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A New Generation Is Coming. Are You Ready?

March 25, 2019

Generation Z is hitting the workforce, and companies should learn what makes their newest employees tick.

By Nathan Geiger, CPA (inactive)
Manager, Ernst & Young

There's a new group of professionals flooding into companies across the country. They've been dubbed "Generation Z," and three years from now, they’ll represent 20 percent of the workforce.

What values and expectations are this new cohort of young adults bringing to the workplace? And how can companies get ready to manage them and integrate them with other generations? Understanding who makes up this new generation and the unique perspectives they bring to the workplace is key.

Who is Generation Z?

On the surface, Generation Z consists of young people currently between 16 and 25. Some have graduated college and are beginning their first professional jobs, while others are getting their first part-time gigs. 

Demographers may classify this group of young adults as the second wave of millennials, also known as Generation Y, but they are different from the first wave in many ways. Generation Z grew up with the turmoil that came after the September 11 attacks, and they had a front-row view of the recession and its effect on their parents and grandparents.

For that reason, they are often more pragmatic and practical than Generation Y (those born between 1978 and 1989). Though they value creativity and innovation, like the millennials that came before them, they also crave stability. They tend to be interested in working for either medium-size companies or large international corporations, perhaps because of the security those companies can offer. Some have called them the “reality check generation.”

They are also the first truly digital generation. They can’t remember life before smartphones, and advancing technology doesn’t trip them up at all; if they don’t know how to do something, they figure it out. After all, they’ve grown up with YouTube video tutorials and constant access to information via social media and the internet, so they are always learning.

Like millennials, those in Generation Z value diversity — and they are diverse as a group. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, a quarter of them speak a language other than English at home (an increase from 11 percent in 1980) and 43 percent belong to an ethnic minority group (an increase from 22 percent in 1980).

They also enjoy close relationships with their parents. In a recent survey Robert Half conducted with the nonprofit organization Enactus, 82 percent of Gen Zers said they expect their parents or guardians to have some influence on their career decisions after graduation.

Make the call for Gen Z

When searching for a job, members of Gen Z typically look for a few specific things:

  • The possibility for growth. When asked to name their top three priorities when seeking a job, 64 percent of Gen Zers cited career opportunities. These young adults want to know that they have the chance to move up in the organization if they work hard and perform well.
  • Values and culture. This group has a strong sense of social responsibility, and before they take a job, they want to make sure it aligns with their personal beliefs and goals. In the Robert Half/Enactus survey, 40 percent said that it’s important to be making a difference or having a positive impact on society. Companies that demonstrate ties to the community and local charities stand out to Gen Z.
  • A competitive salary. This cohort grew up during the recession and have more in common with Depression-era children than their older millennial counterparts when it comes to money. Therefore, they place a high priority on salary; 44 percent of Gen Zers named generous pay as a top-three priority in the survey.
  • Authenticity. These young adults are looking for a real, honest, transparent picture of a job’s day-to-day tasks and responsibilities. If they take the position and it’s not what they expected, they don’t hesitate to change jobs.
  • A swift hiring process. Gen Zers don’t like to wait, and they see hesitation in the hiring process as a sign that the company is unorganized or slow-moving — in other words, not a place where they’ll be able to move up the corporate ladder quickly. They won’t wait three months for a firm to make a decision; they’ll just move on to the next opportunity.

The workplace of a new generation

Gen Zers may have a reputation for being obsessed with smartphones and social media and, therefore, totally disconnected from the real world. But research into their preferences erases that stereotype.

For one thing, Gen Zers prefer face-to-face communication over phone calls or emails when it comes to workplace communication. They want to develop strong ties with authority figures, working closely with their manager to glean direction, guidance and coaching that will help them succeed. They would also rather collaborate in small groups than work solo.

Secondly, this group expects to work hard. In fact, two-thirds of the respondents to the Robert Half/Enactus survey believe they’ll have to work harder than previous generations to have a satisfying career.

Finally, they expect to be rewarded for that hard work. In the Robert Half study, 32 percent of Gen Zers said that they plan to be managing or supervising employees in a corporate environment by the time they’ve been out of college for five years. Another 24 percent expect to be working their way up the corporate ladder, but not in management yet.

Create a clear path

Once they’re on the job, Gen Zers tend to stick with companies that make these things a priority:

  • On-the-job training. Gen Zers want to set themselves up for career advancement. Companies that provide training or mentoring programs that allow them to develop new skills or improve old ones show them that management is invested in their progress.
  • Frequent discussions about their career path. Gen Zers are highly motivated by the idea of growth opportunities. They want to know how they can move up in their organization, and they want their manager to explain, step by step, what they should be doing to advance. They want their supervisors to be straight with them in any discussion: In the Robert Half/Enactus survey, 38 percent cited honesty and integrity as the qualities they value most in a boss.
  • Coaching and mentoring from their supervisor. Check-in meetings in which supervisors provide input and feedback about current projects and responsibilities can go a long way with this group. They can work independently and tend to be entrepreneurial, but they want to be given the tools and input they need to be successful from the beginning.
  • Up-to-date technology. Gen Zers can’t — and won’t — put up with software or systems that are obsolete. There’s a plus side to this, though: This generation is so adept and up to date that they can help their company use emerging technology to increase efficiency and productivity.

A multigenerational workforce in the making

Over the next five years, as members of Generation Z become part of the team, managers must make sure that all four cohorts in their workplace — baby boomers, Generation X, Generation Y and these newcomers — work together successfully.

Supervisors aren’t the only ones worrying about it, either: Gen Zers, according to the Robert Half/Enactus survey, are particularly concerned about working with baby boomers. Beyond having different values and expectations, they think boomers won’t take them seriously.

That’s one reason why organizations that foster a culture of respect will have the most success integrating the newest professionals into their workplaces. Savvy managers encourage employees to think about things from the other generation’s viewpoint when they’re working on projects together. In addition, cross-training helps the groups build respect for each other as they share their areas of expertise.

And don’t forget about the similarities among the generations. After all, Gen Z shares many values and characteristics with boomers, Gen Xers and Gen Yers: They all want growth opportunities, job stability, and good salaries and benefits.

Finally, keep in mind that companies have been integrating young people with new ideas into the workforce for a long time. The best practices for managing multigenerational teams this time around aren’t that different from what they've been in the past: remembering that each generation’s workplace needs are different, being as flexible as possible and trying to accommodate and support the different approaches.

When it comes to managing Gen Zers, it's best to ignore the stereotypes and remember that they're like any other new cohort coming into the workforce: full of energy and new ideas. Organizations that treat them with respect and trust will reap the benefits of that enthusiastic, innovative attitude.

Nathan Geiger, CPA (inactive), is a manager at Ernst & Young LLP. This article was originally published in Footnote, the official magazine of the Minnesota Society of CPAs. It’s used with permission. 

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