By Elizabeth Exline
Whether you see them as digitally adroit or addicted, optimistic or entitled, committed to bigger causes or committed only when it’s comfortable, Gen Z is on the rise.
Born between 1996 and 2010, Gen Z’s oldest members are officially part of the workforce and are poised to comprise 25% of the population in Asia-Pacific region by 2025. That means change is coming to everything, including the workplace.
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University of Phoenix Career Coach Jamie Johnson, MS, NCC, CCC, has seen it all when it comes to generational characteristics. She began her career by counseling Gen X, whose trademark independence endeared them to Johnson’s heart.
By 2005, she was coaching millennials who took an opposite approach to that of Gen X. “Suddenly, it was, ‘Show me this. Show me that. How do I do this?’” Johnson recalls. “It was what we call reaction formation in psychology: You go from one extreme to the other.”
So, where does that leave Gen Z? Major events like 9/11 and the Great Recession of 2008 are textbook knowledge for this generation rather than lived experiences. Digital life is a way of life (Gen Z reportedly comprises 60% of TikTok’s more than one billion users), and so is mental illness. They have the lowest levels of emotional and social well-being of all generations, according to McKinsey & Company.
Recalibrating the norm
One experience that has directly impacted Gen Z is the COVID-19 pandemic. For many Gen Zers, it meant canceled or newly remote jobs and isolating virtual classrooms.
“Life changed, and they don’t see life as what we’ve known in our traditional world,” Johnson says. “Remote became a new norm.”
In a nod to their resilience, however, Gen Z has embraced the possibility of virtual life for both better and worse. On the one hand, they’re more likely to demand a flexible approach to work-life balance. (And a four-day workweek!)
On the other hand, they avoid confrontation at all costs. “One thing about this group, they don’t like to make waves,” Johnson says. If a conversation or an encounter gets uncomfortable, Gen Z is liable to just opt out the way one restaurant worker did when Johnson pointed out a problem with her order. Rather than assist Johnson, the worker simply closed the drive-thru window in her face.
If you’ve had a customer-service representative hang up on you, a co-worker avoid your phone call or an acquaintance ghost you, you know what Johnson is talking about.
Perhaps this penchant for disengagement explains why Gen Z is also facing something of an existential crisis. “I’m dealing with a lot of Gen Z who don’t know who they are or what they want to do. … They want to know, though, and they want the money. They want that instant gratification like what a video game or technology can give them, but they don’t understand what it means workwise yet,” Johnson says.
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Even if they don’t know what it all means (or maybe because they don’t), Gen Z leads workers in hope and optimism when it comes to their careers. According to the 2023 Career Optimism Index®, 82% of Gen Z is more hopeful for the future of their careers as compared to 76% of baby boomers and 78% of Gen X.
This doesn’t surprise Johnson, who says, “Before COVID, this group was dynamic. They were excited. They were ready to go. If you encouraged them to do things, they were going to try it.”
Optimism, however, doesn’t guarantee happiness. The problem Gen Z faces is not unlike what their millennial predecessors encountered: an uncertain economic climate and the sense that they’re not fully equipped to make the life and career they want happen.
What does all this mean? According to Insider, Gen Z’s insecurities around skills and ability don’t seem to impede expectations. Citing a 2019 survey by InsideOut Development, Insider reports more than 75% of Gen Z believes they should be promoted after a year of employment; 32% think that milestone should happen after six months.
And they’re apparently not particularly sentimental when it comes to their employers. According to the same Insider article, most of the surveyed Gen Z workers planned to leave their companies within two years.
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As Gen Z boldly goes where no generation has gone before in terms of demanding better pay and perks, employers find themselves exploring ways to placate young workers.
Insider reports that some companies provide “workversary” celebrations and new titles. Others develop step-by-step plans for employee career growth.
Such plans align with takeaways from the Career Optimism Index, which recommends offering upskilling and mentorship as a means of meeting employee and employer goals alike. Employees acquire ongoing skill development, and employers benefit from a veritable talent pipeline.
The benefits of investing in Gen Z go beyond talent retention, though. Johnson sees potential in this fledgling generation. Their belief in the importance of mental health and general well-being suggests they may fulfill the promise made by millennials of achieving greater work-life balance.
“I think we’ll see a whole new concept of what work means when they reach the age of management and above,” Johnson says.
And that digital deftness also promises change. If Gen Z can overcome the isolating social awkwardness of a digital life, they may just spearhead the next wave of economic opportunity.
“They’re going to add technology to things we never dreamed of,” Johnson says.
It just may fall to older generations to give them the tools they need to succeed.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Elizabeth Exline has been telling stories ever since she won a writing contest in third grade. She's covered design and architecture, travel, parenting, lifestyle content and a host of other topics for national, regional, local and brand publications. Additionally, she's worked in content development for Marriott International and manuscript development for a variety of authors. Today, if given a free hour and the choice, she'd still prefer to curl up with a good story.
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