It might seem hard to believe, but the first influx of Generation Z workers are just starting to trickle into the workplace, and how your organization prepares for and embraces this unique generation of future employees, coworkers and customers will determine the long-term viability of your business.
Born roughly between 1996 and 2010, Z-ers are the first true digital natives. They cut their teeth on iPads at two, had a smartphone by 10 (or younger) and have accessed YouTube and other sites and applications for entertainment and information throughout the entirety of their formative years.
They bring a tech-first mentality to everything they do. Their expectations of technology, particularly in the workplace, are several magnitudes higher than even the most seasoned millennials who have already brought their fair share of challenges and benefits to the modern workforce.
Gen Z accounts for roughly 61 million people in the U.S., much larger than Generation X. Their current spending power is pegged at around $44 billion – and most of them still haven’t reached the workforce. By 2020, they will represent about 40 percent of all consumers in the country.
These folks aren’t going away. Not only are they extremely comfortable with technology and its potential, they have a level of self-awareness about how technology has changed the world they live in and what it portends for their future in the workplace. They’ve seen it all. They know the potential and the power and the pitfalls of technology in ways that prior generations simply cannot grasp.
To prosper, forward-thinking companies will have to shift to an ecosystem mindset and build their labor force accordingly.
“We’ve gone from a traditional linear type of thinking where everything is predictive to an ecosystem mindset,” Sanyin Siang, a professor at Duke University and executive director of the Fuqua/Coach K Center on Leadership & Ethics, said in a LinkedIn post. “So people need to rely less on just first-order effects but also think about second- and third- and fourth-order effects.”
Siang said this will fundamentally change the way companies hire as they look for skills that will boost company well-being in subtle but often immeasurable ways, including people who are great mentors, skeptical thinkers or team builders.
“When these roles happen serendipitously in an organization, it enables organizational survival and continuity,” she said.
Dell Technologies commissioned an independent research report last fall that queried more than 12,000 students between the ages of 16 and 23 in 17 different countries to get a feel for this up-and-coming generation’s opinions and attitudes about technology and the workplace.
Here are some of the more noteworthy findings:
- 80 percent of Gen Z aspires to work with cutting-edge technology and more than a third are specifically interested in a career in information technology.
- 77 percent are willing to serve as tech mentors on the job, but 94 percent are concerned about whether or not they have the right skills and experience.
- 91 percent said the technology offered by a potential employer would be an important factor in choosing among similar job offers.
- 80 percent believe technology and automation will create a more equitable work environment by preventing bias and discrimination.
“It’s almost a given that these digital natives have advanced technology and data science skills, but what is surprising is the level of digital maturity they are bringing to the workplace,” Danny Cobb, corporate fellow and vice president of Technology Strategy, Dell Technologies, said in the report. “Yet, we haven’t raised a generation of robots. Gen Z sees technology not only as a tool for enabling human progress, but also as a means for leveling the information empowerment playing field. Their combination of vision and optimism is remarkable.”
It’s important to remember that these younger people grew up in the aftermath of 9/11, the Great Recession of 2008 and the explosion of social media sites and relentless automation. They grew up with parents or siblings – often Gen Xers but also some older millennials – who may have lost their jobs or careers to automation or other digital consequences foisted upon them. According to Pew Charitable Trusts, during the Great Recession, the median net worth of Generation Z’s parents fell by nearly 45 percent.
Because they’ve seen just how prolific and destructive technology can be, it’s no surprise that this generation of workers will likely look and sound much different than previous generations. The study found that 75 percent of Gen Zers say there are other ways of getting an education than going to college.
Apparently, the prospect of being bogged down by student loan debt has some of them looking elsewhere. Online academies and companies that offer specific technical training or tuition assistance are intriguing to this younger set.
What they don’t have (and are quick to admit) are so-called soft skills that are largely the domain of the Boomers, Xers and some millennials. They’ve been labeled as “screen addicts,” but most say they’re painfully aware that their interpersonal communications skills need to improve in order to advance and effectively manage as their careers progress.
For employers, this generation offers the promise of an almost immediate return on investment because these younger workers have fine-tuned their tech skills to the point that they require less training and have less apprehension about learning new digital skills on the fly. Ideally, they can be the organizational glue that drives improved efficiency and proficiency while also mastering the ability to communicate with colleagues on and away from their screens.
Of the more than 12,000 students surveyed, 43 percent surprisingly said that in-person communication is their preferred method for interacting with coworkers, followed by phone (21 percent) while messaging apps and texting were a distant third choice.
And while 82 percent said that social media can be a valuable tool in the workplace, 75 percent expect to learn on the job from coworkers or other experts rather than from an online source. They actually yearn to interact with older workers, bosses and customers in more “human” and nuanced ways than their millennial predecessors.
Also, all this time spent on their smartphones or tablets has created a new type of soft skill – the ability to consume vast amounts of information in a short period of time while managing to curate and prioritize this ocean of data into what matters most for a specific task or situation. They don’t like to waste time and have an innate ability to separate the wheat from the digital chaff at warp speed.
The near-future office will likely have as many as five different generations working side by side for at least the next decade. The organizations that can successfully create an environment that blends the strengths of their older employees with this emerging hybrid generation of workers will thrive as more advanced business applications evolve.