Gen Z Could Soon Pose Greater HR Challenges

Youngest workers likely to 'power up' challenges to traditional workplaces

By Dinah Wisenberg Brin Jul 14, 2014
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With some high school tech wizards drawing posh Silicon Valley salaries and other teenagers nearing their grown-up working years, it’s not too soon to explore how members of “Generation Z” may shape, and shake up, the workplace.

Youngsters in Generation Z—those roughly age 17 and younger—are expected to handle work and life differently than previous generations and to pose growing challenges for employers in the coming years.

While they might share many similarities with the members of Generation Y (also known as Millennials) born right before them—for example, constant digital connectedness, expectations of a flexible work/life balance, a penchant for job-hopping, impatience with workplace conventions—members of Generation Z are likely to go further in breaking with tradition and testing authority, experts suggest.

“The most successful employers are going to be the ones who know how to engage this group,” said Lisa Severy, director of career services at the University of Colorado at Boulder. “They are used to being a part of the conversation.”

Open (Wide) Communication Channels

The digital natives of Generation Z are accustomed to e-mailing celebrities, voting for their favorite singers on TV shows, seeking opinions from thousands of Facebook contacts, writing their own Harry Potter sequels and researching online whatever they want to know, Severy noted.

This open, accessible communication style has leveled the playing field for some students, particularly in higher education, shifting authority away from professors to the “mass authority” of Internet acquaintances, according to Severy.

In the workplace, Generation Z employees and their employers both may need to adjust, she said, noting that Generation X parents are raising these kids to be independent and to challenge authority.

“Organizations that give lots of feedback and accept feedback from even their newest employees will be most successful with this generation,” Severy said. “Those who are very cognizant of hierarchy and expect new, young employees to be seen and not heard may have more difficulty.”

Retention Reflex

New college graduates’ frequent job switches are expensive for employers, so it’s in the company’s bottom-line interest to figure out how to onboard them successfully, experts say.

Twenty years ago, entry-level workers stayed on the job an average of five years, compared with two years now, according to Alfred Poor, a speaker and author focused on career skills for young employees. “The implication of this is really serious,” as the cost of replacing an entry-level worker averages $20,000, he said.

Young people are getting bored and making lateral moves to new employers, so managers need to help entry-level employees recognize and explore the opportunities in their own companies, Poor said.

Some well-established businesses are adapting to the particular needs of the younger workforce, Severy noted. Rental car companies, for example, have long relied on the new-college-graduate market for finding employees; they have developed great training programs, start people on the ground and move them up, she said.

“If you’re always targeting that market, you have to adjust to what that market has to offer,” Severy said.

Remediation Remedies

Members of Generation Z are just starting to come onto college campuses and will be joining the workforce either as interns or full-time employees soon.

“Basically, I think managers are going to have to brace themselves for what they’ve seen with Gen Y, but on steroids,” Poor said.

“Managers have to understand that these people are thinking in ways that are somewhat alien to older people,” Poor said. Businesses will deal with employees who say they don’t know why they have to do things, he explained, such as “I don’t know why I have to arrive at 9 o’clock.”

Managers need to explain to young workers why it’s important to show up on time, to answer bosses’ e-mails and to keep from updating their Facebook pages during work hours, Poor said. He attributed challenges surrounding young workers in part to an attitude seen on college campuses that students deserve respect because they’re paying their professors’ salaries; that sense of control gets removed when they become entry-level workers, he said, and “they act out. They get angry.

“I think it’s getting worse,” said Poor, who believes managers aren’t prepared for how much “remedial work” and training young workers will need.

Poor also attributes problems that managers are seeing, and will see more in coming years, to the way young people engage with others on their mobile devices. “You’ll see a bunch of young people together and, rather than talking to each other, they’re interacting with their smartphones and other devices.”

He believes young people are confusing digital contact with real personal connections, leading to inadequate interpersonal skills, especially in dealing with people outside their own age group.

There may be more change afoot with Generation Z teens than their mobile devices and relationship with authority can explain, and employers may have to do more than teach them about conventional expectations if there’s hope of integrating them into corporate culture.

More Comparisons with Generation Y

Jamie Gutfreund, chief marketing officer of Noise, a youth-focused, research-based consumer consultancy, cited survey results from her firm that compare the views of 14- to 18-year-old members of Generation Z with the views of Generation Y when they were the same ages. While 44 percent of the surveyed Millennials said as teenagers that a flexible work schedule was important, 79 percent of Generation Z respondents consider it important, she said.

As teenagers, half of Millennials wished they could turn their hobbies into full-time jobs, while 76 percent of the Generation Z teens surveyed said they would like to make a career out of their hobbies, according to Gutfreund. Sixty percent of Generation Z respondents said they consider it important to make an impact on the world, compared with 39 percent of Generation Y respondents when they were teens, illustrating the younger generation’s strong sense of social consciousness.

She also said 64 percent of Generation Z respondents consider a college degree a life goal, vs. 71 percent of their Generation Y counterparts. “That’s a huge shift,” she said. Considering that employers typically look at job candidates’ education, she asked, “How are people going to hire?”

A majority of the Generation Z respondents also said they would rather work for themselves than for a big company, Gutfreund noted. “I think that’s going to get even more extreme,” she said. Many members of Generation Z have seen their parents get laid off, and “they’ve seen [that] with technology you can work independently.”

The traditional top-down, command-and-control corporate structure is proving challenging for Millennials and is expected to be even more so for members of Generation Z, who are used to reaching anybody and everybody by e-mail, according to Gutfreund.

To get the best and the brightest, it’s going to take a re-evaluation of traditional work hierarchies, hiring practices and employee evaluations, she said. Some companies already are making changes, such as re-evaluating the annual performance review or offering perks like free housekeeping to help keep employees and their families happy, she said.

The reality now is that work and personal life are indeed blended and, rather than work/life balance, “it’s about work/life integration,” Gutfreund said. “How do employers recognize that and adjust and adapt to that new reality?”

Dinah Wisenberg Brin, a former Associated Press and Dow Jones Newswires reporter, is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia.

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