Many years ago, a wise older relative who served as a mentor spoke to me about the importance of understanding generations and generational shifts. Awareness as to how you fit into your own generation’s prevailing ideas, attitudes, and methodologies (or don’t), and how those things comport with those of other generations (or conflict with them), is one of the most valuable skills anyone can have. It helps you navigate virtually every area of social life such as geopolitics, interpersonal and familial relations, cultural movements, and of course, business.
WHO ARE GEN Z?
There are substantial personnel changes coming to the business world. Older members of Generation Z have now established themselves in the workforce, and many more are on the way. So who are Gen Z?
There’s rarely uniform agreement on when these ‘generations’ begin and end, and sometimes the birth year ranges are changed in retrospect. There’s also no real standard on how long a generation actually is. And it’s not uncommon to see people whose birth fell around the time of a generational change possessing blended characteristics of both generations.
With those extensive caveats, the bulk of today’s workforce consists of:
- Generation X: born approximately 1965-1979/1980
- Millennials (previously known as Generation Y): born approximately 1980 – 1995/1996, though earlier classifications sometimes went to around 2000
Starting birth years for Gen Z, also called the Homeland Generation or Zoomers, are typically considered somewhere around 1996/1997 and end in the early 2010’s. This puts the oldest members currently in their mid-late 20’s, and means for the next decade or so most new entrants into the workforce will be members of Gen Z. The next generation is Generation Alpha, whose oldest members will start to noticeably enter the workforce in about 10 years.
GEN Z ENTERS THE WORKFORCE: CHALLENGES AND OPPORTUNITIES
A recent survey by Resume Builder & Pollfish on Gen Z in the workforce presents some jarring findings. Now given that this survey was done on a convenience basis and is not a true scientific random sample, take the numbers with a grain of salt. Having said that, some of the findings do roughly seem to align with other empirical and cultural observations. The survey’s headline finding is, “3 in 4 managers find it difficult to work with Gen Z.” But how seriously should we take it?
As a Millennial, I certainly remember when I was younger hearing plenty of complaints from Boomers about my own generation (some deserved, some not). But the oldest Millennials are now in their 40’s, and even the youngest are almost 30. Millennials now constitute the majority of the workforce and the economy has continued to hum along. So is this sort of complaining just the standard response of older generations whenever a new one begins to find its place in the workforce or even society generally? Perhaps, but we need to dive into the specifics.
49% of managers surveyed said they find it difficult to work with Gen Z “all” or “most” of the time. Given that most members of today’s management are from Gen X, and most members of Gen Z are the children of Gen X, it’s quite possible this is just an expected generational clash. Millennials are mostly the children of Boomers, so this same sentiment certainly happened the last time around, and will probably happen again between Millennials and Gen Alpha. As such, I don’t necessarily believe this finding means anything in particular.
Some of the reasons listed in the survey for why managers find Gen Z difficult to work with could realistically be grouped together, and include things such as: lack of effort, motivation, and productivity (all of which came in at 37%). These are fairly vague, common complaints one often finds in older generations of younger ones. To the extent that they’re legitimate criticisms, they’re often simply a function of age, with people tending to put in more effort and focus as they get older and look to advance careers, start families, etc.
But what is concerning is the #1 reason (at 39%) listed: a lack of technological skills. This is astounding, as Gen Z is the first digital native generation that has grown up entirely in an internet-connected world. Intuitively, one would assume that means they are naturally technologically-savvy. But while most of Gen Z excel at using contained apps and platforms like one often finds in social media, many of them don’t understand how to use technology in any kind of independent, self-directed way (like you would expect to see in a business environment). Gen Z’s technological skills gap was observed at least as early as 2018-2019 as discussed in The Washington Post, and reiterated late last year in Forbes.
Another reason cited in the survey that is particularly concerning at 36% is a lack of communication skills. Recently my wife and I walked up to a line. In front of us, off to the side but still fairly close, was a group of about 5 members of Gen Z carrying on a conversation. Not wanting to cut in front of anybody, I asked if they were in line. They turned and stared at me blankly — not one uttering a single word — and then slowly turned back around and moved into the line. This was really an astonishing experience, and I empathize with whoever has to work with with these particular individuals in probably the not-too-distant future.
On a similar note, a friend who is a leader in a quantitative field told me about some issues he’s had with Gen Z junior staff. These are individuals who have at least enough technical competence to be hired to work in a complex field, so the issue here was not skill. One of them seemed apprehensive to discuss his onboarding process and interpreted any attempt at problem-solving as personal criticism, even when he clearly wasn’t being criticized. He would also frequently send cryptic, off-topic messages to co-workers that left them bewildered. He eventually resigned, but then contacted my friend a short time later claiming he resigned by mistake (whatever that means) and wanted help getting his job back. No surprise: it didn’t work.
More recently, a different Gen Z employee who worked with that same friend was unwilling to use his camera in video meetings. He would also frequently reply to Slack messages far too late and didn’t like being held to any type of schedule for synchronous communication, even when it was clearly necessary to do the core responsibilities of the job. He resigned in less than two weeks after it became clear that was not acceptable to management.
Every generation has unique characteristics, quirks, slang, and norms, and it’s unreasonable to expect otherwise. After all, those things are a big driver of how and why culture changes over time. It isn’t productive or even sensible to sit around and complain that “things aren’t the way they used to be.” Some things need to change, and it’s often good that they do. But not all change is good, and some issues — like an inability or unwillingness to engage in basic communication with another person, or no skill set for using modern technology to produce and solve — are not just generational quirks; at scale, they have the potential to become major problems.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that there are also obvious exceptions to these stories and statistics, especially as someone who has always felt a little out of place in his own generation. There are a lot of positive things that Gen Z brings to the table, both collectively and as individual members. The inter-generational challenge for business leaders (and all of society) is picking which changes to incorporate and which ones to reject.
UNDERSTANDING GENERATIONS AND GENERATIONAL SHIFTS
Returning to my wise old relative from many years ago, as part of my education in generational studies he recommended I read The Fourth Turning by William Strauss and Neil Howe, who in 1997 outlined an understanding of social history that became so influential it is now known as the Strauss-Howe Generational Theory. Contextually, most of the evidence and analyses are Anglo-American, but the broader concept revolves around the ancient idea of a ‘saeculum,’ typically interpreted as a lifespan of around 80-100 years.
During such a lifetime, someone would see approximately four major historical periods. Every new generation serves as the primary factor that leads to a ‘turning,’ bringing about significant shifts in society and ushering in a new period. At the end of the saeculum (i.e., approximately every 80-100 years), the cycle begins anew; not that ‘history repeats’ as per the old platitude, but that there are common patterns that social evolution tends to follow.
Under the Strauss-Howe model, the four types of historical periods (each lasting approximately 20-25 years) are categorized as:
- High: a time of strong social confidence and unified direction, conformity, and powerful institutions. Individualism and independent thinking are stifled while people focus on the collective.
- Awakening: a growing desire for personal autonomy begins to erode institutional trust. People start to explore alternative thinking and ways of life.
- Unraveling: weak institutions, low conformity, and polarized viewpoints lead to a downfall of community. Society has no unified direction.
- Crisis: some type of cataclysmic event(s), destruction, and/or revolution pave the way for a new social order.
It’s important to note that these categorizations are not a commentary on which specifics are good or bad, progressive or regressive in any given era; it’s just observational. Under this theory, we’d currently be considered in Crisis, with the previous Crisis era being the Great Depression and World War II.
Each generation under the Strauss-Howe model also consists of archetypes which exemplify certain prevailing attitudes and patterns among their members. The archetypes are:
- Life cycle: born amidst a Crisis, mature and build during a High, lead society in an Awakening, and reach elderhood during an Unraveling
- Namesake: create the new social-institutional order after a Crisis
- Some key traits: conformity, structure/process, value of expertise
- Examples: Silent Generation, Gen Z
- Life cycle: born during a High, mature and build in an Awakening, lead society during an Unraveling, and reach elderhood amidst a Crisis
- Namesake: challenge current ideas/institutions and present new possibilities for the future
- Some key traits: idealism, religion/spirituality, vision-casting
- Examples: Boomers, Gen Alpha
- Life cycle: born in an Awakening, mature and build during an Unraveling, lead society amidst a Crisis, and reach elderhood during a High
- Namesake: alienation due to their awkward position in the historical cycle
- Some key traits: independence, pragmatism/survival, duty
- Examples: Lost Generation, Gen X
- Life cycle: born during an Unraveling, mature and build amidst a Crisis, lead society during a High, and reach elderhood in an Awakening
- Namesake: constitute the bulk of the labor necessary to overcome a Crisis
- Some key traits: action-taking, community, technological/material advancement
- Examples: G.I. Generation, Millennials
If Strauss-Howe Generational Theory is to be believed, Gen Z is an Artist generation. That means they will be largely conformist, prioritizing structure and process in their mid-life (such as when they become the majority of the workforce and later the majority of management). In their elder years they will likely become thoughtful mentors, sympathetic to the ideas of the new Prophet generation (in this case, Gen Alpha) as certain institutions and standards they built during the previous High start to unravel. As an aside, my wise old relative is a member of the Silent Generation, the previous generation of Artists.
But is Strauss-Howe Generational Theory correct? Looking back at the sum of the evidence, it’s perhaps an over-simplification and excessively centered on western (particularly Anglo-American) social history. But if taken with a grain of salt, it’s actually pretty on point. If you consider your own generation and think of all the people you know, as well as the historical events and social changes you’ve seen in your own lifetime, you’ll probably find it to be fairly accurate.
So while far from perfect, the theory arguably functions as a good baseline for today’s current and aspiring business leaders to know what they can expect from Gen Z as the years roll on. It’s also a good framework for understanding our own generations as we age through these same cycles. Perhaps having such an awareness can help us all to be better business leaders and, more importantly, better people.
Over the next 2 articles, I’ll cover some practical advice for both managers who have Gen Z employees, and for members of Gen Z who want to succeed in their careers.