Gen Z - Modern Employees with an Old-Fashioned Twist

Gen Z female employee shaking an interviewer's hand

Tune into any present-day sporting event and you’re bound to notice one thing about young athletes: they’re doing the seemingly impossible -- driving further, hitting harder, doing crazier tricks. 

One coach put it this way: “These kids have had sports videos on-demand since they were babies. They were watching, zooming in on every detail, over and over, working it out in their heads – How far can they hit the ball? How many flips could they do?” he said.  

“They’ve literally been visualizing and processing it for years – figuring out how to do it.” 

Turns out, they’ve been processing work the same way.

Who is Gen Z? How They Got Here and Where They’re Going

The newcomers known as Gen Z grew up with a 24-hour window on the world -- round-the-clock news and social media that dissected everything, from business to economics to lifestyles.  From the youngest age, they knew words like recession and foreclosure, even when they were only half tuned in; and they’ve been charting their moves ever since. “Millennials were raised during the boom times and relative peace of the 1990s, only to see their sunny world dashed by the Sept. 11 attacks,” wrote the New York Times. “Generation Z, by contrast, has had its eyes open from the beginning.” 

And the lessons have stuck. Unlike previous generations aiming to go bigger than their parents, Gen Z seems to be aiming for safer – plotting paths that are steadier, surer, more dependable. Studies and news reports describe a generation following old-fashioned trajectories previously embraced by their grandparents (or great grandparents!); modern employees, but with some old-fashioned twists. 

Careful investments: Rags-to-riches influencer and entrepreneur stories have raised questions about whether Gen Z thinks college is worth it (check out this eye-opening study showing the careers today’s kids are daydreaming about – and it’s not astronaut).  But most – 80% according to one study – say it is. Just don’t expect them to spend big for brand names, or even foot the whole bill themselves. This generation has seen the costs, namely in cash-strapped Millennials delivering college skills at their own financial peril. And they’re not having it. “Instead of going to college to get a job,” wrote a Forbes author, “students will increasingly be going to a job to get a college degree” -- a model that promises to shake up the way employers hire and train

Speaking of college debt…they’re approaching with caution: Gen Zs on the traditional college path won’t be leaving campus with a pile of IOUs. Previous generations may have learned about student debt the hard way (after they’ve signed on the dotted line). But Gen Z has been doing the numbers since high school, saving after-school job money and leveraging state schools to avoid the “d” (default) word. Only a small fraction call debt inevitable – and it’s a good bet those who do take out student loans will be using those ace digital skills to research employers willing to help pay it down. 

Loyalty is a slow process: After the age of the Millennial job hopper, Gen Z seems to be arriving with a throwback ethic to build multi-year careers with a single company. But that doesn’t mean you won’t have to work for that loyalty. Data from a nursing study we’ll be releasing soon showed that young nurses are the least likely to stay put. But they can be won over with the right recipe of work/life balance, employer benefits, and compensation -- in that order.  

Gender roles need not apply: When it comes to family, Gen Z shares two of their big siblings’ predispositions – to have children later (after careers and bankbooks are established); and to share the load (men and women both breadwinning and caretaking). The latter (gender equality) is in their DNA, and employers clinging to old gender stereotypes will likely find themselves losing working parents right as they’re reaching important leadership roles. 

They have their eye on the future: Older generations predictably piled on at the news that Gen Z wants their promotions – now. But before we brand them with the whole “entitled” label, let’s remember that the same was said about Millennials and young employees dating back before time. Besides, there may be an upside. That same rush to upward mobility (or maybe at least some recognition) may just reflect the value they place on career stability – something that translates for employers to a little thing we call retention.  

What else? That same coach who marveled at Gen Z’s athletic prowess also referenced tools – things like simulators and crash pits -- that helped them to try ideas without risk, and ultimately bring their visions to reality. 

In other words, visualization alone isn’t enough. Gen Z needs tools -- not just tech (for this generation, that’s the price of entry). They need tangible help to earn skills, to build careers, and to (finally) perfect the art of balancing families and work, without women bowing out. The economy needs both working women (more women equals stronger businesses) and a next generation (under-population, wrote the Atlantic, leads to less dynamism, less productivity, and fiscal catastrophe). 

Gen Z has literally been visualizing this new order for years. Give them a chance. They might just do the seemingly impossible.

Written by: Lisa Oppenheimer

July 30, 2019

About the Author

Lisa Oppenheimer at Bright Horizons

As Director, Brand Storytelling at Bright Horizons, Lisa writes “from the trenches” about the real life challenges of people in today’s workplaces: from the tensions of being a working mother, to working with millennials in the digital age, and everything in between. With a career ranging from freelance to full-time, Lisa brings a diverse employment background to her perspective.