Forget Gen Y — There’s a New Generation Arriving at Work

I have a 14-year-old brother, and I’m always arguing that we’re not part of the same generation. While we’re both considered millennials, there are certain life events that have shaped our upbringings, and they make us different. I grew up in a time of peace and prosperity. He spent his childhood in an era of war and uncertainty. At the end of the day, we’re both just young people, but under the millennial umbrella, we’re different.

Bruce Tulgan, founder of Rainmaker Thinking.

I interviewed Bruce Tulgan, founder of research organization Rainmaker Thinking, who has been studying young people for two decades. He broke down the differences between Gen Y and my brother’s generation, Gen Z, and what their differences mean for learning leaders who will soon be developing the now-teens in the workplace. I know, I know. Just as you were beginning to making some headway in understanding how best to develop Gen Y, along comes Generation Z. But Tulgan has you covered.

Let’s get the basics down. How do you define Gen Y? How do you define Gen Z?

Tulgan: Generation Z represents the greatest generational shift the workplace has ever seen. The giant so-called “millennial” cohort is really two generations — Generation Y (born 1978-1989) and Generation Z (born 1990-99). Already the bleeding edge of Generation Z (today’s 16- to 23-year-olds) are already more than 11 million strong (nearly 7 percent) in the North American workforce, and their numbers will grow dramatically over the next few years. By 2015, they will be 20 million; 25 million by 2017; 30 million by 2019.

We have been tracking young people in the workplace steadily since 1993. Since 2008, we have been tracking the emergence of Generation Z. Gen Zers, born in the ’90s and raised in the 2000s during the most profound changes in at least a century, represent the watershed generational shift of our era.

This is the new emerging workforce and they will fill up a new “youth bubble” in the workplace in the next seven years, just as roughly 30 million aging baby boomers will retire. Generation Z represents the greatest generational shift the workplace has ever seen. Generation Z will present profound challenges to leaders, managers, supervisors, HR leaders and educators in every sector of the workforce.

How’s Gen Z different from Gen Y?

Tulgan: Well, of course, answering this question is still a work in progress.

How do we recognize a new generation when we see one? Demographers, sociologists, historians and other experts often debate this very question, just as experts differ about the exact parameters of each generation.

I’ve been conducting in-depth interviews with young people in the workplace since 1993. Back then, the youngest people in the workplace were the leading edge of Generation Y. While a general consensus has emerged that 1978 is the first birth year of Generation Y, the last birth year has remained an open question for more than a decade.

Many demographers argue that all those born between 1978 and 2000 belong in the same generation, one gigantic millennial generation. They argue, rightly, that the technology revolution on a macro level and by the helicopter parenting revolution on a micro level are two of the most important formative influences of anyone born in the Western world during these years. Nonetheless, this time frame is simply too broad to define just one generation because the 1990s and the 2000s are two distinct eras.

How could today’s 13-year-olds be part of the same generation as today’s 35-year-olds, especially if a generation is defined, not just in biological reproductive terms, but also as an age cohort with a shared historical perspective? Looking at technology alone, the acceleration from the ’90s to the ’00s — wireless Internet ubiquity, tech integration and the rise of handheld devices — amounts to historic change. On the micro level, even the helicopter parenting phenomenon has redoubled qualitatively in its intensity — from the 1990s late boomer parenting focus on self-esteem to the ’00s Gen Xer parenting focus on safety and cultivation.

The result is that those children of the 2000s simultaneously grew up way too fast and never grew up at all. They are privy to everything from a dangerously young age — 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 never have been. Their natural habitat is one of physical atomization and relative inactivity, but total continuous connectivity and communication. They are used to feeling worldly and precocious — highly engaged in a virtual peer ecosystem — while enjoying the discourse at least of protection and direction from parents, teachers and counselors.

But this story is about much more than the acceleration of technology and helicopter parenting.

Throughout the boom years of the 1990s, we monitored, measured and documented the shift from Generation X to Generation Y. The ’90s were to Gen Y what the late ’70s and early ’80s were to Gen X. So we were able to see changes in attitude and behavior among the youngest Gen Yers even when they were just teenagers trickling into the workplace. The workplace of the ’90s was plentiful with opportunity. Unlike today, back then legions of older, more experienced workers were not competing with teenagers for entry-level jobs in retail and food service. The boundless optimism and self-confidence of Gen Yers in their teenage years, especially their enthusiasm for institutions, was in marked contrast to the cynical loner ethos of Generation X.

Then we followed the first wave of Gen Y college graduates into the workforce: The class of 2000. And things were great: Enron had not yet collapsed, unemployment was at 3.9 percent. The NASDAQ was over 5,000. The United States was positioned as the sole global superpower, the BRIC countries had not yet broken through. The West was riding high on nearly a decade of peace and prosperity. It was that thriving ethos of the 1990s that shaped the mindset of Generation Y; irrepressibly high expectations; undaunted self-confidence; unrelenting fountains of suggestions and requests.

What a difference a decade can make.

Those young people now joining the workforce have been shaped by nearly a decade of war and economic uncertainty, and the contrast in their attitudes and behaviors is vivid. Big picture: They are dubious about their long-term prospects (five years) and fearful about the short-term (tomorrow). Compared with their forerunners over the last decade, today’s young people have much lower expectations, their expressions of confidence are much more cautious, and their demands fairly modest.

Can you blame them?

Those born in 1990 were 11 years old on Sept. 11, 2001, that infamous day. Ever since we have been a nation at war. They graduated from high school in 2008, just as the economy was on the verge of collapse and entering the deepest and most protracted recession since the Great Depression. Now they are graduating from college amidst a stumbling jobless ‘recovery’ in which unemployment remains stubbornly high, especially among those under age 25, forced to compete for job opportunities with people their parents’ age.

Are the shifts in all of these macro and micro forces of history — economics, geopolitics, technology, parenting — from the 1990s to the 2000s the very sort that makes one age cohort distinguishable from another in generational terms?

It seems the answer is yes. Shaped by the 2000s, those young people entering the adult world today are thinking about their economic future more like children of the 1930s than their immediate forerunners, those children of the ’90s. But Gen Zers are totally plugged in, to each other as well as an infinite array of answers to any question at any time. And their parents tended to the soft touch, as opposed to sending them out to sell apples on the street.

Does all of this change what they expect from their employers and what skills they need to develop once they enter the workforce?

Tulgan: Well, of course, much of what we are seeing is a continuation and acceleration of certain trends from Y to Z. Generation Z will present profound challenges to leaders, managers, supervisors, HR leaders and educators in every sector of the workforce. It will be increasingly important to understand where they are coming from and key strategies for bringing out the best in this new, emerging young workforce. Our research on Generation Z is ongoing.

Our research reveals five key formative trends shaping Generation Z:

Social media is the future. The information technology revolution is complete. Gen Yers were the transition. Gen Z is all the way there. They have never known a world in which one could not be in conversation with anyone, anywhere, any time, and they will shock you with their ability to leverage this connectivity. Managing Generation Z requires mastering the tools of social media. But managers must take control. The key is command-driven use of social media.

Human connections are more important than ever. The highly engaged parenting, teaching and counseling approach to the young accelerated dramatically from Y to Z. Zers are less likely to resist authority relationships than Gen Yers did, but will only perform for individuals when they are engaged in intensive working relationships.

Skill gaps. This generation more than any other will suffer from the growing gap between the highly skilled and the unskilled. The technical skill gap is huge, but the nontechnical skill gap is even more pervasive. On the one hand, managing Generation Z requires a huge remedial effort on broad, transferable skills like work habits, interpersonal communication and critical thinking, and a huge investment in remedial technical training. On the other hand, there will be a growing elite among the emerging workforce, those with the greatest technical skills training and also the benefits of personal development opportunities. Retaining those among the growing elite will require increasing differentiation and reward.

Global mindset, local reality. They know more about far-flung parts of the world than Gen Yers ever did, but they are likely to be far less geographically adventurous. They are very plugged into the boundaryless world online, but the key to engaging them in their environment tactically is a relentless focus on the local.

Infinite diversity. The emerging Generation Z reflects a whole new way of thinking about difference. Again Generation Y was the transition; Gen Z is all the way there. They are less likely to fall into previously recognized categories and much more likely to be mixing and matching various components of identity and points of view that appeal to them. They are ever creating their own personal montage of selfhood options.

What other differences do those leading Gen Y and Gen Z need to be aware of? How are these groups changing the way we work?

Tulgan: Again, much of the Gen Z story will be a continuation and acceleration of the Generation Y trends, with some very stark shifts:

Based on our working model of challenges and solutions, our research points to seven key strategies for bringing out the best in Generation Z in the workplace:

Promote high-intensity relationships: What types of peer relationships and what types of authority relationships bring out the best in Gen Zers?

  • Small, highly defined work groups with a strong peer leader.
  • Tight and well-defined and observed chain of command.
  • Teaching-style leadership.
  • Customer service-style management.

Provide continuing re-education: There is a growing nontechnical skill gap among the emerging young workforce. The basics of personal responsibility, problem solving, time management and interpersonal communication are way too often missing in the new young workforce. Employers are finding it is well worthwhile to make a heavy investment in building a workplace culture of highly defined behavioral norms. This requires an ongoing process of teaching personal conduct, work habits and the conduct of working relationships.

Define laser focus roles: How do Gen Zers best get up to speed and assimilate into new roles? The more structured and defined the roles and responsibilities, the more quickly and effectively Gen Zers are able to take on work and succeed. What are the features of typical early career stage roles that tend to be problematic for Gen Zers? How can redefining roles with laser focus makes the difference between success and failure? Two approaches: 1. Narrow specialization. 2. A system of ranks with corresponding criteria, testing protocols and rewards/responsibilities attached to each rank.

Take control of (at least some of) the virtual ethos: What is the impact and what are the challenges with the transformational reality of social media? We are studying its impact and the challenges posed to employers. Meanwhile, we have been piloting solutions which are based on command-driven approaches to social media in the workplace in which employers can use social media effectively while reducing the downsides for use in recruiting, onboarding, ongoing communication, training, development, performance management and knowledge transfer. Command-driven social media means the employer controls who is in the group, what is discussed and when, and the employer is able to supervise and participate in the online community.

Plan for global outreaching and local nesting: What are the opportunities and pitfalls for Gen Z presented by globalization? The flip side is the intensive Gen Z focus on tactile control of the local environment and the intensive gravitational pull of the local for Gen Z. How can employers use the Gen Z focus on the local to increase engagement? How can employers use the reality of nongeographical connections to increase reach when it comes to recruiting, retention, innovation, sourcing and sales?

Build continuity through short-term renewable loyalty: There is a strong continuation of the trend toward highly transactional employment relationships. Gen Zers seem to be highly responsive to clearly defined exchanges of time/tasks for directly calibrated rewards. The most effective way to drive performance and maintain ongoing working relationships with Gen Zers is for managers to explicitly negotiate performance and reward on an ongoing basis in a transparent, open exchange.

Retain the superstars for the long term by building dream jobs: There is a steady exacerbation of the growing divide between the “most valuable” new young workers and everyone else. No matter how bad the job market may be for some, there is a growing elite among the new young workforce who will be in much greater demand than supply. There is a growing premium on those with skills in greater demand than supply, especially those who have availed themselves of personal development opportunities. The key for employers to recruiting and retaining the “most valuable” young rising stars, at the high end of the talent/skill/effort spectrum, is going to be the ability to create dream jobs for those superstars. What are the dream job elements and how can employers make dream jobs for young stars that also make sense for the organization? Dream jobs are always contingent on ongoing performance, but built on a longer term understanding of tremendous work conditions, rewards and flexibility for the superstar in return for consistent superstar contribution with the intention of maintaining a long-term working relationship.

Originally Published in:  Chief Learning Officer

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