Frustrations are mounting as Gen Z gets plugged into organizations; the big question is whether the problem is young adults in the workplace, or elder generations struggling to effectively integrate new values systems into their cultures?
The disconnect between Gen Z and their organizations, bosses and elder generations is creating another fraught dynamic that adds to an already stressful climate at work. Multiple social reckonings over the past three years (the Global Pandemic, remote work, the Great Resignation and Great Layoff) have all raised the expectations and tension levels in workplaces. And the integration of Gen Z into working life appears to be causing another rift. A chorus of complaints now reverberates from boardrooms to break rooms. These concerns rose to center stage at last year’s Davos summit where “CEOs couldn’t stop complaining about their Generation Z-ers.” Managers are finding Gen Z often difficult to manage and having a strikingly different view of the world. However, understanding this challenge requires a deeper look at generational and social dynamics impacting young adults entering the workforce.
A broader look at the factors influencing these impressions reveals a more complex picture. Namely, corporate America has a chronic complaint that resurfaces like clockwork about every 10-15 years: The ‘kids’ these days are just not quite right. This is not a new complaint and not long ago it was one leveled at Millennials. Less than 10 years ago terms like “lazy” and “entitled” became ubiquitous stereotypes of the Millennial employee – remember Simon Sinek’s famous (or infamous) musings about Millennials? Yet as the largest portion of the US workforce, Gen Y managed historically high levels of change and were the backbone of navigating one of the most stressful periods in the history of organizational life during the Global Pandemic. Now there are few questions about Gen Y’s resolve, and Gen Z is under the scrutiny of elder generations’ expectations and assumptions about young adult life. Research suggests that a major factor in this dynamic is that as our view of ourselves changes, so does our view of the upcoming generation. This generational hand-wringing and critique by Gen X and Y appears to be directed at Gen Z as they increasingly enter the workforce.
Gen Z is also struggling more than any other generation in the workplace, both in managing stress and maintaining their sense of self. The stress and uncertainty of the Global Pandemic hit them as they were launching their careers and defining themselves as adults and professionals. As a result, Gen Z may seem more reactive in situations where they feel the greater good is challenged. This is likely related to them growing up with social upheaval, uncertainty about the health of the planet and regular exposure to troubling social events through online platforms. Further, personal authenticity is an area of particular emphasis for Gen Z. “Gen-Z generally perceives themselves as multi-hyphenates. Unlike previous generations, they don’t define themselves by just one or two traits or interests, and they don’t rely on their job title or company identity alone.” Said Tennessee Watt, Diversity & Inclusion Marketing expert and Gen Z thought leader. “Gen-Z tends to have more activities and areas of involvement outside of work to express themselves and their creativity. These extracurriculars can come to define Gen Z more than their 9-5 work identity.”
Given these factors, executives need to reconsider how to strike an important balance: they must both address Gen Z’s emphasis on authentic self-expression, purpose, inclusion, sustainability, and find ways to incorporate these areas of emphasis while earning fiscal results. This is no easy task and it speaks to a broader challenge leaders are facing in balancing organizational health and business performance. To better understand the challenges facing organizations, leaders and Gen Z itself, we sat down with Dr. Kelly Kinnebrew, an expert on Gen Z entering the workplace, to discuss how managers can better engage, guide and develop Gen Z, and adapt their talent strategy accordingly.
Beau River: Outside of stereotypes and labels, what is truly unique about Gen Z and their approach to work?
Kelly Kinnebrew: The first difference is this generation’s upbringing. Many Gen Z-ers have opted out of some experiences that build independent living skills like getting a driver’s license, dating, and holding a job. About 50% of Boomers and 40% of Gen X-ers held jobs in high school compared to less than 20% for Gen Z. This matters a lot since they are showing up to workplaces with less professional experience than prior cohorts.
River: How are stress and mental health concerns playing a factor in how Gen Z shows up and performs in the workplace?
Kinnebrew: Starting in 2011 we saw a sharp upturn in teen rates of depression, anxiety, risk factors for suicide, and suicide attempts. More and more is coming out about the negative effects of social media and exposure to terrifying news content on kids, teens, and youth and the connection to increased rates of anxiety and depression. Add to that a pandemic at key growth years for Gen Z and dramatically fewer interpersonal experiences and you have a perfect storm of delayed adulthood.
River: This is sounding quite challenging. What unique strengths does this generation show, or is it too soon to tell?
Kinnebrew: Yes, it is too soon to tell just yet, but we do have early signals and likely outcomes. This is the most educated and demographically diverse generation our country has ever seen, these are notable strengths with far-reaching implications. Also, Gen Z has a somewhat more realistic expectation of job fulfillment compared to Millennials which can help them push through early career challenges. But, as work continues to be the part of life that Americans look to find a greater sense of meaning-making, these forces may push and pull against each other. Lastly, we see a stronger interest in societal and climate issues than generations past, and even a bit higher than for Millennials when they were their age. This has positive implications for corporate sustainability goals and finding the talent needed to drive those initiatives.
Dr. Kinnebrew went on to highlight the following three points for successfully engaging and managing Gen Z.
- Help Gen Z work with uncomfortable feelings. Frustrations and stress in the workplace are converting more quickly to HR complaints or simply quitting. Managers could help their people deal with these feelings by modeling tolerance in sitting with anxiety, and appropriately sharing their knowledge and experience in choosing healthy coping strategies. Related to emotion management, be cautious with feedback delivery. Contrary to what’s out there, it’s more attention than feedback that Gen Z is after. They may hope that this means praise, though the data says that they’re a bit less praise-seeking than Millennials were at their age. Tread lightly with hard-to-hear feedback until a cushion of psychological trust and safety has been built.
- Give clear direction before leaning into ambiguity. Work offers few “right answers,” but this is unfamiliar territory to most Gen Zs. Critical, big picture thinking may not materialize as organizations expect, and the delay will be felt more since careers demand these skills sooner than for any prior cohort. Ask probing questions to help them see all the parts to problems more fully. Teaching them about the affect heuristic couldn’t hurt either. That’s the tendency that humans have to consult our feelings when thinking through problems. Ask how much or whether that data should factor into issues.
- Help Gen Z define professional authenticity based on the context. Managers can help Gen Z-ers understand authenticity as an integration of an array of personas. Some personas should move forward as the context requires, and some should be downplayed. This is mature and adaptive. Also, helping Gen Z manage boundaries and build professional relationships will help set them up for success in the long run. Role playing hard conversations and practicing challenging interactions, even small stakes ones, can help them effectively manage relationships when people have different values, beliefs and priorities than they do.