We’ve all been there. You’re chatting with a younger colleague about popular music, movies or sports, and you wistfully mention Michael Jordan scoring 55 in his comeback game against the New York Knicks, or the twist ending to The Usual Suspects, or seeing Dave Matthews Band tour their debut album. This is when your counterpart says something along the lines of, “No, I actually don’t remember that, I was born in 1995.”
Oof. What a gut punch! But beyond a clarion sign of your own impending mortality, these moments are good reminders for leaders that while these young professionals comport themselves well and are often very impressive, they come from a different time.
There’s a danger in generational reductionism. Publications are often guilty of overgeneralizing and assigning common characteristics to entire generations based on decontextualized data points. “Gen X is disaffected, bitter, and likes flannel. Millennials won’t buy houses, get married, or eat mayonnaise.”
These blanket statements sell magazines and generate clicks, but people are far more than the years they chanced to be born. Still, it is important to understand the times people exist in. For the Gen Z professional that you, a brand leader, will need to manage, the times they’ve occupied have been complex and likely will inform their behaviors as workers.
Kathryn Dill’s 7 Things Employers Should Know About The Gen Z Workforce is required reading for leaders, but at almost 3 years old it is already a bit dated—which says more about the dynamism of this group and how quickly their expectations are shifting. When Dill authored the piece, most Gen Zers were still in high school. This fall, the first fully-Gen Z crop of grads is hitting the workforce. I personally have interviewed several in recent months.
The most crucial thing that separates this group from their Millennial forbearers is their expectations. Graduating in the midst of the worst economic crisis since The Great Depression with the memory of 9-11 fresh in their minds, Millennials (and many of us Gen Xers, as well) carry a nonspecific sense of dread about our economic and social conditions. They and we toiled during a particularly dour moment in the country’s history, one where we were told that recovery would be slow, that we should be happy just to have a job, and that we probably would not enjoy the same quality of life our parents did.
That has an affect on you. As the economy slowly improved, Millennial wages remained mostly flat. More opportunities came, and today if you weathered the worst of it and came out with 5-10 years of experience in your profession, you have your pick of jobs around the world. But if you joined the workforce between the years 2008 to 2014, you’re likely still wearing some scars.
Conversely, Gen Z did most of its “grown-up preparation” during a time of unprecedented growth—couched in the recovery that led to a current streak of 94 consecutive months of job creation. They’ve heard the horror stories from their older siblings, but the reality for them has been the opposite.
To manage them, leaders must keep this context in mind. The freedom these workers feel manifests in their work decisions. This is a shared trait with Millennials, who are famously generalized as “following their passion” in their work. Accepting that no work conditions are ideal, they’re attracted to opportunities where they nonetheless have a chance to do what they want. Good managers must foster this instinct, and point it in constructive directions. Make rote tasks mean something; illustrate exactly what the big picture is, and how their role is helping it become realized. Remember, a sense of purpose is paramount.
Generation Z has also come of age in the shadow of Millennials who prize hyper-competence (or at least the appearance of it), which, in my experience so far, has manifested in a strong desire to learn. Specifically, I have noticed that recent grads are less likely to think they “know everything” and are instead keenly interested to know more. More than the preceding generation—or my generation, for that matter—they are seeking out opportunities to add or sharpen skills.
And you need to reward that instinct. Sure, it means they’re likely going to take those skills on the open market, and if they don’t leave they will likely cost more to retain. But would your rather that motivation wither away? Rather, make the investment in internal multimedia training (this is the first native YouTube generation) and the secondary investment of dedicated time in their schedule to actually do it.
Finally, don’t believe the generational generalizing hype. Like almost all generations before them, the ascendance of Gen Z is coming replete with “Gen Z is too _____”-think pieces. This type of bloviating opinionating is almost always wrong.
Already, some “experts” are tagging Gen Z as a cohort of introverts who struggle to make personal social connections. This echoes all manner of assumptions made about “these darn kids” for decades—maybe longer.
Forget the trend pieces and assumptions. When managing your new influx of Gen Z employees, consider the context, and react to that.
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