A new generation of employees just entered the post-college workforce. Are you ready for them?
Blame overprotective parenting, a recession, and an educational system that champions checklists and rubrics. But Generation Z is largely unprepared to be workers, new research shows, just as managers are largely unprepared to position them for success. But fear not. Gen Zers may not resemble older employees, but they can thrive in your organization—if you know how to develop their potential.
Born starting in 1997, Generation Z or “post-Millennials” have never known a world without 9/11 or the Internet. They’ve grown up cradled in an educational culture of both relentless standardized testing and everyone-gets-a-trophy exceptionalism. They are the stars of their own stories on Instagram and Snapchat. And they have come of age in a period of deep economic anxiety.
The good news is that those influences have translated into the strongest work ethic of any generation since the silent generation (born 1928 to 1945). They are also more highly educated and more racially and ethnically diverse than any generation before them, according to Pew Research Center analysis of Census Bureau data. All of the attention they’ve gotten from social media and helicopter and snowplow parents have made them acutely aware of their own identity and confident in their ability to make a difference.
Haas Senior Lecturer Holly Schroth has studied this new generation through the lens of social psychology and has weeded through the unreliable and often regurgitated “facts” about Gen Z to find peer-reviewed, valid statistics. “They are really achievement-oriented. They want to work hard,” she says.
The impetus for Schroth’s research was a change she noticed in undergraduate students three years ago. While they were driven and eager to do well, they seemed to struggle without a clear checklist of goals and rationale for why a particular task would help them succeed. “They didn’t seem to be there to learn so much as to get good grades,” she says. “They were not going to be compelled to do an assignment unless they thought it was important for them in getting ahead.”
Though confident and savvy, Gen Z lacks hands-on experience. The combination of higher family income (according to some measures of economic well-being), pressure to get into college, and a dearth of entry-level jobs following the Great Recession means that few post-Millennials have worked as teenagers. In 2018, just 19% of Gen Z teens reported having held a job versus 30% of Millennials in 2002, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
That means that for most Gen Zers, their first job out of college is likely their first job, period. “They have completely unrealistic expectations for what it will be like in the workplace,” Schroth says. In surveys, Gen Zers say they expect their work to be meaningful, that they’ll have flexibility and control over their work environment, and that they’ll get along with bosses and co-workers. When those hopes don’t pan out, friction ensues.
One of Schroth’s former students, for example, reported he was struggling in his job at a high-tech company after only three months. “He was upset because the manager wouldn’t implement his ideas on how to run the software better,” she says. “He asked if he should go around her.” Schroth’s advice was to focus on becoming a reliable performer so that his boss might see his potential for contributions in the future, but she fears he will go around her anyway.
Removing any ambiguity about a job—during the interview and onboarding processes and via one-on-one coaching—can help mitigate the impatience Gen Z often feels and reinforce company hierarchy. Be upfront with them, Schroth says, about their essential job responsibilities, the positive and negative aspects of the job, opportunities for growth, company culture, and interactions with senior executives.
Ensuring they are properly trained is also key. Gen Z is more anxiety prone than other generations, with 73% saying they lack the emotional support they need and 85% saying stress keeps them from taking on leadership roles. “They feel all of this pressure to achieve, but they don’t have the skills they need to do it, especially when they’re left on their own,” Schroth says.
Gen Z has grown up hyper-aware of diversity in race, gender, and sexuality—91% believe everyone is equal and should be treated that way—so traditional anti-bias training may be lost on them. Instead, Schroth recommends training in teamwork skills, negotiation, and problem-solving, so everyone feels included.
Despite the challenges in preparing Gen Z to be productive on the job, Schroth also sees a tremendous opportunity as this generation enters the workforce. Their work ethic and will to succeed can make them a valuable addition to any office, if they can be integrated with the right tools and encouragement. “I am super optimistic about this generation, because I think we have a really good idea of why they are the way they are,” says Schroth. “If we can just tell them what it takes to achieve, they will.”