Next Up, Gen Z: What Managers Need to Know Today About the Workers of Tomorrow

As workplaces adjust to (and increasingly embrace) millennials’ needs and priorities, many forward thinkers are already wondering what’s next. At speaking engagements, I’m frequently asked about Gen Z: How are they different than Gen Y? What do managers and business leaders need to know about this new generation?

Here is my take:

Back Up. What Is Generation Z?

Given that there is no exact science to how we define generations, there are variations on the date range. The current consensus pegs them as those born from roughly the late 90s to today. That makes Gen Z anyone who’s 19 or younger right now.

To compare the generations size-wise, Gen Z are the children of Gen X parents, so the generation will be similarly small, much like millennials are a large group just like their baby boomer parents. Gen Zs have also grown up in tough economic times, which is also an indicator of a small generation.

Two Key Qualities That Shape Them

  • Cautious and careful: From the horrors of 9/11 to the financial crisis, this group has never lived through the boom years of peace and prosperity the millennials did. In that way, they are likely to have absorbed these qualities just like the Gen Xers, whose worldviews were shaped by coming of age during the uncertainty and change of the recessionary 70s and Cold War 80s.
  • Technologically advanced: Gen Z is the group that never had a tech-related learning curve: They were born into a smartphone-obsessed world, and many learned to swipe before they could talk. That’s why they’ll be comfortable with virtual reality, robots and all those technologies that seem “Jetson-esque” to the rest of us. They perceive technology as a visual medium and have never known a world without social media.

Gen Z in the Workforce

As usual, marketers are way ahead on studying generational preferences, having already determined that Gen Zs typically show more maturity and restraint than millennials did at their age, and they respond more to images rather than text — think Instagram versus Twitter. (You can delve more into Gen Z characteristics through this extensive research from Sparks & Honey.)

The next step is to project how this group will react to the workforce and relate to their multigenerational colleagues. Considering that the oldest are still in college and most are still in their elementary school years, I feel uncomfortable making any definitive predictions about their eventual workplace style. (And then of course, there is the absurdity of those who are already talking about the generation beneath the Zs – a group of people that hasn’t even been conceived yet!)

Case in point: My daughter, who is just under five and therefore qualifies as a Gen Z, still wants to be Elsa from Frozen when she grows up, so it’s a little hard to predict what she’ll be like in the workforce!

But here are a few Gen Z preferences I do feel comfortable predicting based on the qualities they have demonstrated as children and teenagers so far. I believe Gen Zs will be:

  • In the shadow of Millennials. Just as Gen Xers like me have built our careers in a baby boomer-dominated world, so will Gen Zs exist in the shadow of the massive Millennial generation ahead of them. This is not a weakness, just a reality.
  • Entrepreneurial. Raised by Gen X parents (who are also an entrepreneurial generation) and growing up during a time of major global, technological and economic upheaval, I believe Gen Zs are keenly aware of the problems in the world and eager to create solutions and stability.
  • Diverse. Gen Zs represent the first majority-minority group of schoolchildren in American history. They are also the first generation to grow up with an African American President of the United States and with same-sex marriage as the law of the land. I expect this generation to continue to redefine personal identity, family make-up and the role of work in one’s life.

It’s exciting to figure out how this new generation will shape our world, and I know that I will be working closely with my corporate and university clients to gain insight into this generation.

What are your predictions about Gen Z, and how do you see them translating into the workplace?

Lindsey Pollak is the leading voice on millennials in the workplace, trusted by global companies, universities, and the world’s top media outlets — and, most importantly, by millennials themselves. A New York Times bestselling author, Lindsey began her career as a dorm RA in college and has been mentoring millennials — and explaining them to other generations — ever since. Her keynote speeches have audiences so engaged that, in the words of one attendee, “I didn’t check my phone once!” Contact Lindsey to discuss a speaking engagement for your organization.

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Lindsey is a globally recognized career and workplace expert and the leading voice on generational diversity. She has spoken for more than 300 audiences including Google, Goldman Sachs, Estee Lauder, Stanford and Wharton. Lindsey is the author of four career and workplace advice books, and her insights have appeared in media outlets including The TODAY Show, CNBC, NPR, the Harvard Business Review and the Wall Street Journal.


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