Gen Z: In the game

Gen Z: In the game

Generation X’s kids are now graduating from high school and college and entering the labor market. What does that mean for your business?

By Brian Martucci

A few years back, millennial panic was all the rage. 

In 2012, The Atlantic contributor, Jean M. Twenge, asked whether Generation Y was “the greatest generation or the most narcissistic.” A year later, Time’s Joel Stein dubbed Baby Boomers’ offspring “the ‘me me me’ generation.” (In a 1976 New York magazine cover story, famed author and card-carrying Silent Generation member Tom Wolfe coined the “Me Generation” to describe still-youthful Boomers.) 

Today, it’s Generation Z — also known as Gen Edge — that’s ruffling oldsters’ feathers. 

Depending on your preferred generational start date, the oldest Gen Zers are anywhere from 18 to 23. They are entering the labor market, partially filling the void left by retiring Boomers. So it’s high time for employers to ask what makes them tick — and determine how to attract and retain the best and brightest of the bunch.

The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree
For business owners and execs of a certain age, it’s only natural to lump together everyone under the age of, say, 35. Kids these days, right?

Experts shun that trope. In “3G: Connecting with Three Generational Segments in the Workforce,” Wayzata-based generational consultancy BridgeWorks defines three distinct sub-generations: early millennials, born 1980 to 1987; recessionist millennials, born 1988 to 1995; and Generation Edge, born after. 

Early millennials are the archetypal millennials: idealistic, collaborative, perhaps a bit narcissistic. Recessionist millennials and Gen Z are closer cousins, though Gen Z is distinct in key ways.

Start with their parents. Gen Xers grew up in the aftermath of Vietnam and Watergate, facing periodic energy shocks and persistent economic malaise. Nothing was given; little was as it appeared. Gen X grew more cynical, more jaded, than the preceding generation.

“Gen Xers tell their kids: ‘Get into a good college, find something you’re good at, pursue it really aggressively, and — oh, by the way — there are no guarantees in life,’” says Sarah Sladek, CEO of XYZ University. XYZ U recently published its own Gen Z report, “Ready or Not — Here Comes Z.”

Gen Xers passed their skeptical, pragmatic sensibility down to their kids, who were themselves shaped by a punishing recession.

“So many recessionist millennials and Gen Edgers saw their parents lose jobs, and in some cases their homes,” says Lisa X. Walden, principal and consultant at BridgeWorks.

Gen Z, boxed
Gen Edge isn’t Gen X’s second coming, however. According to Sladek and Walden, whose reports’ conclusions largely align, the latest generation is: 

  • Incredibly diverse. Per “3G,” Gen Z is the “last Caucasian majority generation,” and barely qualifies as such. Young Gen Zers looked up to the Obamas and came of age amid rapidly expanding notions of individual rights and identities. Notes “3G”: “They embrace all forms of diversity and expect the inclusion of it in all walks of life, especially at work.” 
  • Politically active. Most Gen Zers don’t remember 9/11 or Columbine; for them, America has always been at war with a nebulous “other,” and the threat of random violence closer to home has always been a given. Their activism is born less of idealism than weary pragmatism: They see a cynical, rudderless world in desperate need of fixing. They’re born leaders, says Sladek.
  • Tactical and pragmatic. The scars of the Great Recession persist today in Gen Z’s economic pragmatism. They’re more focused on economic security and career trajectory than millennials, suggesting they’re likely to be loyal employees.
  • Receptive to feedback. They like to be micromanaged — this is tied to changes in education (skills/quant-based) and datafication/quantification of everything, as well.
  • Adept at multitasking. Gen Zers respond better to “bite-sized” training modules and content than text-heavy handbooks, says Walden. 
  • Digitally savvy. Duh, but there’s more. Unlike early millennials, who weren’t true digital natives, Gen Zers aren’t as prone to oversharing. They draw bright lines between their personal and professional digital selves. Private “Finstagram” accounts, reserved for sharing unguarded selfies with close friends, are all the rage, says Walden. And Gen Zers actually prefer face-to-face communication in the workplace, says Sladek.

Time to take Gen Z seriously
Gen Z has yet to shake off the skepticism surrounding its rise. Sladek faults older decision-makers — even relatively youthful early millennials — for their “‘get-in-line, pay-your-dues, you’re-not-ready-to-be-taken seriously’” attitudes.

Sladek sees that attitude firsthand every day. Josh Miller, a Maple Grove Senior High School junior and XYZ U contributor, is one of Gen Z’s best-known spokespeople. He’s been demystifying his cohort for SMBs, Fortune 500 execs and marketers since 2015. “Ready or Not” draws heavily on his research and personal experience. 

And yet, he says, “I’m still seen as a novelty — the token Gen Zer,” he says. 

That can’t go on much longer, says Sladek. As the oldest Gen Zers trade in student IDs for employee badges, skeptical employers risk falling behind — a perilous prospect in an ultra-tight labor market.

“We’re hearing companies say, ‘We need to understand the next generation and get them involved.’ But talking the talk and walking the walk are two different things,” says Sladek.

Some companies do get it. EY, a global financial accounting advisory service, has a shockingly low average employee age: younger than 30, according to Sladek. It’s also among the loudest advocates for youth-oriented workforce development, dubbing Gen Z and recessionist millennials “generation jobless” and calling youth unemployment “a global crisis” in a 2015 white paper. EY’s Emerging Leaders Program refreshes the company’s talent pipeline, drawing ambitious grads straight from the United States’ top accounting departments.

Do this, not that
According to Sladek and Walden, employers can appeal to Gen Z candidates by:

  • Emphasizing the bottom line. Salary and benefits are important to stability-hungry Gen Zers. Think higher base salary, strong core benefits (especially health care), and less gimmicky stuff (no Foosball).
  • Demonstrating growth opportunities. Show that the right employees can grow with you for years to come by offering leadership training and access. More Gen Zers than millennials see themselves spending a decade or more with a single employer; make those years count.
  • Culture fit. Gen Zers are pragmatic, not amoral. Clearly articulate your company’s culture, so there’s no misunderstanding. 
  • Micromanage. Gen Zers thrive on feedback; they’re not as results-oriented as previous generations. Walden blames increasingly data-driven educational practices, which give teachers and parents minute visibility into student performance. Plus, for kids used to Googling the correct answer, more complex projects — with the attendant prospect of failure — seem daunting.

Now, for the obligatory disclaimer: Generational identity isn’t determinative, and anyone who tells you otherwise probably has an ulterior motive. Sladek and Walden caution against oversimplification.

“We try to provide a general lens that helps you connect with and understand younger employees,” says Walden. “This is sociology, not psychology.”

Think of generations as nationalities, she says. Canadians and Americans have distinct national contexts and identities, but they also speak the same language and share — to some extent — the same cultural vernacular.  

Generational identity is part of who we are, but it’s not the only identity that matters. The more you know about your employees’ backgrounds, the better positioned you’ll be to motivate and reward them. Aspire to create a workplace, says Walden, that operates on the Platinum Rule: Treat others as they want to be treated, not as you want to be treated.

Anyway, Gen Z’s identity isn’t set in stone. Just like the predecessors, the cohort will continue to evolve. “My generation is not done developing,” says Miller. “We’re still in our formative years.” 


This story appears in print in our July/August issue. For a complimentary subscription, click here.