Generation Z is entering the workplace at a very volatile and uncertain time. They have grown up under the shadow of climate change, been hit hardest by the economic impacts of COVID, and are starting careers during another industrial revolution.
It would be easy to be crushed under the weight of this environment, but Gen Z are, overall, incredibly positive and driven to make the world a better place. They are very independently minded and entrepreneurial – if an opportunity doesn’t present itself, they will create one for themselves.
They are also the first generation to grow up with social media, smartphones, and 24/7 connectivity. Their digital nativism is a benefit, but also a curse. This is the finding of Bob Wigley, who spoke to 200 young entrepreneurs for his book Born Digital.
“Technology is central to the way we live our lives; the way we meet people, the way we organise our data, the way we travel, the way we order food. Every single aspect of our life is dominated by technology. That's, broadly speaking, the good news, but we become addicted to our devices and to an extent, some of the apps on our devices.”
Wigley describes the situation as a distraction crisis, and the younger generations are particularly vulnerable to its adverse effects, while also benefiting greatly from its benefits.
Generation Z, he explains, does not see any difference between the offline and online worlds, which cuts off some critical aspects of communication, such as body language. This can have an impact on building empathy and other critical communication skills.
But they’re developing different skills. They can multitask, for example, and are better at completing lots of little tasks in a short space of time. “They snack like digital bees on multiple information sources, but they can't do anything for very long, because the next interruption comes along and they’re distracted onto the next thing,” says Wigley.
The issues with digital technology do not affect Generation Z alone; all generations have been drawn further into digital worlds in recent years. With the pandemic creating a longing for human contact and an opportunity for us to build a better future – that includes how we engage with the internet.
“I think we are at a tipping point. The concerns that I raised in the book are being raised by people across the world. I think we’re seeing the beginning of what some have called ‘techlash’, a backlash against technology.”
The US, Europe and the UK are looking at potential regulation to try to curb the power and influence of tech giants, putting the burden of responsibility for user content on the platforms themselves and ensuring that they have a duty of care to consider their impacts on users. “There's a whole range of activity going on. This is a topical issue that isn’t going away.”
Where Generation Z excel is in their drive to achieve and do good work, be creative and motivated. They are also, as digital natives, perfectly suited to the modern office environment, particularly now that the pandemic has forced businesses to take a more flexible approach that blurs the physical and digital.
“Gen Z come into the office, they go into a temporary work booth, they fire up their laptop and iPad. The two human beings they don’t talk to are in the adjacent booths and will be different human beings tomorrow because this is a hot-desking facility. They want to be connected and working in an environment that is digitally driven. That is critical if organisations want to attract the best young talent.”
They are also often driven by ideals of honesty and integrity. Three things matter more to Generation Z than salary or corporate largesse (in fact, they may be put off by the latter). Firstly, they want experiences, not jobs.
“When I meet a 21-year-old, they've already done four internships in three different cities in three different countries,” says Wigley. “I would never have dreamt of being able to do that when I was 20, but this is very normal now. It partly reflects that multitasking and grazing way of living. They want to go somewhere for six months and do what I call ‘take, learn, move’. Employers need to think hard about career planning. The old model of joining a company and staying there for five or six years is out of the window. You need to think a lot more about project-based work.”
The second thing is purpose: an organisation must be driven by more than the bottom line if it’s to attract Generation Z. “The whole subject of purpose is going to be front and centre for big companies over the next couple of years. That will need to be tailored in a way that appeals to Generation Z if we're going to attract and retain young talent.”
The third expectation is personalisation, driven by their digital nativism. Generation Z will expect the same level of personalisation from their employers as they get from the rest of their life. They will want to design their own career path, possibly even create their own job title, says Wigley. “I think personalisation for young employees is going to be a major challenge for employers.”