Two recent books are seeking to gauge the impact of the newest generation of employees, who began entering the work force in large numbers this year, and the authors view Generation Z differently.
The more troubling take is from Jean M. Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University and author of “iGen: Why today’s super-connected kids are growing up less rebellious, more tolerant, less happy – and completely unprepared for adulthood.”
She writes that this new generation, the 72 million people born between 1995 and 2012 and now make up nearly a quarter of the United States population, have never known anything but Internet-connected technology. They spend an average of six hours a day interacting with “new media.”
Indeed, they much prefer these virtual interactions to in-person interactions. Despite all this easy access to information, Twenge concludes that Generation Z (she calls them iGen) is also less informed about current events than previous generations.
In a Wall Street Journal book review of Twenge’s work, Christine Rosen, writes: “It is hard to read the evidence that Ms. Twenge has scrupulously compiled about iGen’s technology use without experiencing the sickening feeling that we’re engaged in a massive behavioral and psychological experiment – with young people as the unwitting guinea pigs.”
A somewhat brighter view emerges from the book “Gen Z @ Work: How the next generation is transforming the workplace,” by the father-son team of David and Jonah Stillman. Dad is a Gen Xer (born between 1965 and 1976) and son is a 17-year-old Gen Zer.
Because they are always connected, “Gen Z can be the eyes and ears for their employers on the competition,” the Stillmans write. And they note that Gen Zers are not afraid to fail as much as past generations were, leading to a greater willingness to try new things.
With the traditional business distinctions between the physical and digital worlds blurring or even disappearing completely, Gen Zers can lead the way. “These new systems are the exact ones that Gen Z is already ‘expert’ at,” the Stillmans write.
They based their conclusions on two national surveys of Gen Z workplace attitudes and found that Gen Zers were “not at all like the Millennials” who preceded them.
While Millennials have earned a reputation for job-hopping and being less loyal to employers than preceding generations, most Gen Zers would like to have job security with one company, the Stillmans found. Maybe not for 40 years like Baby Boomers, but at least for a decade or so.
Organization leaders (Baby Boomers, Gen Xers and increasingly Millennials) need to know this about their newest employees: “Gen Z is fiercely independent and will collide head-on with so many of the collaborative cultures that Millennials have fought for,” write the Stillmans. “We need to prepare Millennials to step into management and get the most out of Gen Z employees.”
According to “Gen Z @ Work”, Gen Z employees share these general characteristics:
- They are wired to make decisions at lightning speed – not always a good thing.
- Their attention span is, on average, 8 seconds (down from 12 seconds in 2000)
- Their personal health and wellness are high priorities for them
- They are more concerned with finding information than in analyzing it.
- They want to work for an employer that will allow them to do multiple jobs and even let them create their own job descriptions and job titles.
- They greatly value a diverse workplace.
- They want to work at an employer that has an impact on society; if not, they will leave.
- They are competitive with peers at work.
- They have an intense fear of missing out on anything.
- They are pragmatic and realistic (events shaping them were the aftermath of 9/11 and the Great Recession) compared to the more idealistic Millennials.
It is clear these Gen Zers will reshape our work places in ways we can’t yet fully predict.
“The risk in not getting to know Gen Z is that we will simply treat them like the Millennials,” write the Stillmans. “Big mistake.”
Of course, making generalizations about each generation also carries some risk.
“Using generations as signposts for understanding group behavior can be a frustrating exercise – every Baby Boomer isn’t an aging hippie and every Millennial isn’t an avocado-toast fiend with an entitlement complex,” writes Christine Rosen in The Wall Street Journal review of “iGen.’’
“And yet, as social-science researchers have found, generational distinctions do have some validity, and a better understanding of large birth cohorts can illuminate broader social trends,” she concludes.
Those trends are what leaders need to factor into their approach as they work with new generations to move their organizations toward their goals.
Paul Keep is one of eight consultants with The Leadership Group LLC, a 20-year-old statewide leadership development consulting firm. He formerly was editor of The Grand Rapids Press and three other Michigan newspapers.