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Leadership at All Levels

Introducing Generation Z

Brenda Powell Wells | July 14, 2022

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I have what I think is a very fun presentation on the various generations that are working in offices today. I have given it to trade groups, professional societies, and even charitable organizations.

There are now FIVE generations working under the same roof. They are below, in chronological order.

  1. Traditionalists
  2. Baby boomers
  3. Gen X
  4. Millennials (sometimes called gen Y)
  5. Gen Z

We have analyzed gen Y—the millennials—to death. We have trashed them, criticized them, and been worried about them for a couple of decades now. But now, gen Z has arrived!

Characteristics of Gen Z

Let's first talk about what their characteristics are. Some of these might surprise you.

They are digital natives. Technology is practically in their DNA. Their parents plugged them into computers, tablets, and gaming systems from the start.

They have never known what it is to fly on an airplane without intense security measures. They were either too young or were not born yet to remember life "pre-September 11."

Just like millennials, they have never had to write a letter, mail it, and wait for a response. Many do not have any idea how to address an envelope.

They have almost never seen a landline telephone, period. All they know are cell phones.

They have never had to be what older generations called "politically correct." They were raised in a diverse environment, and/or they met a diverse group of people on social media. They don't see color or race as a general rule (unless someone specifically teaches them to). They have seen an African-American US president and vice-president (who also happens to be the first female vice-president). They value and embrace diversity and are quite frankly much more accepting of differences than prior generations.

They lived through the 2008 financial meltdown. Many of them saw their parents in financial ruin at some point in their lives.

Gen Z grew up with social media. While many believe social media to be a plague, generation Z grew up knowing it as a solid and consistent way to communicate with their peers. Social media also gave them access to celebrities and other public figures. More significantly, they have been put under tremendous pressure from social media influencers to be thinner, buffer, and more "pretty" than previous generations. They are experiencing higher-than-normal suicide rates, and many blame it on social media.

They have had Google since birth. This generation relies on a one-stop website to find pretty much anything they want. Information is readily available to them and always has been. Many have never been to a brick-and-mortar library.

They have grown up with full-color, high-tech video games that respond quickly and often depict violence. They have also learned, through their video games, that everything gets a "do-over." Just hit the reset button, right?

Members of gen Z have seen generations before them avail themselves of plastic surgery and other cosmetic procedures. Things like glasses and braces are not only normal; they can be fashion statements. They also do not know what natural aging really looks like.

Their school safety protocols include active shooter drills. They are trained from a young age on what to do if a gun-wielding psychopath shows up to kill them. The fact that they need such training really depresses me. I remember when I was a kid, in school, we had fire drills and tornado drills. We were trained what to do in the event of a fire or bad weather, and we were never told, "Hey, someone might come in here and shoot you; here's what to do in the event of that…."

Wait … there's one more that I would be remiss in overlooking.

They have lived through a global pandemic.

Think about these things carefully, and how they are different from what we knew in previous generations. They shape perceptions and expectations. They shape reality. So, what are the members of this generation like?

The Cynical Generation

If I could create one more moniker for generation Z, it'd be the "cynical generation." Holy cow, how would you like to have seen the economy meltdown, have regular active shooter drills at school, and get sent home for the better part of 2 years because of a virus?

They saw their parents or their friends' parents in financial ruin after 2008. This was largely thanks to an out-of-control financial system that encouraged excessive debt and luxurious spending. They got to see everyone who rode that train pay a high price for their lifestyle.

Don't even get me started on the pandemic. Most of gen Z lost 2 years of integration into adulthood and modern society. Their maturation process was absolutely interrupted, and few, if any, provisions have been made to account for that.

So, gen Z is indeed cynical and cautious, and I don't see that as a bad thing—my worst failures and losses in life have been when I didn't properly evaluate the possibility of negative outcomes. They have already seen really horrible things happen in their lifetimes that had nothing to do with their personal decision-making. They know that bad stuff happens to good people; they understand reality.

They are used to travel absolutely sucking. They'll still travel, but it just isn't as much fun as it used to be. They have learned through economic circumstances as well as travel impediments that a staycation isn't the worst thing in the world.

Generation Z is used to instantaneous communication in real time. They are also used to having access to celebrities and politicians, so the "awe" factor is just not there for them. The television programs they have grown up with show that kids are very familiar and irreverent toward adults and authority figures in general. That doesn't mean they are disrespectful, but it does mean they are not going to embrace excessive formality. They want to deal on a first-name basis with their colleagues.

They appreciate, respect, and embrace cultural and racial differences, and I love that about them. I see more interracial and interfaith dating than I ever have in my life, and it gives me hope for a peaceful future. This makes for better work environments too because the members of gen Z, as a general rule, don't discriminate and they don't single people out (again, unless someone teaches them to do so).

The bottom line, though, and this needs to be acknowledged and dealt with—they have been raised under tremendous stress. Shootings, disease, and unrealistic pressures from social media have put them under extreme pressure. As a result, they have a very high rate of mental illness. I think the mental illness phenomenon is a combination of things—social media, a financial meltdown and its aftermath, an instantaneous mentality about response times, and a constant fear that they're going to be shot while they're just trying to learn something in school. All of that together sounds like a pressure cooker to me.

My students recently did a presentation on the social media pressures that members of generation Z are under. I was flabbergasted by their findings. They found that there is tremendous pressure on social media to be "perfect" in terms of physical appearance. They found that there are "pro-anorexia" and "pro-bulimia" groups and Web pages designed to encourage young women to have perfect bodies at all costs. The suicide rate among these kids is unusually high.

What Employers Can Expect from Gen Z

What are you getting into by hiring people from this generation? Well, you're going to have some cynicism in general, coupled with pragmatism and realistic expectations unlike any you have seen in previous generations. You're going to see people who are fiscally conservative and socially liberal. They will not understand or forgive intolerance of differences. They expect good corporate stewardship. They expect their employers to do the right thing because it's the right thing and not because a law or a rule made it so.

You're also going to see people who move quickly. They learned that in video games. They also learned that there's a reset button on those games, so they're going to want one in their careers too. If you don't offer that, then they'll find it somewhere else.

How should employers treat members of generation Z? One thing to realize from the outset is that their motivations and expectations are different from yours. For instance, their use of pronouns as identifiers is very important to them. Some people want to be called "she," some want to be called "he," and still others don't like either of those terms. This has, in my travels and conversations, seemed to perplex older folks, especially those who do not understand that gender identity is not a simple concept anymore. Be respectful of the pronouns.

Another way to treat gen Z is with flexible work arrangements. They will work hard for you, but they're not going to give up quality of life to work 80 hours a week. They don't mind traveling some, but they don't want to be on the road 24/7/365, either; work-life balance is very important. They don't want to work exclusively from home, but they want that option at least part of the time.

Technology is very important to gen Z. They want cutting-edge devices and programs. They also enjoy "face time" more than you might expect. Sure, they can communicate through technology, but they also know that sometimes there's no substitute for face-to-face interaction.

They want to work for a good corporate citizen of the community. They have seen so much wrongdoing in their short lifespans that they are in search of positive, progressive, and compassionate leadership. And they make decisions fast. They want immediate feedback after an interview, and if they don't receive it, they will move on to the next opportunity. You can leave them hanging for a couple of weeks while you make your decision and process all of your corporate red tape, but they won't be there when you finally get around to hiring. You've always heard the "early bird catches the worm," so you want to be the early bird on response times, especially when you're recruiting new talent.

And here's a word about feedback: generation Z expects it. They want feedback often, and they want it to be candid so that they can improve. You cannot give them an annual review and expect them to be happy about it. They want immediate, nearly instantaneous feedback, whether it's positive or negative, throughout the entire year. You should be open with them and give them the input they crave in the timeliest manner possible.

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn't mention money. Money is important to almost everyone, I suppose. But over the last year or so, with the pandemic, I have seen alumni in the workforce jump from their first job to the next without even waiting the customary 2 years previous generations were always told were needed before making a move. Money matters, and if you don't pay your good employees well, someone else will, and you'll lose them. The days of an undergraduate student being happy to make $40,000 a year to start are long gone now. If you post a job opportunity that pays under $50,000 a year, I can already tell you that you're not going to find many (if any) candidates for it.

Also, keep in mind that today's graduating college students have five and sometimes six figures of student loan debt, and most have never heard of a pension plan. So, I recommend some creativity in the employee benefits department. One form of compensation they really enjoy is assistance with student loan debt repayments. And if you're worried about rapid turnover, think about longevity pay. Reward your talent on your terms before someone else comes along and steals them from you.

Well, I hope this has been a helpful read for you in terms of understanding "these kids today." If you have questions or comments, I hope you'll write to me at [email protected].

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