employers take a stand on larger social and environmental issues. Collage Group found that Gen Zers are likely to support companies that offer support to women, Blacks and people with disabilities. Wise employers will create a sense of larger purpose for their business activities and then emphasize how employee actions contribute to that initiative. “Management needs to regularly reinforce how each individual’s work fits into the greater good,” says Ginder. “How do businesses create positive social and environmental impact? That speaks to purpose, to inclusion, social justice and concern for the environment.”
Meeting the Challenge
While understanding the youngest generation can be difficult in any era, Gen Zers represent a particularly tough challenge. “I speak with a lot of managers who are scratching their heads, trying to figure out how to connect effectively with post-millennial folks,” Ginder says. One common error is to expect favorable results from communication styles that worked well in the past. “We’re talking about a totally different group of people who grew up with different influences and cultural values and norms.”
A good starting point, Ginder says, is to understand the anxiety experienced by people in their late teens and early 20s, largely due to their experiences with the Great Recession and the COVID-19 pandemic. “In their early impressionable years, Gen Zers saw their parents get laid off, get upside down in their mortgages and even lose their homes.”
Little wonder that Gen Zers are more cautious than previous generations and view with skepticism the promises of prospective employers. “Driven by anxiety, Gen Zers mostly seek stable 9-to-5 jobs that pay the bills,” Griffith says. “This point was recently corroborated by survey data from Handshake, an employment site for Generation Z, which asked 1,800 new graduates what they wanted most from their future employers. The overwhelming majority—85 percent—answered ‘stability.’ Pay and benefits also ranked high, but both of them, in my estimation, are proxies for the same thing. The desire for ‘a fast-growing company,’ on the other hand, garnered only 29 percent of the vote.”
It makes sense, then, for prospective employers to accentuate the longevity of their businesses, as well as the dedication to career support that can go hand in hand with long-term employment. And this is all the more the case due to the unsettling tendency of the young generation to job hop. “Gen Zers are likely to switch jobs faster than previous generations, who would typically stick things out a lot longer before deciding to move on,” Ginder points out. “This has a lot of financial implications because the cost of turnover can exceed 20 percent of a position’s annual costs.”
This tendency to job hop may seem to contradict a desire for stability, but the fact is that an aggressive series of career moves can provide more security than blind faith in the loyalty of a single company. “Gen Zers don’t just look at the current job, but at the next job and the job after that,” says Bob Verchota, owner and senior consultant at RPVerchota & Associates in Hastings, Minn. “And they have no problems with working in a gig environment; they’re fine with that. They may have six gigs going at once.” Another thing: Many Gen Zers have gigs on the side, and primary employers have to become comfortable with that.
Employers can also reduce the incidence of job-hopping by being transparent about the nature of the positions being offered. “Success is about managing expectations,” Ginder says. “Be extremely transparent about job descriptions, what the hours are, the positive and negatives of the company, what advancement will look like, how feedback works and information about the business’s communication styles.”
Transparency needs to begin long before a candidate even thinks of applying for work. “We’re living in an information age, and this is the most technology-savvy workforce so far,” Ginder continues. “Everything from a company’s reputation to its organizational culture can be found online. So, that is important for getting Gen Zers to apply for jobs.” Companies must take pains to polish their images on social media and review sites such as GlassDoor.com.
That same transparency needs to be provided on the job itself. “With Gen Zers specifically, there’s a lot more desire to know,” says Michael Gibbs, CEO at Go Cloud Careers in Port St. Lucie, Fla. “Transparent communication tells them they are valued, they are worth communicating with and there’s a level of respect. And, if they receive that respect, they will, in turn, respect their superiors.”
Transparency goes two ways: Gen Zers also want a seat at the table when it comes to authority. “Traditionally, early-career professionals have felt their voices would be dismissed because of their inexperience,” Ginder states. “With this new generation, though, we’re talking about folks who have a real focus on respect and inclusion in the workplace. That means they want to be able to have a voice when it comes to decisions. They want to understand the process and procedures for how things function.”
In addition, Gen Zers want to enjoy some autonomy when it comes to how they do their work, which can be a bit unsettling for employers. “One challenge is that with their first jobs, they have little or no experience,” Ginder adds, “and it can be challenging for an employer to foster a sense of autonomy.” One way is to encourage experimentation within boundaries. There is a trend toward normalizing failure as a learning tool, moving everyone forward on the skill path.
Also, avoid awarding promotions in name only. “Gen Zers will see through ‘title inflation,’” Ginder says. “It may be attractive at first, but because they’re a generation that values transparency, it will eventually fall flat. And then they’re going to be disillusioned and job hop a lot quicker.”
Will these approaches help reduce employee turnover? Maybe to some extent, but no matter what the company policy, Gen Zers are unlikely to possess the same job loyalty as previous generations. “It’s not about loyalty the way baby boomers and the greatest generation people think about it,” says Verchota. “It’s about loyalty to themselves, to their careers and to what they want out of life—and about how they are responsible for achieving it.”
Gen Zers also differ in their preferred sources for instruction. “Older generations tended to look for guidance from people who had maybe 20 or 30 years of experience,” says Gibbs. “Gen Zers, though, tend to look to their peers. So, rather than having an expert tell them how to do something, it can be more effective to find a champion in their age group whom you can turn into a superstar, and let that person be the communicator.”
Also, Gen Zers tend to eschew reading and have short attention spans. That can make instruction manuals less effective. “It’s smart to provide video content, short bits of training that last only two to three minutes,” Gibbs advises. “Provide bite-sized infotainment to help drown out other distractions such as social media.”
Gen Zer’s penchant for technology can also make them loners. That can be problematic in a workplace where one-on-one interactions are required. “Gen Zers tend to be individualistic and would rather communicate through technology than face to face,” Ginder shares. “But that’s not how small businesses typically work. It’s not just a bunch of solo folks doing their thing; most things happen within some level of teamwork.”
This is where managers can experience a lot of frustration, and the new generation will need some assistance. “It’s important to help Gen Zers build their personal skills,” Ginder says. “There will require a lot of coaching about company expectations, such as when it’s appropriate to be on their phones or to take a break to chat with someone.”
Making It Work
Managed correctly, Gen Zers entering the workforce can have a positive impact on businesses. “Gen Zers have a lot going for them,” says Ginder. “Research shows they’re highly achievement oriented, more educated than previous generations and more diverse. That speaks a lot to not only some of their qualities but also how we can tailor the way we work with them.”
If older generations have a bit of a struggle dealing effectively with these youngest workers, the result can be worth the effort. “There is much upside potential to learning how to adjust one’s management practices to maximize the potential of Gen Zers,” Ginder concludes. “There’s so much there. It’s an amazing generation, as all generations are. Using the right framework and approach, the sky’s the limit.”
Award-winning journalist Phillip M. Perry has published widely in the business management press. You may contact him at linkedin.com/in/phillipmperry.
QUIZ: Are You Ready for Gen Z?
Is your business managing Gen Zers effectively? Find out by taking this quiz.
Score 10 points for each “yes” answer. Then, total your score, and check your rating at the bottom.
1. Does your company present a healthy work environment on social media?
2. Do you emphasize stability in your work positions?
3. Do you provide career support to employees?
4. Are you transparent about positive and negative work factors?
5. Does your company exhibit a commitment to social justice and multiculturalism?
6. Do you encourage Gen Zers to speak up about their ideas for improving operations?
7. Do you allow some autonomy in how work is accomplished?
8. Do you identify peers who can effectively pass along expertise to Gen Zers?
9. Do you help Gen Zers improve their one-on-one communications skills?
10. Do you couch your business operations in terms of a larger social purpose?
WHAT’S YOUR SCORE?
• 80 or more: Congratulations. You are creating a productive environment for effective management of Gen Zers.
• Between 60 and 79: It’s time to improve your interactions with young workers.
• Less than 60: Your business is at risk. Act on the suggestions in this article.
15 CHARACTERISTICS OF GENERATION Z
• They are the first “digital natives.” Gen Z has never known a world without the internet and social media. They are comfortable with and sophisticated about technology, and they tend to be early adopters of new platforms and devices. Many are social-media activists and/or avid gamers.
• They expect to work with the most modern technology.
• They are racially, ethnically, sexually and religiously diverse—the most diverse generation ever. Diversity is their norm.
• They are inclusive. Gen Z is more accepting of others than any previous generation. They believe that everyone should be treated equally, regardless of race, gender or sexual orientation.
• They value social and environmental responsibility, which makes them shrewd and ethical consumers; however, they value access over possession.
• They are politically progressive—even those on the right.
• They are independent. They are less likely to rely on others for help and more likely to take matters into their own hands.
• They are ultra-focused and are known to set boundaries.
• They want stability and flexibility.
• They’re ambitious, pragmatic and financially minded (money driven).
• They are entrepreneurial. They are more likely to start their own businesses and less likely to stay in traditional jobs for their entire careers.
• They’re breaking away from institutional structures.
• They’re prone to anxiety because of the uncertainty, discord and strife they see in the world, their life experiences thus far, and other factors.
• They love to travel.
• They’re nostalgic.
5 WEAKNESSES OF GENERATION Z
• They love being on social media and often spend hours every day scrolling through various platforms.
• They have shorter attention spans and are often less aware of things going on around them due to being connected to social media and electronic devices.
• They feel entitled in some situations, often expecting things to be handed to them with little or no effort on their part. This is due to the ways in which many of them have been raised and educated.
• They’re impulsive and have difficulty waiting for anything. They want what they want, and they want it now.
• They don’t know how to handle failure, often because they have no experience with it. This is due, in part, to the “participation trophy” mindset, the lack of importance placed on achievement and/or the emotional coddling with which many of them have been brought up. Also, because of social media and the never-ending highlight reels of people’s lives, they perceive everyone as being successful—except for them. Having grown up with these false senses of reality, failure can be devastating to Gen Zers.