Gen Z at Work
by Tammy Hughes and Claire Raines, 2020
The first headlines to inspire and awe, to horrify and thrill, to send the imagination soaring or cause dark contemplation and heated conversation do much to shape the character of a generation. National and international catastrophes, heroes that members of a cohort respect and admire, the passions they agree or disagree about, and their common history shape and define a generation.
We first published this article in March of 2020 when the coronavirus had just begun to spread from China and Europe into the US. It is now clear that covid-19 and its aftermath will define Generation Z. Around the world, they will be the newest members of the workforce trying to get a foothold in a labor market that portends to be the toughest in modern times. In untold ways, the coronavirus—and the months and years that follow—will shape Gen Z’s values and views, their workplace aspirations and dreads, their hopes and fears, and their delights and disappointments.
Who They Are | Shaped by Their Times | Popular Technologies | Events That Shaped Their Lives | Messages that Influenced Them | How 5 Generations Were Parented | Gen Z Strengths | Challenges for Managers | The Titanium Rule | Put the Titanium Rule to Work | The Work Environment that Attracts Gen Z | Gen Z Motivators | Managers They Love to Work For | Managers Who Drive Them Crazy | Communication Styles They Respond To | Rewards | We See the World Differently | Nine Keys to Engage Gen Z
Who They Are
Also Known As:
Born between 2000 and 2020, Generation Z is growing up in the shadow of the Millennial Generation—so much so that many people don’t even realize there is a new generation in the workplace. Millennials have been the most talked about generation of all time, and they now comprise about half the working population. By 2025, Millennials will make up 75 percent of the global workforce. But Generation Z will be smaller in number—at least in the US—since birth rates peaked in 2007 and have fallen every year since.
They’re growing up in a post-9/11 world, marked by the Great Recession. They’ve never known a world without war or the threat of terrorism. Technology is as common as air to them; it’s not even especially exciting. They’re the most diverse generation in history; in the US, only half are non-Hispanic whites. As we write this, the oldest are twenty, and so just beginning to enter the workforce.
Famous Gen Zs:
Chloe Kim, Gold Medal Olympic Snowboarder
Greta Thunberg, Swedish Environmental Activist on Climate Change
Parkland Students, Leaders in the US Gun Control Movement
Sheku Kanneh-Mason, British Cellist (played at the wedding of Harry and Meghan)
Sasha Obama, daughter of former US President Barack Obama
For the past few months, we’ve been listening to Gen Zs—in interviews, in our own survey, in focus groups, and in company offices. We’ve asked them about their values, what they’re looking for in a job, how they like to be communicated with, the type of leader they resonate with, what motivates them and how they want to be rewarded. We share our findings with you here. For us, this will be a work in progress. Stay tuned!
Shaped by Their Times
Each generation has a defining moment, a specific time when virtually all members of a cohort can tell you where they were and what they were doing at the very moment that event transpired. For the Baby Boomers, it was the assassination of President John Kennedy. For Xers, the Challenger disaster. For Millennials, September 11. We don’t know yet what the defining moment will be for Generation Z. Perhaps it will be the moment they first heard about the novel coronavirus.
Like all of us, though, Gen Z is being shaped by their times. Their early experiences will create the filters through which they will see the world. Those filters will directly impact how they will navigate the world of work. Several key trends of the 2000s and 2010s have had and will continue to have a profound effect on their generational personality and values.
The world has grown increasingly racially and ethnically diverse. Gen Z is growing up in a world no longer comprised of a majority and minorities. Data from UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute shows that interracial interaction among college freshmen has reached a record high.
- Anxiety, Unsettlement & Insecurity
Anxiety diagnoses in children increased 20 percent between 2007 and 2012, according to a study published in the Journal of Development and Behavioral Pediatrics. From the coronavirus to climate change to terrorism to school shootings, Zs have had a lot to worry about at a young age. Their parents felt the financial stresses of the Great Recession and the shrinking middle class. Household income in the US has declined every year since 2000. Kids have to grow up fast. In the UCLA College Freshman survey, 61 percent said they had jobs during their last year of high school. The future looks scary, and it’s hard to just be a kid. Data from the UCLA study shows that 70 percent of teens consider depression and anxiety to be a major issue for their cohort.“The first thing we do when we enter a classroom is to look for a place to hide.”
- Rampant Misinformation
In 2018, the word of the year, according to dictionary.com, was misinformation. Its rampant spread poses new challenges for navigating life. Social media and the internet have made information more accessible to the public than ever before. But it’s nearly impossible to distinguish accurate information from false or misleading information. Gen Z is growing up in the midst of fake news stories and conspiracy theories, leaving them to wonder how to tell truth from fiction and who to believe.
- Technology Like Air
They’re the first generation to grow up completely immersed in digital media. They’ve never known a world without social media and cellphones. Life comes at them fast. They expect to see new technologies every month and find ground-breaking features on each smartphone model that is introduced. That’s just the way life works.
Instagram, Tiktok, Twitter
Generation Z is rarely bored. If they’re someplace and they think things might get dull, they do something on their phone—visit social media, play games, conduct research.
Events That Shaped Their Lives:
2001 Wikipedia Launched, World Trade Center Attacked, War on Terror Begins
2002 Stock Market Crashes
2003 Space Shuttle Columbia Disaster
2004 Tsunami Strikes Southeast Asia
2005 Hurricane Katrina, YouTube Launched
2007 Apple Debuts the iPhone
2008 Global Recession, Collapse of Wall Street, First African American President Elected
2011 Osama bin Laden Killed
2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School Shooting
2013 Terrorist Attack on Boston Marathon, Black Lives Matter Movement Begins
2014 Smart Watches Introduced
2015 Supreme Court Rules Against State Bans Against Same-Sex Marriage
2017 Gunman Opens Fire on Las Vegas Concert Crowd, Me Too Movement Spreads
2018 Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Shooting
2019 US-China Trade War
2020 Climate-Caused Fires Engulf Australia, Coronavirus a Global Pandemic
Messages that Influenced Them:
Get more likes.
The sky is falling.
Do it yourself.
You’re being watched.
How 5 Generations Were Parented
When the world changes—as it constantly does—parenting styles must change so that children are prepared to cope with those changes. We can’t raise our children in exactly the way our parents raised us because our parents raised us for a world that no longer exists.
Parenting styles are important because they vary from one era to another—and parenting shapes us. It is one of the things that causes generations to differ. The way we were parented affects our relationship with authority—how we wield it, how we respond to it.
The Parenting Style that Shaped 5 Generations:
|WWII Generation||hierarchical; spare the rod & spoil the child|
|Dr. Spock: kinder & gentler; love, nurture|
|Generation X||absentee parents; latchkey kids|
|Millennial Generation||helicopter parents; everybody gets a trophy|
|Generation Z||winners get trophies; learn from your losses|
Gen Z Strengths
- Expect to stay with one job for a long time
- Financially responsible
Challenges for Managers
- Have a short (8 second) attention span.
- Want to do things their own way.
- Need help focusing.
- Want coaching and mentoring.
- Expect constant measurable feedback.
- Need a fast pace.
- Need help handling stress and anxiety.
The Titanium Rule
Do unto others keeping their preferences in mind.
Have you ever heard of The Titanium Rule? We coined the term 25 years ago at Claire Raines Associates. We’re experts on the generations, and we help organizations to understand and engage a mix of people: people with differing values…those from other cultures…people with different technological backgrounds. By identifying and implementing strategies for working across differences, companies become more productive and effective. And instead of struggling with differences, they capitalize on them. The Titanium Rule is the cornerstone of everything we do.
Let’s say you and I will be making a presentation to our CEO. We decide to meet for breakfast beforehand to get synched up. Right after we sit down at the table, your cell phone rings. It is the CEO’s assistant. It’s noisy in the restaurant so you get up and go outside. While you’re gone, the server comes to the table. I notice the time, and decide I need to order for both of us to assure we get to the presentation on time. I make a quick decision about what to order for you. Let’s say I use the golden rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. For you, I order my own favorite style of egg—an egg ever so slightly cooked. The yolk is still runny and the white part translucent. Personally, I like to pour this barely done egg over a piece of toast & let it soak in.
If I had ordered my perfect style of egg for you, would you have been pleased? In my heart of hearts, I did what I thought was best. I ordered for you what I would’ve wanted you to order for me.
This is how the golden rule can go wrong even when we have the best of intentions. It would have been much better if I had used the Titanium Rule: Do unto others keeping their preferences in mind. I might have thought back to that last conference we went to together and remembered that you had ordered scrambled eggs.
People ask us all the time in sessions, “Why don’t we just use the golden rule here? Things would be so much better.” But, in fact, we can make poor business decisions when we think only from our own perspective. We end up with training programs that don’t suit the learning style of the target audience…benefits packages that aren’t desirable to those they were designed for…products that don’t match the preferences of the people we’re hoping will buy them.
When people follow the Titanium Rule, they think from the other’s perspective. When they are working with a customer or colleague of another generation—or with someone who differs from them in a myriad of possible ways—they fine-tune their approach. When they craft messages that resonate with the other person’s values, they’re more successful, whatever the endeavor. They’re more convincing and more persuasive—and they’re more likely to get what they want out of the situation.
Put the Titanium Rule to Work
To bring out the best in each of our employees, we must adapt to the styles and preferences of a multi-generational workforce. When we look through a generational filter to consider our actions with employees, we are putting the Titanium Rule into practice.
The Work Environment that Attracts Gen Z
- fluid, fast-paced
- leadership by example
Gen Z Motivators
- job security
- human connection
- unique assignments that stretch them
- financial perks
Managers They Love to Work For
- Aren’t afraid to give them bad news.
- Are responsive and “present.”
- Help them learn from their mistakes.
- Give them assignments that stretch them.
- Allow them to train themselves in less traditional ways (via youtube, for example).
- Encourage them.
- Spend time with them one-on-one.
- Hold employees responsible.
Managers Who Drive Them Crazy
- Constantly “check up on” and micromanage them.
- Are insensitive to diversity.
- Set a slow, plodding pace.
- Are too team-oriented.
- Don’t lay it on them straight.
- Are overly cheerful.
- Discount their ideas.
Communication Styles They Respond To
- Text messages
- In-person meetings
- Instant messages
- Social networking sites
- A company app where they can find resources, communicate with coworkers, get company news, give and receive feedback
- (Not emails)
- Titles and recognition for their individual accomplishments
- Face-to-face feedback from their supervisor
We See the World Differently
It’s logical that those who have always been connected through technology to the rest of the world would see the world differently from those who witnessed the dawn of the space age. To better understand how to work with Gen Z colleagues, it’s helpful to compare Zs’ way of being in the world with that of older generations. Recognizing those differences can help us reach out across what sometimes seems to be an impenetrable barrier! Though sometimes subtle, our different perspectives can cause conflict, frustration and misunderstanding in the workplace.
|Generation X||Baby Boom
|View of Authority||Open||Relaxed, Polite||Unimpressed||Love/Hate||Respectful|
|Leadership By||Task Focus||Achievement, Pulling Together||Competence||Consensus||Hierarchy|
|Relationships||Committed, Inclusive||Loyal, Inclusive||Reluctant to Commit||Personal Gratification||Self-Sacrifice|
Nine Keys to Engaging Gen Z
In the past months, when we’ve asked Gen Zs what they want from their supervisors, colleagues, and managers, we’ve heard a variety of perspectives. Certainly there is diversity of values within this generation. Yet certain themes emerged.
Here are the most frequent requests:
- Let us try it our way.
- Tell us how we’re doing.
- Help us deal with stress and anxiety.
- Let us learn from failures.
- Assist us with technology.
- Give us face-to-face time.
- Allow us to work on our own.
- Chunk down assignments.
- Help us sort fact from fiction.
It’s not an unreasonable list, yet it’s a set of expectations that Zs tell us are rarely met. Every day, Gen Zs walk through the doors of workplaces that have cultures based on the styles and preferences of Baby Boomers and their World War II Generation parents. Managers from older generations, even Millennials, assume that what attracted them and motivated them will attract and motivate today’s young workers. But, as we’ve described, Gen Zs have their own unique characteristics—and a distinctly different work style.
The way work gets done in most organizations is counter to the natural instincts of Zs. Most managers practice line-of-sight supervision— “If I can’t see you, you must not be working.” The relationship between Millennial front-line supervisors and new Gen Z hires could be problematic. Millennials tend to have a collaborative approach to work, but Zs have an independent streak. Gen Zs perform better in a more flexible environment where the result and impact of their work is given more weight than the time they spend tied to their desks. The role work plays in people’s lives has shifted. The way we get things done is changing.
The workplace practices Gen Zs prefer and ask for will be the hallmarks of the future workplace:
- Let them try it their way.For Zs just entering the workforce, the purpose of a job is to learn, gain experience and position themselves for the next step. This generation of workers grew up in a world where each child was encouraged to be unique. They learned to resist categories. Nearly every Gen Z still in school knows someone who prefers gender neutral pronouns. They’ve never much cared about “the norm.” They’re used to doing things in their own individual way.Gen Zs learn on their own, on demand—via youtube, Google and requests to their social network. Wherever possible, give Gen Z workers measurable targets, and then allow them to express their individuality, to approach assignments with their own style, and to seek out training that suits their individual learning style.As a new engineer, 20-year-old Jackson drove to another city to head up a team that would install a robotic arm for an assembly line. When his mother asked him if he knew how to install the new apparatus, he told her not to worry. “I’ve got my phone, Mom. I can Google anything.”Let them find their own way and create their own solutions. Encourage them to personalize—the project, their workspace. Explain what needs to be done (measurable targets), give them a deadline, and let them pick their own process for doing the work. As long as they hit their targets, this is the best approach. If they don’t, then of course it’s reasonable to take more control and put some barriers in place.If your Gen Z employee is sometimes more productive working from home, so be it. If she can crank out tons of work in an hour, then needs to take a coffee break to regenerate her brain cells, why not? As long as individual work styles don’t get in the way of others’ productivity, give people the freedom to do their best work in the way they work best.
“Failure is the best teacher. I’ve learned the most when I messed up the biggest.”
- Tell them how they’re doing.All their lives, Gen Zs have gotten constant feedback from parents, coaches, teachers and other adults. Their parents had apps on their phones that tracked them at all times. Some parents could even check to see how their child had done on Friday’s math quiz. They’re used to being monitored.On the job, they need constant, specific feedback. More than just daily, feedback needs to be given task by task, project by project. And whenever possible, it needs to be measurable.Don’t be afraid to tell it like it is. Accustomed to being monitored, they’re far less likely than Millennials to take criticism personally.
“The best manager gives good feedback. It’s super important to me, and I need it often.”
- Help them deal with stress and anxiety.Gen Zs had to grow up fast. As children, they confronted the realities of terrorism, school shootings, economic anxiety and COVID-19. In 2018, the American College Health Association reported that teen anxiety and depression had increased by 10 percent in five years.The Center for Workplace Mental Health reports that one in five adults will experience a diagnosable mental illness this year. Responsible employers create a good mental health environment for employees. Gen Z workers—actually, all workers—need help coping with anxiety, depression and stress. Respecting and treating mental health issues on par with other medical illnesses is the first step to improving employee quality of life. If it’s okay to take a day off for a physical ailment, it needs to be permissible as well to take a mental health day.A manager’s belief in a young employee can make all the difference. Time and again, research has demonstrated that our assumptions shape the outcome. In a well-known study in a public elementary school, Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson gave teachers the names of students who, they said, could be expected to perform extraordinarily well during the school year. In fact, the names had been chosen at random. Sure enough, those students they identified as “academic spurters” showed an average twelve-point increase on their IQ scores at the end of the school year.
- Help them learn from failures.Whereas Millennials grew up in an era where “everybody gets a trophy,” Generation Z grew up with winners and losers. Parents routinely coached them to face their failures—and to learn and grow from their mistakes and shortcomings.We can envision a series of three cartoons. In the first, a WWII Generation parent, when seeing a bad grade on a report card says to the child, “What’s wrong with you?” In the second, a Baby Boom parent says to the teacher, “What’s wrong with you?” In the third, the Gen X parent asks the Gen Z child, “So what can you learn from this?”They’re used to hearing bad news and to learning from their mistakes. In interviews, Zs told us that embracing failure on a project helps them be more innovative. One of our focus groups was comprised of college soccer players. They were vocal about their perspective that losing is good for you and everybody needs to know how to do it—well. They opposed the concept that everybody who participates gets a trophy.
“Losing means you can learn and grow better.”
Makayla, 18“Your perspective is different if you know you can lose.”
- Assist them with technology.Nothing distinguishes Gen Z more than their lifelong immersion in digital technology. They are innovators who want the latest tech devices and expect to work for companies that have up-to-the-minute technologies that allow them to be creative with the help of podcasts, blogs, social networking sites and online applications.One caution, though: just because Generation Z is proficient with their phones, we can’t assume they know how to set up an Excel spreadsheet or add a table to a Word document. It turns out that, for many Zs, there’s a big gap between the technologies they use and the computer skills we expect them to have. Many of our younger workers need help learning the computer skills required to be effective in the workplace. We found this to be an issue in college settings as well, where students are often stymied by course management software programs and online learning technologies.
- Give them face-to-face time.It’s a common misconception that Gen Zs are so tuned in to their social media that they don’t even care about human interaction. In fact, Zs consistently tell us that face-to-face time, especially with their managers, means the world to them. New research from ServiceNow shows that 83 percent of Gen Zs prefer to communicate with their managers in person.
- Allow them to work on their own.…at least some of the time. Gen Z has an independent streak. Requiring them to constantly work as part of a team will be a turnoff—and may not allow them to capitalize on their strengths. Put them in roles where they can rely on themselves to be successful—and maybe also to fail now and then.
- Chunk down assignments.They’re used to getting their information in small chunks as they move from screen to screen. They have an average 8-second attention span. Therefore, a huge, long-term assignment could be overwhelming. Staying focused on the goals and objectives could seem nearly impossible.You may need to break down assignments into small pieces—or, better yet, work with your Gen Z workers to define short-term, specific tasks with measurable goals.
- Help them sort fact from fiction.As we said earlier, Gen Z grew up in the midst of fake news stories, conspiracy theories and dishonest leaders, leaving them to wonder how to tell truth from fiction and who to believe. Gen Z workers get much of their information from social media. In the 2018 CIRP Freshman Survey, one-third reported that they spent eleven hours or more a week on social media—where misinformation often looks every bit as convincing as valid information.As a coach and leader, help Gen Z workers to learn skills for fact checking, validating and putting information into context. And be squeaky clean yourself—ethical, open, able to withstand scrutiny. If you offered something in an interview, follow through on it. If you promise to do something, do it as soon as you can.Your younger colleagues are looking to you as a role model, coach and mentor. There’s a great opportunity for you here. Years from now, you just may be the person some Gen Z tracks down to say, “Thank you for what you did, the faith you placed in me, the difference you made.”