How to Connect With the Youngest of Generation Z

 How to Connect With the Youngest of Generation Z


Just when business leaders thought they had the Millennial employee figured out a new generation is starting to knock on their doors – or at least texting their résumés. While the oldest career-impatient Millennials are already aspiring to mid-level careers, the rookie generation hiding in their shadow is turning 18, perplexing college professors and employers with their un-Millennial dispositions and working styles. How should leaders prepare for this youngest crop of workers? What will the future demand of them? To borrow a metaphor from Steve Jobs, how will they make a dent in the universe?

Until recently reliable Generation Z data has been limited. Surveying minors is fraught with legal impediments, and answers we get from children are often less than reliable. In the absence of solid data, they are often portrayed as a mere continuation of the generation before them. Media has erected a phantom generation that is allegedly lazier, less healthy and more digitally addicted than prior generations. Finally we are starting to hear their true voices and a unique emerging zeitgeist.

Influence from Parents and Environment

We get the first inkling of a new generation by observing parenting trends and social climate during their formative years.

Boomers and Generation X tend to be extra protective of their offspring, often dubbed Helicopter Parents”, due to their tendency to figuratively hover over their children. While Boomers raised their Millennial children on positive affirmation and endless cajoling from the sidelines, Generation X tries to build resilience and perseverance in their Gen Z cubs, reflecting a social shift to more anxious, less prosperous times.

The World at Their Finger Tips. Literally!

Protected from most physical dangers, tweens and teens are not as sheltered digitally. Receiving reality and sometimes distortions of it via touch screens they stay minutely informed of many “wicked problems” of a world in peril. 60% of them want to have an impact on the world compared to 39% of Millennials. Terrorism, debt, climate change and the not so far-fetched odds that the careers they aspire to will be seized by artificial intelligence haunt as eerie undertones hidden by selfie-gazing, seemingly shallow lives.

It should come as no surprise then that this generation is setting high goals for success – or survival – early in life. Transgressions like youth crime, underage binge drinking and illicit drug use are quickly becoming the vices of yesteryears’ youth. With the juvenile detention rate almost halved since 1996, “young and reckless” might be a label of generations past.

The Emerging World of ‘Prosumers’

College applications are on the rise, yet trodden academic paths may be losing some of its persuasive grip. Generation Z feels less assured that a traditional college degree will put them in the driver’s seat. Instead of putting their eggs in baskets weaved by others, these entrepreneurial “do-it-yourselfers” trust that they can make a difference on their own accord. Surveys from Millennial Branding show that 76% of Generation Z’ers want to start their own companies, compared to 64% of Generation Y.

If sky-high tuition is the stick, the carrot is the inexpensive technology and ubiquitous communication channels that help budding entrepreneurs turn their passions and talents into profit. You Tube generates more content in twenty-one minutes than Hollywood does in a year. Unsurprisingly, among teens You Tube stars are now more popular than Hollywood A-listers according to a survey from Variety. Businesses beyond the entertainment industry should take notice when amateurs with webcams have greater entertainment value than polished actors on the silver screen because it signals a deeper cultural shift. Co-creation and digital networking has enabled the collaborative economy where in which traditional distinctions like consumption and production, work and non-work become blurred. Instead we get the ‘prosumers’ and ‘micropreneurs’. This cultural shift represents new challenges for employers, but also a silver lining for those who can take advantage of this new social climate.

Generational Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast

So how can leaders harness Generation Z?

1) Build Trust

Continuous feedback was the mantra in business circles when Millennials started entering corporate offices a decade ago. Talk is cheap for Gen Z. Instead, instill trust and encourage their desires to change the world. They are growing up in disruptive times; let them be part of the disruptions.

2) Deemphasize Traditional Accolades. Value Character and Ingenuity.

Generation Z is coming of age in the creative economy. While traditional measures of achievement work well during stable times, our globalized rapidly changing economy is characterized by accelerating change, especially in the technology sector. This calls for agility, not fixed qualifications. Until traditional academic yardsticks include divergent thinking and problem solving, these skills may not show up in GPAs or SAT scores.

3) Accept Anytime, Anyhow, Anywhere, but Hold Them Accountable.

Generation Z won’t get married to your office, your schedule or your equipment. If you are lucky they will get married to your business idea. You might not be able to control their physical presence or work devices of choice, only the outcome. This could pose some new challenges for employee commitment. Employers must proactively address data security risks the bring-your-own-device movement poses and make sure work expectations are clearly defined.

4) Manage Your Reputation! And Let Them Guide You.

University College of London professor Noreena Hertz, PhD surveyed the values of Generation Z, whom she found to be hugely distrustful of organizations. Generation K, who she named after Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games, takes to social media, vines and review websites to air their grievances when disappointed with a company or product. On the upside these canaries in the coalmine and mavens of viral magic can be a tremendous resource for businesses embracing social corporate responsibility. Positive corporate reputation attracts customer patronage as well as devoted employees.

Multigenerational workplaces can be challenging. Yet those who successfully recognize and take advantage of the quirks and virtues of their employees’ age brackets can leverage 360-degree insights and turn generational differences into assets.

Anne is an academically educated strategic foresight consultant who spends her days unearthing and making sense of deep trends, social change and the emerging spirit of our youngest generation. She has long experience speaking on and advising companies
how to prepare for different generational segments, and has helped Fortune 500 companies find new market opportunities and product ideas. Her consulting service, After the Millennials, is the first and only which specifically focuses on the first post-terrorist, post-recession and post-Web 2.0 generation.


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