Do We Need to Prepare for Generation Z?

Just when you thought you had acclimated to Generation Y, or the Millennials, along comes Generation Z. Born between 1996 and 2010, they’re a large group, at 2.52 billion, so there’s a good chance at least a few will end up at your company in the next few years.

A Forbes article by Deep Patel, “10 Ways to Prepare for Gen Z in the Workplace,” made me aware of this youngest generation. It kind of irritates me, as a member of Generation X, that no one made a fuss about us. We got a name, which was nice, but I don’t remember any articles about anyone preparing for us like an exciting houseguest was coming to town. That might be because, unlike Generations Y and Z, we were a small generation, part of a “baby bust,” a late ’60s/’70s phenomenon that doesn’t seem to happen anymore.

With most in the workforce still of older generations, what is important to know about Generation Z, and should we bother preparing at all? Did companies prepare for the Baby Boomers when they entered the workforce, or did the Boomers just have to rough it and adapt? That’s another thing that gets me about all these articles, first about preparing for the Millennials, and now Generation Z—why should we bother to prepare, and bend over backwards to make sure they’re catered to and happy? Isn’t workplace discomfort a rite of passage that makes you stronger if you can endure it? Or is that old-fashioned, traditionalist generation thinking? The traditionalists are those who are even older than the Baby Boomers, like my father, who was born in 1933. He thought it was hilarious that my middle school was concerned about students having the same classes at the same times every week, and, so, came up with a complicated schedule to ensure we would get to experience the same class at different times of day. The administrators were worried about us getting bored with a monotonous schedule, or feared a student might not do well in a class that she always attended in the morning because she’s not a morning person.

I never expected to be catered to like that in the workforce, and I can assure you, I wasn’t.

So now we all have to prepare for Generation Z. Patel says the first thing we have to know about this latest generation is they like to “share and care.” Us Generation Xers were known as cynical slackers, who didn’t particularly care about anything, so that’s a nice change of pace—if you actually believe they’re any better than we were as twenty-somethings. “Contrary to popular belief, young people actually enjoy learning. It just might not appear that way when they’re staring at their mobile phones,” writes Patel. “A great way to engage and connect with the younger generation is to show them you not only care about their future at your company, but you also care about their growth as a human being. This is the ‘connected’ element so many young people talk about when looking for a work environment that makes them feel fulfilled.”

So as Learning professionals, all this must sound like a dream come true (if it’s actually true). How can you make the most of this opportunity? If I were you, I would invest resources in developing a next-generation learning portal that has a responsive design, so it automatically adjusts to whatever type of screen it’s being viewed on, whether desktop, laptop, tablet, or smartphone. I also would feature on each page of the learning portal—each page of content—the same kinds of icons that appear at the bottom of nearly every online page these days that allow users to click a button to text, e-mail, or post to social media. If you don’t want the content going public, you can make the social media icon an icon that links to an internal social media site, rather than a public one such as Facebook. When learners finish a module, there could be an option for them to click on to notify all of their contacts within the company that they have successfully completed the module. It could spur others to finish their modules, and allows for small-scale celebrations to keep learners enthused about the process.

Letting Generation Z “own their work” is another of Patel’s suggestions. I agree with him that it’s horrible to be micromanaged, but I wonder whether a generation famous for having “helicopter parents” wants to be set free. My generation enjoyed being set free because many of us had parents who were famously freewheeling and so hands-off that many of those my age became latchkey kids. For instance, I grew up in a house with very few rules, so I always find it hard adapting to a boss with lots of rules and strong oversight. But if you’re of the latest generation, with parents stereotypically so hands-on it’s become a joke, is being told you must problem solve on your own a welcome message?

“It’s one thing to hire young people and get them to follow orders,” Patel writes. “It’s another thing entirely to teach them how to think and problem solve on their own. But if you do, they can end up being more successful (and helpful) within your company in the long term.”

What happens when the employee looks at their manager with wide, fearful eyes and asks, “But aren’t you going to help me? What if I don’t know what to do?” As Learning professionals, what advice can you give managers on setting free people who don’t necessarily want to be set free? What happens when your newest employees want to be as micromanaged as their parents accustomed them to be?

Last, Patel says to offer ample feedback. I would agree—as long as the feedback is delivered in a palatable way. But, there again, I run against my own preferences for feedback, and those of the youngest generation. Whereas I like being asked what I thought of my own performance, and then being encouraged with positive reinforcement, rather than a litany of critical observations, I wonder about the youngest among us. If your parents have been keenly looking over your shoulder since you were born, aren’t you used to critical observations? Or were Generation Z’s parents so conscious of their feelings, for the most part, that they, too, would prefer positive reinforcement? Another preference of mine is to have feedback delivered in a way that’s not authoritative sounding. Meaning instead of telling me to do this or that, I would rather be asked, “What do you think of doing it like this…” Or “What are some of your ideas for improving how we do…” Is the latest generation able to think critically enough, and have enough freedom of mind, to respond well to that kind of feedback approach? Or do they need a more structured, authoritative kind of feedback?

So much of your response to managers has to do with how you were raised. I’m convinced that my low tolerance of authoritative, micromanaging bosses comes from the kind of freewheeling household I grew up in. It seems that many in my generation, especially older Generation Xers, also had that experience of parents who didn’t want to be authority figures, and wanted to allow their children to figure it out for themselves. How about Generation Z? Their parents may not have been keen on being authority figures, but doesn’t helicopter parenting amount to foisting a kind of authority on your young? How do we prepare for a workforce of people who may not be accustomed to thinking—and failing—on their own?

Has your company given any thought to Generation Z? What kinds of learning programs, and management structure, do you think this latest generation will respond best to?


Training magazine is the industry standard for professional development and news for training, human resources and business management professionals in all industries.