Generation Z is beginning to join the workforce. This age group--born between the early 1990s and early 2000s--has never really existed in a world without the web or lacking the widespread use of cell phones, laptops, and freely available wireless networks and digital media.
The combination of job changes caused by technology’s impact and the employment issues that come with an economic recession makes finding work a very different experience for Generation Z--vastly different what their parents, grandparents, or even siblings went through. And the workplace is finding that dealing with these hyper-connected Internet-generation “kids” greatly changes the game.
Transparency, self-reliance, flexibility, and personal freedom are all non-negotiable aspects of Generation Z’s work ethic--and properly harnessing those qualities improves the working world for all of us. Ignoring them--or worse, trying to force-fit them into a traditional job environment--could result in peer frustration, reduced productivity, low morale, and a lack of employee engagement. So how do employers properly address this generational shift?
Generation Z and the NC Institute of Emerging Issues
A recent business focus group, hosted at Red Hat and sponsored by the North Carolina Institute of Emerging Issues, brought together representitives from different employment sectors to address this generational gap.
Each year, the Institute chooses one discrete issue, a common challenge confronting the state workforce. And this year’s topic is Generation Z (defined as those who will be 18-30 in the year 2020) and the impact these young workers will have on the coming business environment.
More than a dozen representatives--from organizations like Golden Corral (food service), Elster Solutions (technology), the Durham Bulls (minor-league baseball), Fidelity Investments (finance), Capstrat (marketing and design), Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina (healthcare), Community Partnerships (social/education), Civil Engineering (land development), and Red Hat (technology)--discussed what they had seen (and what they predict) in terms of hiring and retention of this coming-of-age generation.
Generation Z today
Anita Brown-Graham, director of the institute since 2007, opened by framing Generation Z’s plight. They are, she emphasized, the first generation in the history of the US to enter the workforce under expectations that they will be (on average) less well-off than their parents. The lack of jobs and the difficulty finding a good job fit means that many in this generation can expect to spend more time job-seeking or job-jumping and are less able to sustain themselves as independent households.
Through question-guided discussion, it was agreed that the technology skills Generation Z exhibits can be a great advantage for employers. For these young peers, connectivity and the use of modern media is as natural as breathing. Any parent with a teenage child can likely attest that their offspring connects with others in ways that are immediate and on-going.
But sometimes, like in an example given by one speaker, their methods seem a little strange. She noticed a change in her teenager’s online status (from single to 'in a relationship' on Facebook), and was surprised. She’d heard nothing about a new beau, so she asked her child about this development. Her daughter responded, reassuringly, that the relationship was not a real one--only her “online persona” was involved.
Instant and text messaging, social media, and online networking are ubiquitous to Generation Z’s social, personal, and emerging professional lives. They do not have to learn the communications skills that pre-Internet generations struggle with, and technology is already integrated into their daily routines.
The example of the ‘online persona’ relationship also illustrates the easy way that Generation Z divides and assumes social roles based on setting--and the (sometimes mistaken) expectation that others would also understand this segregation.
Looking ahead to Z's tomorrow
This led to another question from Brown, "Are there soft skills that are lacking?" By this, she meant communications skills. The discussion continued, and it was clear that the seeming lack of skill really boiled down to two things: expectation and presentation.
The hiring managers present were very wary (and very aware) of Generation Z’s use of social media tools and their casual attitudes about both knowledge and commentary. Online communities and the persistence of their content make knowing more about prospective and current peers exceptionally easy. The Internet makes general knowledge almost immediately accessible. This breeds a new familiarity--with information and with each other. As a result, generation Z expects to be informed, to be allowed to respond, and to have their responses heard and acknowledged.
This kind of exchange is welcomed in many workplaces today, but some companies still restrict employees, either by disallowing the use of certain kinds of communication, or by enforcing rules regarding what can be said, publicly or even privately (internally).
Neither of these kinds of restrictions, it was noted, are particularly effective. An employer that banned personal web-surfing from company machines found that employees merely moved their online activity to their phones--and an employee sneaking off to the restroom with their phone took more time away from business than one opening a quick email window. Another that restricted public discussion of certain topics would hear about frequent (and often incorrect or inflammatory) private discussions that spread like wildfire.
The benefits (and perils) of being Z
Many on the panel admitted: There are obvious benefits to generation Z-style communications. But moving toward that kind of openness is hard work. Convincing entrenched management that established practices can and should change is no easy task. Avoiding conflict in open spaces can be difficult. Being more personal without losing important forms of privacy can be tricky.
One group member described the pushback she experienced when creating a website that allowed open internal discussion. They envisioned a useful communications tool, where questions could be asked and answered and minor issues solved before they became problems. But their executive board did not see it that way. They feared people would post distracting commentary or damaging misinformation or that corporate decisions would be challenged.
After their project debuted, a challenge was issued and a heated discussion took place. It involved a rapid-fire exchange between an associate and an executive--one of the same executives that had expressed reservations. But after some arguing, the two parties came to a more civil exchange, and the problem was addressed openly. Others that might have groused in private about the same issue saw their concern brought to management. Executives, though unsettled, were at least aware of the disagreement, and could react to it. They allowed the system to remain.
"Z wants to know: How do I fit in? Why do I have to do this? Why does it have to be done by then?"
And though these statements were initially framed as self-interest from a generation accustomed to instant gratification, a closer examination reveals that Z is not the only group that benefits from knowing those things--from being invested in those things--within corporate culture.
We all have access to more knowledge and more business technology tools. What we do not have is more time. If it is self-interest that makes crucial arguments and ideas come to light--and creates processes that are faster and a better fit to how we live--then shouldn't we all want to work like Generation Z?
If this discussion interests you, the NC Institute of Emerging Issues will host the NC Emerging Issues Forum on February 6-7, 2012 at the Raleigh Convention Center. You can find out more at the Institute's website.
Recordings from previous years' Emerging Issues Forum can be found at the PBS UNC-TV site.