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Employers Advised to Brace for the Next Wave: Generation Z

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For much of this decade, businesses have debated at length how to hire and manage millennials—the 82 million Americans born between 1980 and 1994 who now make up the largest generational slice of the U.S. workforce.

David Stillman, a generational expert and speaker, suggests it may be time to start focusing some of that attention on a new group: Generation Z, the 72 million Americans born between 1995 and 2012 who have strikingly different attitudes about work than the millennials who preceded them into the workplace.

“A lot of people say they’re going to wait to get to know Gen Z till they're a little bit older,” Stillman said during a presentation at the 2018 SVIA Fall Forum. “What they’re really saying is that they’re going to wait until Gen Z becomes more like them. Never happens. We do not become more alike as we get older. Yes, we hit the same life stages, but each generation reinvents itself because they enter with a different generational personality.”

By way of example, Stillman noted how the different generations view NASA and space exploration based on defining events from their youth. Baby boomers, Stillman said, think about NASA putting a man on the moon—an exciting time when government demonstrated its prowess. Gen Xers remember the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger and think of a government that might have been wasting its money on something that didn’t work. Gen Zers, meanwhile, think of entrepreneur Elon Musk and wonder who needs the government, since private enterprise can now lead the way into space.

Because few leaders in government or business recognize differences like these, Stillman said, they’re making the mistake of thinking they can recruit and retain Gen Zers the same way they recruit and retain millennials. And it’s backfiring.

To help them get on the right track, Stillman undertook national studies to identify key traits of Generation Z that business and government leaders should put on their radar. Many of the questions were solicited from CEOs and celebrities.

When asked whether they regard employment as an entitlement or if they are prepared to start at the bottom and work their way up, 76 percent of Gen Zers say they are willing to start at the bottom. “Dues-paying is back on the table for the first time since the baby boomers,” Stillman said, adding that so is loyalty with 61 percent of Gen Zers saying they’d stay with an employer for 10 years. Drive and a competitive nature are back, too; 88 percent of Gen Zers say they’re willing to work longer and harder than their peers, and 73 percent say they feel competitive toward those peers.

Stillman links sentiment like that in part to the challenges Gen Zers saw their parents go through during the 2008 financial crisis and recession, when significant numbers lost jobs and homes. “Think about entertainment,” Stillman added. “The millennials, who when they were young were told they could be anything they wanted to be, had Harry Potter—mystical, magical, anything’s possible. What did Gen Z have? Hunger Games. You versus the world. You don’t win, you die.”

In terms of what they’re looking for from work, Stillman noted that millennials might have been willing to sacrifice a high salary if they thought they were making a difference in their work, but Gen Zers see it differently. “They want passion and meaning, but those things don’t make their top 10. Number one on their list is pay or salary.” They also expect a high degree of customization in their lives, which in the working world might translate into wanting to be able to help shape their job descriptions and career paths, or when and where they work.

Gen Z also differs from its immediate predecessor generations in thinking about college, Stillman said. Baby boomers told their millennial kids they were going to go to college at any cost and many of them did just that, racking up massive amounts of student loan debt. Gen Xers saw that and thought, “maybe there’s an alternative path.” Now, he said, Gen Zers are much more questioning of the value of college, with 75 percent contending that there are other good ways to get an education, and many wanting to go only if they know exactly what they want to do afterward. Half consider an online college degree comparable to a traditional college degree.

Based on that finding, Stillman encouraged employers to start reaching out to students when they’re still in high school to expose them to the great careers their companies have to offer. “You have to get on their radar earlier if you want to make some waves,” he said, ticking off the names of several large employers already doing just that. “If you’re reaching out in college, it might be too late.”

Stillman said he’s worried that nobody’s been training millennials how to manage Gen Zers, given their differing world views. Millennials may be surprised to find, for example, that 40 percent of Gen Zers say access to Wi-Fi would be more important in choosing a job than having a working bathroom, and a like number say they should own a successful product or service they create while working for their employer. Nine out of 10 say an organization’s technological sophistication impacts their desire to work there.

In summary, Stillman said, now is the time to get to know Generation Z. “The leading edge of this generation is 24 years old, and they’re already in the workforce.”