Generation Z: Why HR Must Be Prepared for Its Arrival

Youngest Millennials will require different handling, generational expert says

By Joseph Coombs October 3, 2013
HR professionals no doubt have spent plenty of time managing differences among their companies’ various generations of employees. Now, one consultant says, there’s a new group of workers who deserve immediate attention: Generation Z.

The youngest cohort of what most observers recognize as Generation Y, or the Millennials, is a growing segment of the workforce, according to Bruce Tulgan, founder of New Haven, Conn.-based consultancy RainmakerThinking. Members of Generation Y typically are defined as those born between 1978 and 2000. But Tulgan and his colleagues, who have researched generational shifts in the workplace since the mid-1990s, argue that those born on the front and back ends of this broad-spanning group have plenty of different characteristics, and, thus, those born between 1990 and 2000 should be placed in a separate group, which he calls Generation Z.

“Generation Y came of age in the ’90s, and it was a time of peace and prosperity,” Tulgan said in a phone interview with SHRM Online. “It was a new era of American global hegemony and the dawn of the Internet. [Many members of] Generation Z grew up post-9/11 and came of age in a time of fear and awareness of vulnerability. There was terrorism, war and economic uncertainty from the early-2000s recession and the Great Recession.”

In a white paper titled Meet Generation Z: The Second Generation Within the Giant Millennial Cohort, which his firm will publish Oct. 7, 2013, Tulgan writes that the children of the 2000s “simultaneously grew up way too fast and never grew up at all. Their access to information, ideas, images and sounds is completely without precedent. At the same time, they are isolated and scheduled to a degree that children have never been.”

Those born since 1990 already represent nearly 7 percent of the workforce, or more than 11 million people. That segment will grow to 20 million by 2015, to 25 million by 2017 and to 30 million by 2019, according to Tulgan’s research.

This rise in Generation Z employees will require HR professionals to gain a greater understanding of these individuals’ background and approach to work. For example, Tulgan’s research shows that while many members of this generation are incredibly tech-savvy—a sought-after trait by many employers—they are coming up short in other important areas.

“We’ve heard from many clients that [this group of workers] lack[s] interpersonal communication skills and, from a broader standpoint, the ability to think critically,” he said. “Many of them lack problem-solving skills, and this is due in part to an increased level of ‘helicopter parenting’ of this generation. They have not demonstrated an ability to look at a situation, put it in context, analyze it and make a decision.”

Other data from the Society for Human Resource Management reinforce this trend. AJune 2013 survey found that 50 percent of HR professionals believe that 2013 college graduates lack “professionalism/work ethic,” while 29 percent said recent grads lack critical-thinking and problem-solving skills.

Consequently, employers and HR departments will need to adjust their strategy for recruiting and retaining members of this important demographic.

For example, Tulgan said the use of “command-driven social media”—in which the employer controls who is in a group and what is discussed—and engaging workers with smaller bits of information can be effective approaches for training and onboarding these young workers.

Also, providing a “laser-focused” explanation of their roles through more structured job descriptions and strict definitions of their responsibilities will go a long way in engaging members of Generation Z. These young workers will be arriving when the largest numbers of Baby Boomers will be retiring, Tulgan observed, and they will need a different style of attention and direction to help ensure their success.

“The grown-ups are leaving,” Tulgan said, “and there will be a new, young workforce to take their place.”

For more information, visit SHRM’s Labor Market and Economic Data page.

Joseph Coombs is a workplace trends and forecasting specialist for SHRM.​​​



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