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Managing generation Z

Karen Higginbottom

Managing generation Z

The connected generation, millennials, digital natives, the net generation – whatever you call them, Generation Z will be making their way into the workforce pretty soon. Karen Higginbottom investigates what that means for managers

A new breed of employee is poised to enter the workforce, and there’s an army of them. A whole generation, in fact. Brace yourselves for Generation Z, the highly connected generation who’ve grown up with high-speed internet, smartphones and online shopping. And it’s not just a buzzword; even the Government says that Generation Z exists.

Gen Z are defined as having been born from the early to mid-1990s onwards, and in the next five years they will enter the workforce. This is a generation that has never known a life without superfast communication and unlimited access to media technologies.

Knowledge at their fingertips and the independence that technology gives them means they are able to work from any location and for any organisation in the world, says Karen Osborn, key account manager for Thales Training & Consultancy. “Where they work will no longer be relevant. This will make them more transient, which could be beneficial, but also may create a retention issue for employers.”

Given their characteristics they will expect a learning agenda, exposure to new projects or roles, quick promotion and to be taken seriously

However, this constant use of technology will have damaging consequences for how they communicate at work, argues Cary Cooper, distinguished professor of organisational psychology and health at Lancaster University Management School. “I don’t think they invest in face-to-face communications,” he says. “Their ability to communicate when managing staff or making presentations will be less honed than others, but they will have the technological skills that the older generations may lack.”

Their innate knowledge and understanding of technology could have other negative implications in the workplace, suggests Sonja Stockton, global head of emerging talent at consultancy Alexander Mann Solutions. “They expect responses to be immediate. The organisation they join may lag behind in terms of the technology the person already uses, so that will cause frustration as the employee waits for decisions to be made.”

Technology is an integral part of the Generation Z lifestyle, says Alison Heron, head of student recruitment at professional services firm KPMG. Last year, the company launched its six-year School Leavers’ Programme as an alternative to the traditional university route to entry.

“They are complete digital natives and cannot function without communicating through social media. Last summer when we were going through the recruitment process, the school-leavers set up their own Facebook page before we had even done it as an organisation. They are very aware of how they want to communicate with colleagues and friends.”

Michael Jenkins, chief executive at leadership institute Roffey Park, believes that Generation Z share similar characteristics to Generation Y (loosely defined as being born in the 1980s), such as their ability to challenge authority. “It’s not unusual for Generation Y people to send their views directly to the chief executive,” he says. “You would expect a similar approach from Generation Z.”

So how will those characteristics play out in the workplace? Yvonne Sell, Hay Group’s director of leadership and talent in the UK, believes that Generation Z will have a desire for change, stimulation, learning and promotion that will conflict with traditional organisational hierarchies.

“Generation Z will want to be heard no matter how junior they are, and perhaps may have little tolerance for working with those who don’t share their views.” Sell warns that organisations need to be aware that Generation Z may have less concern for responsibility, accountability and understanding of consequence.

Lower loyalty

A PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) survey of 4,364 university graduates born between 1980 and 2000 revealed the expectations of both Generation Y and Generation Z towards their employers. The ‘Recruiting and managing the millennial generation’ survey showed that the economic downturn has had a significant impact on the loyalty that these generations feel towards their employers. Over a quarter of them now expect to have six employers or more, compared with just 10% in 2008.

Generation Z will be unlike Baby Boomers, who are often loyal to a firm, agrees Cooper. “They don’t expect jobs for life and will move onto the next job, similar to Generation Y.”

The PwC research also revealed that development and work/life balance are more important than financial reward, with both these generations being committed to their own personal learning and development. They also expect rapid career progression, with more than half of them saying this was the main attraction in an employer.  “They’re interested in a career but they don’t want to wait as long as previous generations,” says Neil Roden, HR consulting partner at PwC. “They want to progress quite far quite fast.”

Expectations will be high, agrees Sell. “Given their characteristics they will expect a learning agenda, exposure to new projects or roles, quick promotion and to be taken seriously,” she predicts. “Generation Z may prove to be hard workers but be less concerned about ‘hours of work’. They may be more results-driven than previous generations. Managing output rather than time will be easier if organisations can make that cultural shift.”

In the world of work, Generation Z will be very attracted to strong consumer brands such as Apple, says Roden: “The consumer brand is very powerful and they like the idea of working for these brands. There is a large section of this generation who are very particular about the organisation they work for.”

They have grown up in a world with diversity and equality initiatives, says Osborn: “I think diversity and equality will now be taken as the norm in the workplace, whereas previous generations had to be trained to think differently.”

“Where they work will no longer be relevant. This will make them more transient, which could be beneficial, but also may create a retention issue for employers.”

Karen Osborn, key account manager, Thales Training & Consultancy

Generation Z may also prove to be very unhealthy, forecasts Osborn. “This generation is likely to be overweight, which could have severe connotations for employers in terms of the benefits they supply.”

These future workers have been defined by the recession and this will result in a pragmatic approach to finding work, argues Sue Honoré, learning consultant at Ashridge Business School. “This is the generation that knows it is not easy to find work. They realise they will have to go through multiple jobs until they find what they want.”

Under new management

Managers of Generation Z employees will have to be prepared to give regular feedback that tells them they are making a difference to the organisation, says Jenkins. 

Sell believes that one of the strongest emerging trends among future Generation Z leaders is that of individualism: “This means employees will be increasingly aware of their individuality and will demand personalised treatment from their manager.”

But this extra work will be rewarded by an increase in innovation, says Cooper. “They possess positive attributes, such as an openness to change and a creative use of technology.” 

They will also apply a high degree of imagination to the workplace, says Osborn. “Our general research suggests that they are imaginative and solution-focused because of their less physical experience of childhood. If they are exposed to online games, the possibilities seem much more limitless.”

Stockton suggests that Generation Z possess a high degree of entrepreneurial attributes developed by living through a recession. “When I speak to young people, many of them want to set up their own business. So I believe that this generation will have intellectual curiosity aligned to an entrepreneurial mindset.”

Looking far into the future, it’s difficult to predict what type of managers they will become. Sell believes that Generation Z will focus on results. “But they will need to learn to manage their short-term desire for stimulation with a need to focus on solving big, complex, multi-year problems,” she adds.

With access to so many different sources of information, Generation Z may try a different style of management, suggests Jenkins.

“If you have a Gen Z person managing someone from an older generation, it would be interesting to speculate what flashpoints there might be going forward. Generation Z’s management style might be fast-paced and magpie-like in the way they collect ideas. There could also be a case for harmonious working relationships as there will be less of a trend for hierarchal management. However, if Generation Z exhibit traits of extreme individualism, then they may need help as managers to develop a more consultative style.”

Cooper believes that Generation Z will have difficulty managing teams due to their lack of face-to-face communication. “They will have trouble team-building and dealing with difficult people unless they’re given these social skills in the workplace,” he says.

We’ll have to wait and see how organisations are transformed by the characteristics of Generation Z, such as their constant use of technology to communicate and their dislike of traditional hierarchal organisations. The jury is out for now.


  • Trisha Proud

    This blog makes some good points; I believe that it is imperative that organisations recognise the value that each generation brings to the party. As the ‘Baby Boomers’ are starting to drop off the edge and retire, ‘Generation X’ has stepped into the breach with ‘Generation Y’ and as this article suggests 'Generation Z' (the Millennial), hot on their tails.   I have seen a significant shift in terms of how employers develop and communicate with their employees and unless we maintain the right ‘balance’ in terms of the mix of age groups and skill sets generation ‘Y and Z’ may not have gained enough knowledge and worldly experience to move into their position as the new ‘Lead Generation’ when their time comes.  

  • Jim Tanis

    I am interested in reading more of Cary Cooper.  Would you please cite the reference for your information?


  • Lauren Zadina

    Hello, Could you please share your sources for this article? I would really like to use this in a report, but would like to dive deeper by investigating the original sources. Thanks for such great work!

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