What HR Should Know About Generation Z

By Roy Maurer Feb 26, 2016
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The vanguard of Generation Z, people born in 1995 and later, are on the cusp of entering the workforce. Research has shown that they differ in some surprising ways from their Millennial predecessors. Understanding this group’s attitudes toward work and life is a must for companies preparing to recruit the next generation.

What Defines Generation Z?

Many in Generation Z are still in elementary or high school, but the first wave of this group is starting to enter the workforce. In total, this generation makes up the largest segment of the U.S. population (26 percent). They are characterized as being the most diverse U.S. generation in history, having the shortest attention span (an average of 8 seconds) and being the world’s first true digital natives.

“These folks are really different from Millennials,” said Melissa Murray Bailey, president for the Americas at Universum, a global research and advisory firm specializing in employer branding headquartered in Stockholm. “The key thing we see with this group is that they’re global, they’re well-connected and they’ve had to deal with a lot of uncertainty.”

Generation Z came of age in a post-Sept. 11 world saturated with news of terrorism, war and economic distress. This has caused them to be target-oriented, planning careers and seeking job security earlier than previous cohorts, Bailey said.

“They’re very eager to work,” said Raghav Singh, a talent management expert based in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. “That has a lot to do with the lack of financial stability they have experienced.”

Ready to Work

Many of this generation would consider joining the workforce right out of high school, according to new research from Universum, which surveyed approximately 50,000 respondents across 46 countries born between 1996 and 2000. While only 15 percent said that they would welcome the idea outright, another 47 percent said they would consider it and 60 percent said they would be open to employers offering education in their field in lieu of a college degree.

“This is completely different than Gen X and the Millennials, where college was a foregone conclusion if you had the means,” Bailey said.

In the U.S., Generation Z may be put off the college route by massive student loan debts hampering earlier generations.

“There are a great many young people considering forgoing the traditional post-secondary education route in favor of less debt, more employer-sponsored training, and more employment opportunities [according to the Universum research],” said China Gorman, newly installed as Universum’s chairman of the board for North America and former chief operating officer and interim CEO at the Society for Human Resource Management.

Generation Startup

Generation Z is also marked by a deeply etched entrepreneurial spirit. “Significant numbers would prefer to start a business rather than be an employee,” Singh said.

In fact, 55 percent of Generation Z respondents around the world indicated an interest in starting their own company, especially in Africa and in Central and Eastern Europe, where that number is closer to 75 percent. The top reasons given are wanting to be their own boss and wanting to make an impact.

“While this entrepreneurial trend has been emerging for some time, we appear to be approaching a tipping point with Generation Z,” Bailey said. “When you consider the headline-grabbing success of so many 20-something Internet startups over the last 10 years, this is perhaps less surprising than it first appears.”

This entrepreneurial spirit may be partially attributed to limited experience and idealism, but there’s definitely an element of individualism and a desire to take success into their own hands, Gorman said. “This is both a red flag for large employers and an opportunity. Red flag because startups are clearly growing in popularity, and are an added layer of competition to worry about. Opportunity because companies can be—and many are—weaving ‘entrepreneurial’ elements into their cultures to appeal to this desire,” she added.   

Gorman said that employers can capitalize on this spirit by focusing on employees’ personal development, adding components like “hack days,” or simply by better communicating how employees’ efforts contribute to the bigger picture.

Respondents to the survey chose work/life balance (40 percent) and job security (40 percent) as the two career goals most important to them.

“Their definition of success is changing, and they don’t feel tied to a large company,” Bailey said. “The focus on work/life balance is a connection they share with the Millennials.”

Other goals scoring high included autonomy, leadership opportunities, dedication to a cause and the chance to be creative.

Reaching Generation Z

Eighty-two percent of respondents reported being open to being contacted by employers regarding work opportunities, and 32 percent reported having already received this type of communication. But recruiters should take care to tailor engagement to this group, as 58 percent said they dislike receiving overt job advertising in their social media channels.

The majority of Generation Z expect brands to have a social presence, however. “Understanding what content resonates with talent is critical to being at the top of the newsfeed and successfully engaging with them,” Bailey said.

Culture Fit

The biggest fear that this generation has about starting work is not finding a job that matches their personality (37 percent), followed by a concern about a lack of development opportunities (36 percent), worries about underperforming (33 percent) and concerns about not fulfilling career goals (28 percent), according to the Universum study. “This desire to be themselves and express their personality at work is critical for employers to heed,” Bailey said. “You see that they would rather create their own opportunity that aligns with their own values and beliefs as opposed to going into an already-established company.”

The focus on culture fit is not a new concept, but has been growing, Gorman said. “It’s becoming more important to employees that their work fits with their life. The notion of balance seems to be fading in favor of fit for most workers. For Gen Z, the biggest aspects of their future employer’s culture that need to match their personality are friendliness, diversity and office environment.” 

Roy Maurer is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

Follow him @SHRMRoy

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