A portrait of Gen Z (aka iGen, post-Millennials, Plurals, Centennials, Net Gen)

Did you know that nine million Gen Zers (born between 1997 and 2012) comprise the U.S. workforce today? Did you know that there are 67 million Gen Zers overall, making up about 20% of the total U.S. population? They are the fastest growing sector of the American workforce and will make up 30% of the U.S. workforce by 2030. They are the youngest, most ethnically diverse and largest generation in American history. 

Gen Z and Millennials

Gen Zers are most closely connected by age to Millennials (1981-1996), and they share a number of similar attitudes and opinions, but they also differ in some important ways. Referred to as “digital natives,” they can’t remember a world without the internet, and are the first generation to be raised in the era of smartphones. “Gen Z grew up with technology, the internet, and social media, which sometimes causes them to be stereotyped as tech-addicted, anti-social, or ‘social justice warriors.’”  Their preferred methods of communication are social media and texting; they spend as much time on their phones as older generations do watching TV; and they stream services versus watching traditional cable. 

But this is just one aspect of how Gen Z differs from previous generations. According to a McKinsey study, Gen Zers are unified by their search for truth, both personally and communally, putting value on individual expression. In their search for authenticity, they find greater freedom of expression and therefore are more open to understanding different types of people. They strongly believe in causes and mobilize in support of them. They believe in dialogue to solve conflict and relate to institutions in an analytical and pragmatic way. Gen Zers are more altruistic than their predecessors, the Millennials, who have been called the “me generation.”

Taking this one step further, Gen Zers eschew defining themselves stereotypically, preferring to see themselves as individuals who may shape their identities over time,  “identity nomads” as it were. Because of this, seven out of 10 Gen Zers say it is important to defend causes related to identity. As a result, they are more interested than previous generations have been in human rights, race and ethnicity; lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues; and in feminism. Gen Zers have been seen as radically inclusive, blurring the lines between friends they meet online and those in the physical world. They move between groups that promote their causes via technology. These online communities allow people of different backgrounds to connect and mobilize around causes and interests. (Per the McKinsey survey, 60% of Gen Zers believed communities are created by causes and interests, not by economic backgrounds or educational levels. This number is much greater than for Millennials.)

Gen Z is more racially and ethnically diverse than previous generations and is on track to be the most well-educated yet. According to a 2020 Pew Research Center study, a bare majority (52%) are non-Hispanic white – significantly smaller than the share of Millennials who were non-Hispanic white in 2002 (61%). One-in-four Gen Zers are Hispanic, 14% are black, 6% are Asian and 5% are some other race or two or more races. The idea of a black president is not exceptional to them; it’s normal. Since they grew up experiencing diversity, they feel overwhelmingly positive about it. Gen Z is less likely to drop out of high school and more likely to be enrolled in college. Among 18- to 21-year-olds no longer in high school in 2018, 57% were enrolled in a two-year or four-year college. This compares with 52% among Millennials in 2003.

Since so many Gen Zers have come of age in the age of diversity, equity and inclusion, it’s no surprise these values matter to this generation. In a recent survey by zenefits.com, 83% said a company’s values, especially their commitment to diversity and inclusion, was an important factor when choosing where to work.

As noted above, Gen Zers and Millennials share viewpoints on many important issues of the day. They both seek an activist government, but Gen Zers score higher in this area with 70% versus 64% for Millennials, according to the Pew study. On climate change being caused by human activity, both groups score about the same, 54% for Gen Z and 56% for Millennials.

In terms of race relations, Gen Zers and Millennials equally say that blacks are treated less fairly than whites in this country.

When considering the U.S. vis-à-vis other countries, Gen Zers (14%) and Millennials (13%) are less likely to say the U.S. is better than all other countries. Rather, they believe the U.S. is one of the best.

Regarding their views of family and societal change, more Gen Z and Millennials say same-sex marriage is good for society than any previous generation. They have similar beliefs regarding interracial marriage. With Gen Z at the front in terms of diversity, and ideas around gender identity in great flux, this generation is more likely to say they know someone who prefers to go by gender-neutral pronouns (35%) versus 25% of Millennials.

Lines that were once distinct have been blurred for Gen Z. This is due to technology obscuring the lines between home and work, study and entertainment, public and private. Further, Gen Zers have a different experience of family—same-sex households, working moms, stay-at-home dads, three-parent families, and couples choosing not to have kids have become more normative. And, of course, gender and romantic identities have become blurry as well.

Gen Zers and the Working World

In terms of work, Gen Zers want well-paying careers that provide good benefits and hone their skills for the future, in that order. Unlike their predecessors, however, they focus more on finding stable jobs that make them feel fulfilled—not just ones that will help them pay the bills. Moreover, as tech natives, they expect their employers to view technological innovation as a priority in the workplace. Employers that want to attract top-notch Gen Zers will have to focus on career development if they want to retain top talent.

According to financesonline.com:

  • 54% of Gen Zers say that salary is what they consider the most when applying for their first full-time jobs (EHS Today, 2019) 
  • Gen Zers prefer to pursue long-term careers and see themselves working for an average of four companies in their professional life. (BuiltIn, 2021)
  • 21% of Gen Zers said that they want a stable schedule and 23% expect that they would also be offered flexible schedules by their employers. (EHS Today, 2019)
  • 51% of Gen Zers said they would stay longer with a company if they enjoyed the work they did, and 51% revealed that a competitive salary is also a reason for them to stay longer in a company. (EHS Today, 2019)
  • 73% of Gen Zers aspire to turn their hobbies into full-time jobs. (BuiltIn, 2021)
  • 77% of Gen Zers are more likely to apply for a job in companies that value diversity. (BuiltIn, 2021)
  • 75% of Gen Zers revealed that they would like to explore different roles in an organization than switch companies. (BuiltIn, 2021)
  • A company’s impact on society affects their decision to be part of the organization according to 93% of Gen Zers. (BuiltIn, 2021)
  • 60% of Gen Zers prefer having cool products more as perks than experiences. (BuiltIn, 2021)

The Other Side of the Gen Z Coin – Bolder and Badder?

While most of the above shines a positive light on the Gen Z generation, there are also not-so-kind assessments of this cohort. In terms of behavior, Gen Zers’ sense of taste, norms and styles is pushing the veritable envelope. This, according to a recent NY Times article by Emma Goldberg, The Thirty-Seven-Year Olds are Afraid of the Twenty-Three-Year Olds who Work for Them.  According to Goldberg, “there’s new kids on the block” and they have no qualms about not only questioning emojis “but all the antiquated ways of their slightly older managers, from their views on politics in the office to their very obsession with work.”

Managers are encountering employees who want paid time off when coping with anxiety or period cramps. Or a Gen Z worker questioning why she would be expected to clock in for a standard eight-hour day when she might be finished in half the time. Even going so far as entry-level staff members delegating tasks to the founder of a company. The youngest Gen Z members are demanding what they see as “a long overdue shift away from corporate neutrality toward a more open expression of values, whether through executives displaying their pronouns on Slack or putting out statements in support of the protests for Black Lives Matter.”

Employers are noticing a new boldness in how Gen Zers talk and act. A founder and CEO of a Gen Z marketing company recalled speaking at a conference where an entry-level employee told him “She didn’t feel that her employer’s marketing fully reflected her progressive values.” The young woman asked the CEO, “What is your advice for our company?” and he replied, “Make you a vice president rather than an intern.”

Older generations punched a clock, maybe worked late into the night in an office to get the job done, ordering out Chinese. Gen Zers feel they can make a living by posting on social media when and how they like. Managers are trying to be empathetic towards their Gen Zers’ mental or physical health concerns and applaud their efforts to prioritize well-being, seeking a divide between work and life—but some are mystified by the candid way those desires are expressed. In other words, they’re unaccustomed to the defiance of workplace hierarchy.

Gen Zers may go so far as to delegate to their boss. One Gen Zer sent a Slack message assigning her CEO a task to complete. The CEO read this as a welcome signal her 15-person staff didn’t see her as intimidating, but another member of upper-level management was flabbergasted.

In June 2020, when Black Lives Matter protests were taking place around the world, Gen Zers began asking their employers what they planned to do in support of the protests, and some did respond. Employers are trying to balance the demands of their employees for political engagement with their own sense of what’s appropriate for their brands.

“You talk to older people and they’re like, ‘Dude we sell tomato sauce, we don’t sell politics,’” said Mr. Kennedy, co-founder of Plant People, a certified B corporation. “Then you have younger people being like, ‘These are political tomatoes. This is political tomato sauce.’”

This generation is making it emphatically clear what they want from their employers and the jobs they offer, like no other generation before them. They are the wave of the future and that future is now.