(This article originally appeared in The Guardian)
Millennials are getting old. The people on the upper end of that demographic — defined by Pew Research as those born between 1981 and 1996 — are now pushing 40. They’re the dominant part of the workforce. But that dominance is quickly — and naturally — eroding to the next class of workplace warriors. That would be the members of Generation Z, or those born (according to the same Pew report) from 1997 and after.
A 2018 study from Deloitte says that Gen Zers (they define this generation as born in 1995, so there’s overlap with Pew above) are already about 24% of the US population, so it’s clear that they will become the majority of workers within the next decade. By that time, many of the older class of business owners — mostly my class — will have retired or moved on. The millennials who were once the anti-establishment will be the establishment, the managers, the owners.
Gen Zers are entering the workforce with knowledge and a confidence that my generation couldn’t dream of. They understand more about the economy, technology and the world than I ever did at that age.
This is a generation that’s not only more diverse but one that embraces diversity. According to the above research: “Gen Z is the most ethnically and racially diverse generation in history: one in four is Hispanic, 14% are African-American and 6% are Asian. And their views on gender and identity are unprecedented and untraditional: Gen Z refuses to turn ethnicity and race into checkboxes on a survey form.”
Gen Z want to work for — and have equity in — companies that have sound principles and exist to truly make the world a better place. These workers are quick to criticize their own employers when their actions contradict their social or moral beliefs.
Gen Zers bring with them not only a lifelong experience with the cloud, social media and mobile technology but — because they’ve known and adapted to this stuff since birth — are also open to more technology, more changes, more adaptations. They expect their employers to embrace the latest if it will help them be productive, independent and better balance their work and personal lives. They’re on the forefront of augmented reality, green tech and mental health platforms. Like all generations they’ll be pushed by the generation before them on this, but probably not as hard because this generation has so much technological momentum already.
All of this is great. But even with all of this — the confidence, the diversity, the activism, the technological intelligence — Gen Zers lack a critical thing that employers cannot ignore. And that critical thing is the secret to managing them. It’s experience. This generation are still just kids and let’s not forget that. They may not like to admit it but they know it. And they want our help. There is already much being written about how to manage this up-and-coming group. But in the end, knowing this secret is the most important thing.
Like any young person looking to impress, Gen Zers want to appear that they know the answers. And having that self-confidence is good. But we, as employers, should know better. We should understand that underneath that façade is someone who is not as confident as they appear. We should recognize that it is our job to weigh all the good things that this generation brings to the workplace with the secret that they don’t know very much about the realities of running a business.
For starters, it’s that more sales are made and more ideas are formed when people spend more time face-to-face rather than working from home. Or that too much software, technology and AI takes away a manager’s ability to make judgments that only humans can make. Or that sometimes — but not always — it makes more business sense to hire an experienced, middle-aged salesperson over an inexperienced, younger person.
We will have to help this generation understand that in order to earn more money and be entitled to greater benefits one must work for a while to gain the confidence, trust and experience of their employer. We will need to take pains to help younger workers accept the fact that they are indeed on the lowest rung of ladder, which may require them working odd hours or doing tasks that no one else wants to do.
With all the great things Gen Z brings to the workplace there’s an even greater thing that we, as employers, can give back to them. We can help them survive their 20s and emerge with the knowledge and experience that’s needed to make profits and build value so that their generation — and future generations — can have jobs and opportunities that sustain their families.
Understanding that for all their many assets they still lack experience is truly the secret to successfully managing this generation.