And with that one short phrase, generational distinctions became real. A few years ago, those words were thrown around chat rooms and social media to put down those who were thought to be lecturing someone, or otherwise being narrow-minded. It was embraced by an even broader audience when Chlöe Swarbrick of New Zealand’s parliament addressed a heckler during her November 2019 climate change speech by offhandedly interjecting “Ok, boomer” in the middle of her sentence, sparking memes globally. At 25, she is right in that in-between classification of generations. Yet her speech, her response to the heckler, and her zeal for authenticity and meaningfulness are 100% Generation Z #generationz.
The popular demarcation of generations has been a result of little more than arbitrary “stakes in the ground” planted by marketing companies to segment their communication strategies, channels, and ad buys (for example, see Pew Research Center). In fact, here in the U.S. the Bureau of Labor has only officially named one group, which is the “Baby Boomer” generation. While these arbitrary marketing-based delineations may at first seem superficial, they hold some potent significance as it relates to the future of our workforce.
For example, the consensus is that those born around 1996 fall into “Generation Z” and that it is the largest generation in world history. You can find labor statistics in just about every country that indicates within the next 5 years Generation Z will comprise the bulk of front-line staff in the service industry. They will also likely comprise the majority of mid-level management teams within the next 10 years. In short, they will own the workforce in the near future. That alone should prompt a closer look at what that might mean for those of us who are responsible for leading workforces around the world today.
Academic and governmental research has uncovered many unique qualities of Gen Z. They are the generation that grew up with the iPhone, having had one in their hand since they were 10 or younger. They don’t know a time without WiFi or high bandwidth cellular connections. Social media and constant connectivity are what Millennials before them adapted to, but for Gen Z it is assumed that this is just how things are.
Probably most striking are two major qualities unique to this age bracket. First, more than any other generation Gen Z'ers use their handheld devices for emotional support. It’s all part of the “instant-on” world we created, and they were born into. But isn’t it fascinating how horribly we have adapted to this need? Case in point…what’s the first thing we take from our customer service employees as they walk into work?
The second quality, and the one I am most intrigued with, is the bold, outward pronouncement from Generation Z of the need for meaningful work. Not only are there a plethora of articles and blogs about it (just Google it), but worldwide trends are indicating that turnover rates are rising for front line staff. In particular “no call, no show” rates of the youngest generations are reaching epidemic proportions in some countries. While Gallop's finding that "employees don't leave companies, they leave managers" is still true, our own studies at 5th Talent indicate that Gen Z’ers leave managers who don't provide a work environment that allows for something meaningful. They don’t fret over it much, they just move on #intenttoquit.
I often say that I wanted meaningful work when I was younger. Heck, I still do. But the difference is that when I went to my boss and said, “I don’t feel like I am getting much out of work,” the answer was “Thanks for sharing, now get back to work.” We all want meaningful work; the studies show that. Though I come from an older generation, I identify heart and soul with Gen Z. Gen Z’ers are the newest difference makers…because they aren’t just talking about meaningfulness, they appear to be doing something about it! The question is, are we ready?
I am interested in your view. What is your reaction to Generation Z and their needs? If you are from Generation Z, did I get it right?