Solve For Z: The New Problem Generation

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Now that millennials are buying cars and houses and being altogether less threatening to the status quo, it’s time for a new panic: generation Z!

If you thought millennials had a big impact on social and workplace trends, just wait for generation Z to come into its own. This cohort, which includes people who are 18 and younger, dwarfs millennials and boomers by at least 1 million baby Zs and is the largest living American generation.

Generation Z accounts for 25% of the population and by 2020 will account for 40% of consumers. At 18 and under they are just beginning to enter the workforce and already the think pieces, tip sheets and webinars have started to roll in.

What’re we gonna do about these kids?

Xs, Ys and Zs Are More Than a Market

I’ve written before about why using demographic generations to talk about shifting work culture can be dicey — generations aren’t real! they’re an analytical, conceptual framework — but somehow I can’t let go of the topic. Every time a fresh round of essays on the nature and problems of a given generation come around, I get sucked in. What is it about the generational framework that is so appealing?

The demographic generation is a great way to define a market and analyze its associated trends. If a millennial is skinny jeans, smartphones and a love of unconventional workplaces, a Z is natural brand manager and maybe also a screen addict. (I’m not sure, though, because marketers are still defining these poor kids.) And because recruiting and human resources are increasingly overlapping with marketing, demographic generations have crept into the HR space as a market which needs to be understood and appealed to. Generation has a certain conceptual usefulness to what recruiting and HR are in 2016, because job seekers and employers are, in this framework, participating in a market of exchange.

But generations aren’t real. They don’t have an empirically observable reality. They’re an abstract not a fact. And when it comes to talking about real people — in your workforce, talent pool or even your social circle — you should treat them as people, not examples of generational attributes. Demographic analysis is about trends, not individuals, so while it’s useful for analyzing and responding to trends in recruiting and HR, it’s not so useful when it comes to managing and developing your real human workforce. No one is really a millennial and no one is really a Z. Your workforce needs real relationships, not trend-driven management strategies.

But What Are those Generation Z Trends?

According to a recent FastCompany piece by Jeremey Finch, generation Z have an innate understanding of brand management, having grown up in “brand culture,” but that doesn’t mean they’re unhealthily obsessed with branding themselves. Rather, they’re pragmatic about the utility of personal branding in making and meeting career goals. Similarly, their apparently shorter attention spans is a result of filtering for relevance; more a response to the overwhelming amount of content available to them than a failing. Finch writes that

“Society tends to either romanticize youth or criticize the things they’re doing differently. The reality of Gen Z, however, lies somewhere in between. They face many of the challenges that everyone faces in that life stage—transitioning from school to work, separating from parents, and forming their own identities. But they’re doing so in an ultra-connected, fast-moving technological age.”

Generation Z has grown up immersed in technologies many boomers, Xers, and millennials are still grappling with, still treating like problems to be solved and monetized rather than “the way things are.” They’ve grown up with smartphones, social media and multitasking with apps and are true digital natives. That doesn’t mean they’re “better” at using digital technologies, so much as it means that the use of digital technologies as a part of daily life is more normalized for them than any previous generation — it’s not remarkable, it just is.

A recent New York Times piece says that generation Z are millennials sober, serious younger siblings. While they are grappling with the same social changes that millennials are and have the same potentially disruptive power in the market and the workplace, they’re more risk-averse, more pragmatic and more worried about privacy. They prefer social media platforms that allow for ephemerality and privacy, like Snapchat and Whisper over concrete and ever-expanding public profiles, like Facebook and Twitter. They want to make a difference but they also want to be gainfully employed. And while salary is important to them, they won’t sacrifice benefits or work in a toxic environment just because the price is a little more right.

Between Market Trend and Realness

So how do we put these two things together? How do we apply the knowledge we glean from social studies and market analysis without treating people like problems to be solved, embodied trends in motion? Don’t assume that millennial age employees are all interested in ball pits or won’t fit into traditionally structured workplaces. Don’t assume that new generation Z age workers are all entrepreneurs-in-the-making, or that the only way to reach them is through Snapchat. Understand the trends and apply them to your recruiting and HR strategies but treat people like people; like individuals with complex but understandable wants and needs.

For all the millennial panic that’s swept through HR and the rest of the business world over the last 10 years, it’s difficult to say that the workplace has been fundamentally and forcefully transformed by their (our) presence. Rather it has adapted to changing technology and economic conditions and an increasingly diverse and vocal workforce. The workplace of 2016 is different from the workplace of 2006 or 1996, but its character is a collaborative one, a result of having five different generations in the workplace, not a group of young rascals pushing their way in and wrecking everything.

So don’t panic about generation Z. They’re not a problem, they’re people.

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