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Viewpoint: How Gen Z Will Be Changed by the Pandemic

A young man in a suit smiling for the camera.

​I'm 18 years old. I was born two months after Sept. 11, and I am graduating from high school during an international health crisis. Sadly, my generation is more than used to this new normal. We have grown up in a world of change and disruption, and there is no doubt that the coronavirus, having had a massive influence on workforce trends, will leave a lasting impact on Generation Z. 

I'll admit that I've been shaken up by this pandemic, as have my peers, and I fully believe this global crisis will change the way Gen Z (people born after 1997) expects the working world to function in the future. Sarah Sladek, CEO of my consulting agency, XYZ University, explained it best: "Standing on the brink of adulthood, they [Gen Z] are seeking independence, opportunity and certainty—ideals now considered luxuries in the midst of a global pandemic."

Here are three ways I believe the coronavirus pandemic has changed the Gen Z workforce forever:

1. Faced with a looming recession, Gen Z has learned to adjust and build skills in order to find jobs.

The pandemic has undoubtedly taken its toll across all sectors and industries. The previously hot job market was providing incentives for graduating college students to go directly into the workforce and get a job. Now those opportunities are scarce due to an economic slowdown and hiring freezes, which likely will encourage many recent college graduates to seek advanced degrees.

That is exactly what happened following the financial crisis of 2008. In 2019, there were almost 39,000 first-year students in U.S. law schools, compared to almost 52,000 in 2009, according to enrollment data from the American Bar Association. I expect Generation Z graduates to continue to follow the money. XYZ University data shows that 66 percent of members of Generation Z think it is more important to have a job with financial stability than one that is enjoyable. Therefore, enrollment in law and other graduate schools is likely to rise significantly in the near future, since it does not make much sense for many Gen Z members to enter the workforce right now.

Adding fuel to the enrollment fire is the availability of low-interest loans due to the recent economic stimulus package rolled out by the government. Put simply, given the financial investment, it makes sense for members of Gen Z to go to graduate school and hold off on entering the workforce.

SHRM Resource Spotlight
Coronavirus and COVID-19

2. Gen Z is not as digitally oriented as the corporate world might think.

All generations have grappled with social isolation. But Generation Z is a demographic that has especially struggled, because even though Gen Z has a reputation for being "digital natives," our alleged obsession with technology could not be further from the core of our true characteristics.

Unlike Millennials (who like to text) and Generation X (who would rather e-mail), Generation Z heavily prefers face-to-face communication in the workplace, according to XYZ University's research. This is one of my favorite Gen Z traits, because it proves that we still value authentic human interaction above all else, despite all the technology we have access to.

The inability to interact with those outside of our household during the mandated lockdowns has taken a toll and contributed to social behavior I would never expect from my peers. On March 25, a new social media trend called #untiltomorrow took over Instagram, the primary Gen Z social media platform. The trend challenged people to post embarrassing pictures on their Instagram profile, with no context, and keep them up for 24 hours. This challenge had almost 3 million participants within a week.

At face value, the challenge appeared to be a typical social media trend with no deeper meaning. But that could not be further from the truth, and here's why: Instagram is a place for Gen Z to publicize highlights of their lives and create an online persona of popularity and attractiveness. It's not a place to goof off or show your flaws. This is why "finstas" (short for "fake Instagrams") were created. Finstas are popular among Gen Z as a sort of secondary account, where only someone's good friends can see his or her photos. These are much more authentic and posted on much more frequently than someone's main Instagram account. Never before have I seen main Instagram accounts used in the manner encouraged by #untiltomorrow. This trend was essentially challenging young people to do the virtual equivalent of running around their neighborhood naked—and lo and behold, they did it.

3. Work/life balance is key to engaging Generation Z.

The adjustment to a remote working world has shifted how Generation Z approaches the balance between work and life. Remote learning at all academic levels has been quite an adjustment for students, teachers and parents alike. However, this pandemic proves a theory I have held about Gen Z's attitudes toward work/life balance since working from home became popular: Generation Z craves work/life separation—meaning we want to work primarily in an office that we can leave at the end of the day—with the option of flexibility when we need it.

Even in my own experiences, I have prioritized separating my work/academic life from my personal life. For example, in the fall, I will be a freshman at Northwestern University, a beautiful campus along the shores of Lake Michigan that is split into two parts, North Campus and South Campus. Most of my classes will take place on South Campus, so I have deliberately chosen to live on North Campus with the goal of never bringing homework into my dorm room. I think that approach will make me happier, healthier and a lot more productive.

Companies can appeal to this desire for balance by providing resources for mental health support, establishing mentorship programs and establishing other creative initiatives that support a healthy balance. Because once life returns to normal post-coronavirus, organizations that prioritize humanity and health will reap the benefit.

I sincerely hope the entire SHRM community can stay safe, sane and healthy during this unprecedented time. You have an entire generation waiting in the wings, depending on you to improve the quality of their work lives.

Josh Miller is director of Gen Z Studies at workforce consulting firm XYZ University and a member of the SHRM Speakers Bureau. He also is a graduating member of the Class of 2020 at his high school in Minneapolis.


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