The first definitive study on the next generation to enter the workforce -- those under 20 and still in school -- shows them more rooted in reality and more eager to work hard than their predecessors.
By Kristen B. Frasch
What appears to be the first definitive research in the marketplace to date on what Gen Zers -- the generation set to fully enter the workforce in two years -- are bringing with them in terms of their approach to life and work should make employers pretty excited and happy.
The study, Gen Y and Gen Z Workplace Expectations, co-produced by Millennial Branding and Randstad -- and going live today, Sept. 2 -- shows a generation more rooted in prudent and pragmatic notions about how work gets done and what is needed to succeed than its predecessors.
"Gen Zers have a clear advantage over Gen Yers [a.k.a., millennials] because they appear to be more realistic instead of optimistic, are likely to be more career-minded, and can quickly adapt to new technology to work more effectively," says Dan Schawbel, founder of New York-based Millennial Branding and author of Promote Yourself.
Also, Gen Zers (basically, for the purpose of this study, those between the ages of 16 and 20 and now in high school and college) have seen how much their parents and Gen Yers (ages 21 to 32) have struggled in the recession, Schawbel says, so "they come to the workplace well-prepared, less entitled and more equipped to succeed."
The study, which polled about 1,000 people from each generation (2,021 total, to be exact) across 10 countries -- the United States, Brazil, Canada, China, Germany, India, South Africa, Sweden, Turkey and the United Kingdom -- shows one-third (34 percent) of Gen Zers are most motivated by opportunities for advancement, followed by more money (27 percent) and meaningful work (23 percent).
Gen Yers, on the other hand, are primarily motivated by more money (38 percent), opportunities for advancement (30 percent) and meaningful work (15 percent).
"Interestingly," says Schawbel, a leading expert on younger workers, particularly Gen Yers, "two years ago, when we did a similar poll [minus Gen Z], millennials chose meaningful work over paychecks; that's now changing. They're choosing money over meaning now," perhaps as other life realities are taking over, such as mortgages and parenthood.
Mind you, Gen Zers have yet to officially enter the workplace, at least as college graduates, and "they have to be in the workplace before you can fully know and understand how to deal with them and manage them," Schawbel says. But for now, looking through that crack in the door, "they're more entrepreneurial, more realistic, most motivated by opportunities for advancement ... and they prefer meaning over money."
Both generations also prefer honest leaders, but Gen Zers -- more than Gen Y -- "want to collaborate in a team, with managers listening to their ideas and valuing their opinions," he says, "so, for employers, creating honest, open cultures that support that desire for advancement becomes more important than ever."
So does face time. The study finds 53 percent of Gen Zers prefer face-to-face communication over technology, versus 51 percent of Gen Yers. That stat was especially surprising, says Schawbel, "because Gen Z grew up with technology even more than Gen Y; they were probably introduced to it even sooner in life; it was even more a part of their fabric."
For them to prefer face time over instant messaging and video conferencing, he says, goes against the grain of all the rhetoric about technology being the mode of choice for younger workers and "is something employers better prepare for."
As it is, he says, "a lot of employers just do not have their heads around Gen Zers at this point."
For instance, says Jim Link, chief human resource officer for Atlanta-based Randstad North America, consider the fact that, worldwide, "most of these people do not have a U.S. passport." What's more, only a little more than 50 million of them are in the United States, yet more than 300 million are in China, 350 million in India and a huge group are in Nigeria, he says.
So what does this mean? It means, if you're interested in attracting these people, you're going to have to be open to new considerations in how you approach this. "Employers have traditionally focused on ensuring they had a diverse workforce," Link says. "I think that's going to become less important, because they now have to become more realistic about how they acquire the people they need to get the job done," regardless of their ethnicity or country of origin.
"Think about it," he says. "The notion of immigration is going to be huge, how to really impact a more global view of getting work done; you're either going to import people here or go to those places to get work done . . . and that's a huge and even somewhat frightening concept" if you consider it in terms of its impact on U.S.-based companies and the U.S. economy.
And remember, the recession was not just U.S.-based. The survey finds that, globally, many of the traditional drivers of a career are slightly different for this younger group than its predecessors.
"Their view of money is different due to the global recession," Link says. "They saw their parents have to batten down the hatches in order to survive. They saw mortgages going south, homes being foreclosed on. So they're going to be savers, realistic about how things get done and how hard they're going to have to work to get them done. They're probably going to employ the use of swapping, economizing, consolidating, bartering, recycling, repurposing ... which will make them more open to new ideas and ways of doing things" and even less inclined to adapt to a hierarchical environment than Gen Y.
"They're going to be realistic about how success is attained, both personally and in a business sense," he says. "They don't see race, age, gender; they only see a level playing field. As long as they have the same chance to succeed as everyone else, all will be well. Employers are going to find all this welcoming."
Although Bruce Tulgan -- founder of RainmakerThinking and an author and speaker on young people in the workforce -- puts Gen Z a bit further along by definition, with the oldest among them pushing 25, he finds the Millennial Branding/Randstad sample "interestingly diverse globally, and this is very important because the new rising youth bubble in the workforce is profoundly global in its makeup, orientation and reach."
He and his team are also seeing the same face-to-face preference emerging. "Despite the ubiquity of hand-held devices and the constant device-driven communication habits of Zers," Tulgan says, "the human connection remains intensely important." Why? Tulgan attributes it to the "highly engaged parenting, teaching and counseling approach to the young [that] accelerated dramatically from Y to Z."
They're also seeing the impact of the Great Recession as "both Yers and Zers are now forced to navigate through the aftermath of the worst, most prolonged global economic crisis since the Great Depression," Tulgan says.
"Our research shows that most Gen Yers are still reeling from the lean years," he says. "Even a lot of the 'winners' among Generation Y are much worse for wear. Those who survived and succeeded through the economic turmoil did so by working longer, harder, smarter, faster and better, under a lot of pressure, without a lot of down time. Those Gen Yers in leadership roles are under even more pressure, often managing too many people, with significant resource constraints and logistical challenges, not to mention insufficient experience and leadership training. Many Gen Yers have felt stuck in positions for years at a time, afraid to make a move due to uncertainty about taking chances with the unknown in unstable economic times.
"Meanwhile, teenage and 20-something Gen Zers are already nipping at the heels of Gen Y," he says. " . . . From day one, Zers are bumping up against a crowded field of 'career-delayed' Gen Yers, not to mention plenty of older workers (Gen Xers and baby boomers) who themselves have had recent career setbacks and are now competing with young workers for formerly entry-level jobs."
Any way you slice it, says Tulgan, "the story of Generation Z in the workplace will always begin this way: They started out their careers in an era of austerity. There was an extended period of profound labor-market weakness followed by a uniquely weak and protracted recovery. In those years, a young person, even one with a four-year degree, would be lucky just to get a job."
The mind-set of Gen Z, he says, "was shaped by nearly a decade of war and economic uncertainty. Those born in 1990 were 11 years old on 9/11 [and] 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 ... . Now, they're entering the workforce amidst a 'new normal' of constrained resources, increased requirements placed on workers, fewer promised rewards and an overall climate of lower expectations for nearly everyone."
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