This is the final article in our series on Gen Z in the workforce. While this newsletter is written specifically for business leaders, as we close this series, we’re going to briefly address members of Gen Z directly.
Some of you are already in management, in which case I hope the previous article was useful. But most of you are very early in your careers or preparing to enter the workforce. If you’re reading this article, I’m assuming you want to do well in your career in some conventional sense. That doesn’t necessarily mean you have a grand vision for your work life, but it does mean you want to at least be successful enough to support yourself and your preferred lifestyle.
If your plan depends on something like becoming a social media influencer, I probably can’t help you. That is the contemporary equivalent of when members of earlier generations said their plan was to become a professional athlete. Sure, a few people do, but you probably won’t. That’s not to say you shouldn’t try if that’s what you really want and it’s adding value to society in some way; just that you should probably have other options on the table.
If you want to be an entrepreneur or business owner, that’s a great goal. Just keep in mind that most successful entrepreneurs first spent years learning the ropes as someone else’s employee. And even if somehow you wind up being a big success right out of the gate because you create some amazing product, you’re still going to need some conventional business skills to actually run your company and keep it going over the long term. Customers, employees, investors, and vendors won’t want to deal with you otherwise.
So what can you do to be among the best of your generation in terms of commercial success? Start by looking at the most important areas where your peers are weak or failing, then get really good at doing those things. Earlier in this series, the big two we discussed were technology and communication skills. Those are excellent places to focus.
HOW GEN Z CAN IMPROVE THEIR TECH SKILLS
If you’re naturally a quantitative or logic-driven person who does well with things like math or science, you could seek an internship in a tech-heavy field like data, blockchain/web3, computer science, IT, or digital product. You can also study those things for free online to make yourself a stronger candidate for an internship or even an entry-level job. This is a decent plan to develop your skills even if you don’t ultimately intend to stay in those fields, especially if you can get paid while doing it.
But maybe that’s not your thing at all, either because you’re not very technically-inclined or it just doesn’t interest you. How much tech do you really need to know to be at the top of your game outside of a tech-heavy role? At minimum, I recommend you understand stuff like:
- How to use office productivity software to create documents, spreadsheets, and presentations, organize digital files, track projects, communicate with co-workers, and lead (not just observe) virtual meetings.
- Understand common computer terms, what they do, and what resource capabilities and constraints they represent. For example:
- Hardware: CPU, motherboard, RAM, hard drive, power supply, GPU, port, USB, firmware, server
- Software: OS, cloud, firewall, antivirus/antimalware, VPN, client, process manager, office suite, VOIP, tech stack
- Networking: WiFi, ethernet, LAN, router, modem, bandwidth, latency, intranet vs internet
- Have some networking and hardware skills like how to set up a WiFi network, use ethernet cables, manage a router, create a hotspot, and use accessories.
- Understand how to update, upgrade, troubleshoot, and debug software as an everyday user without needing professional assistance.
You can learn all of these things for free online in videos, blogs, podcasts, and forums. If you’re primarily a class-driven learner, you can also take cheap (sometimes free) courses from platforms like Coursera, Udemy, edX, LinkedIn Learning, or many others. The main investment is time and effort.
If you’re an experimental learner who does best by jumping in and trying things, I highly recommend learning to use Linux. Just make sure you first teach yourself how to set up a virtual machine (VM) — which is like a computer inside your computer — and work with Linux inside the VM in the beginning. Yes, it will be challenging if you’re not already tech-savvy, but the skills you pick up will do wonders for your overall technological abilities and put you way ahead of the pack.
If you’re used to Windows, start by trying Linux Mint. If you’re a Mac user, then start with elementary OS. Like most things on Linux, they’re both free, though elementary OS does ask you to voluntarily ‘purchase’ it at any amount (you can put in $0 if you wish).
You should also start understanding the capabilities of AI for business use as I covered in my book Bots in Suits: Using Generative AI to Revolutionize Your Business. That doesn’t mean pulling up ChatGPT and just copying whatever it says. You really need to understand what AI can (and can’t) do, and how to use it responsibly and effectively. Thankfully, this is still such a new field in the grand scheme of things that you have the opportunity to get in almost at the ground floor. And if you stay current with it, you’ll probably be on the cutting-edge of technological innovation for the rest of your career.
HOW GEN Z CAN IMPROVE THEIR COMMUNICATION SKILLS
Communication is arguably harder to learn than tech — at least quickly — and the path for one person may be widely different from another. While digital communication has already been on the rise for a long time, COVID lockdowns really forced the issue. At least for six months or so, digital communication was mostly all we had. And depending on where you happen to live, it may have gone on for years.
But the world isn’t locked down anymore. And while a lot of work can and probably should be done remotely, there will almost certainly still be situations when you need to talk business with someone in person. The idea that you will be able to get by for the next 50+ years exclusively communicating about work online is not feasible. This isn’t about being an extrovert; a lot of us are introverts. It’s about having the basic social skills necessary to live and work with other people.
But the issue isn’t just a matter of online vs in person. It’s also about things like being able to write in a way that other people understand you and receive the necessary information, and being able to carry on a conversation, solve problems, or take constructive criticism without becoming apprehensive. So what should you do if you’re not a good communicator? It again depends on your learning style, but here’s a few ideas:
If you aren’t good at speaking with other people in person, then consider:
- Joining a local in-person club pertaining to something that interests you where you can talk with people in a low-pressure environment
- Practicing conversational role play with friends or family
- Studying effective conversation tips online, then going places that will allow you to practice
- If you’re a particularly adventurous experiential learner, joining a Toastmasters club that will require you to learn public speaking by actually doing it
If you aren’t good at speaking with people in chat, e-mail, or text (particularly older generations), consider:
- Asking ChatGPT to assume the personality of an older co-worker to simulate practice conversations
- Take a business writing class or study business communication online
- Study forum posts across topics that interest you to understand how other people write, particularly those outside of your generation
You don’t necessarily need to become a great public speaker (most people aren’t), but you do need to be able to do things like conduct a professional conversation with another person 1:1, engage in clear writing, participate in group brainstorming and problem solving, and handle giving and receiving constructive criticism.
UNDERSTANDING BOSSES AND CO-WORKERS
In the same way that I advised managers from older generations to make a real effort to understand and reasonably accommodate Gen Z culture and norms, you also are responsible for understanding and reasonably accommodating the culture and norms of older generations. Being able to adapt your communications and practices to specific people in a way that comes off as both contextually-sensitive and authentic is a good all-around life skill.
Every generation has to find its own way in the workforce and that involves some element of give and take. Over time, there will be ways that society tends to change and bend to accommodate your generation’s norms and preferences. There will also be other areas where society won’t change for you, and you need to be the one who adjusts. Most people eventually learn the difference through experience, but some never do. If you want to be successful, make sure you’re someone who does.
This is especially important for those who have a tendency to frequently interpret things as negative or passive-aggressive. It’s actually pretty uncommon to see ambiguous negativity from a boss; typically if someone is displeased with your work or the situation, you’ll know.
And even if a boss does criticize your work, consider if the criticism is valid. If it is, how can you improve? And if it’s not valid or was expressed in a way that wasn’t very cordial, if it’s an isolated or uncommon incident, consider that your bosses are just people and have their own problems. Give them some slack.
Most of the time what you’re dealing with at work probably isn’t toxicity. If you just give up or leave every time anything happens in the workplace that you don’t like, your skills won’t develop as much and eventually you may have trouble finding employment (and that includes being an entrepreneur). Business is challenging and rough situations will come no matter where you work, so make sure you allow yourself to learn through those times.
There absolutely are toxic bosses, companies, and workplace situations, and if that’s really what you’re dealing with, then by all means go ahead and get out of there. And if you’re offered a better job opportunity, of course you should consider taking it. Provided you go about it in an honorable way, any good boss should be happy for you, and if they aren’t, then you probably dodged a bullet by getting away from them. And sometimes maybe you just feel like you need a change and want to go work somewhere else, and that’s totally fine too. Just keep things friendly as best you can, don’t burn bridges, and don’t be too quick to give up on an opportunity just because something doesn’t go your way.
Doing these things will likely put you far ahead of most of your generation career and business-wise. But don’t use that knowledge to gloat. Instead, use your position abilities to help your peers learn to be better, too.