Take the Lead: Gen Z Is Bringing “Main Character Energy”

The new generation is redefining the workplace

By Carrie Kirby

Alma Klein, 47, enjoys managing a team that is about one-third generation Z.

But she says she also has a list of “things they are comfortable with that would have sent me into a coma when I was a junior employee.”

Things like broadly sharing their salary figures. Requesting a one-on-one meeting with a senior manager immediately upon hiring. Disclosing mental health struggles.

Klein, SVP creative director at Arc Worldwide in Chicago, recently took some of her junior creatives to lunch and asked them where they get this moxie, or what their generation might call “main character energy.”

“They said that they grew up post-9/11 and witnessed nonstop bad news,” Klein says. Some remember family turmoil during the 2008 recession. They did active-shooter drills at school. They were sent home from high school, college, or their first jobs when the COVID pandemic began. They witnessed the social unrest of the Black Lives Matter movement and the melee of January 6. They live under the existential threat of climate change.

“The world is a scary, chaotic place, so they want to do what’s best for themselves and their careers,” Klein says. “They know the days of being loyal to a company and getting rewarded for it are long gone, so they’re practicing a sort of ‘social unionization,’ where they share their salaries on giant shared spreadsheets and watch TikToks on how to ask for a raise.”

Like Klein, Seattle occupational therapy manager M. Terry Bowman admires gen Z’s confident vibe. Bowman noticed a 20-something coworker, who had recently earned a graduate degree, “putting herself out there for positions that she may not be quite qualified for.” It’s not something Bowman, who at 60 is part of the baby boom generation, would have done when she was just starting out.

To Richmond, California, property manager Noelle Davis, 25, there are several reasons she and her gen Z colleague are often the first to speak up at a company meeting. One is disillusionment with people in power, based on the difficult events they’ve lived through in their short lives.

“We’ve seen some ‘qualified’ people do terrible, terrible things,” Davis says.

Gen Z grew up watching people rocket from obscurity to superstardom, and define their own careers, often with the help of the Internet, Davis notes. She’s inspired by examples as diverse as (early gen Xer) Jay-Z’s rise from poverty to music industry titan and (late gen Xer) Rishi Sunak’s ascent from an immigrant family to UK prime minister.

They even watched kids their own age build their own entertainment brands.

“People that I watched on YouTube are now millionaires,” Davis says.

Who is generation Z?

It’s not just an impression or a stereotype: generation Z is different from the other generations in the workplace (millennials, gen X, baby boomers, and a few lingering “traditionalists” or “silent generation” workers in their late 70s or older).

Pew Research, which defines gen Z as those born from 1997 to 2012, notes that these young people belong to the most diverse generation in American history; nearly half are racial or ethnic minorities. They’re also on track to become the most educated generation so far, Pew reports. A more troubling distinction: along with other younger Americans, gen Z are part of an alarming rise in mental illness and suicide.

The first true digital natives

What made them who they are? Besides the defining events mentioned above, gen Z is the first generation to truly grow up online.

“We used to say millennials were digital natives, but they actually remember a time before iPhones and before a lot of social media. Most gen Z’s don’t,” says Lindsey Pollak, author of The Remix: How to Lead and Succeed in the Multigenerational Workplace.

Growing up with the Internet means growing up knowing that your voice can be heard, that a good idea could go viral, no matter who you are, Pollak suggests. Digital natives are also used to getting all the information they need—immediately.

That means managers will be expected both to listen more and explain more. Pollak advises managers to embrace this and give gen Z—and other staffers—the answers they want.

“‘Because I said so’ has never been a good strategy, but I think it’s even less appropriate with this generation,” Pollak says.

Living DEI

Gen Z has grown up in a diverse world and brings that awareness and the resulting expectations to the workplace. This generation was taught from an early age to respect others’ differences and to live the principles of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Sometimes, Davis says, it feels like older generations have failed to absorb these principles, despite DEI trainings at work.

“I’ve had several older managers who have said things about people—or to me—that I know are not appropriate,” says Davis, who is Black. “No one in my age group would ever say those things, because we know that they’re wrong to say in the workplace.”

Bowman notes that the gen Z occupational therapy practitioners she works with are more consistent than others about asking for and using people’s preferred pronouns, a practice she has also adopted.

Gen Z workers are reportedly more likely to request accommodations for disabilities and personal challenges—including invisible ones. This makes sense: the generation has grown up with individualized education plans in school, and much higher rates of diagnoses of conditions such as ADHD and autism.

Companies are by necessity adapting to the heightened demands for accommodations, Pollak says. She believes gen Z is having a positive influence on the issue, raising awareness of the need for modifications and adjustments, including those for mental health.

“There’s less stigma to asking for the help you need, rather than burning out or getting so stressed that you end up quitting,” she says.

What gen Z can learn from older generations

While young workers may have things to teach their older peers and managers when it comes to technology and diversity, there are components of work that they need to learn too, Pollak acknowledges. She’s heard employers complain that this generation lacks “soft skills” like communication and collaboration. That boils down to a unique lack of experience, she figures.

“A lot of them didn’t get the human contact of college and internships and summer jobs because of COVID,” she says. Even pre-COVID, “because of devices, they have just spent less time talking to other human beings.”

Without landlines, most gen Z employees grew up without learning how to answer a phone call that isn’t for them. Media reports reveal that some companies have to hire phone coaches to walk them through fielding work calls.

The five-generations office

It’s anything but new for fresh workers to show up in offices—it happens every day. The reason we have unprecedented age diversity at work now is that the older workers are staying longer. About 8.6 percent of people over age 75 (the silent generation) are still employed, and that’s expected to increase to more than 11 percent by 2031, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

How can five generations play nicely together when they don’t even speak the same language? As a Washington Post headline put it: “Gen Z came to ‘slay.’ Their bosses don’t know what that means.” Even when the different generations agree on a communications medium, they don’t always understand one another clearly. A recent video uploaded by TikTok user “Charissa” complained that gen Xers hurt millennials’ feelings—by using ellipses when they text.

Pollak offers these tips for intergenerational collaboration:

• Be specific. When working with people who have vastly different ideas about the world, precise language helps. “I worked with a company that said that their gen Zers were abusing their paid-time-off policy,” Pollak says. The problem: the policy asked workers to take an “appropriate” amount of time off. A more effective policy would lay out exactly how many days are available for what uses.

• Assume the best intentions. Try to understand why workers from different generations do what they do, Pollak advises. One conflict she has encountered is young workers wanting more feedback than older managers are used to providing. “They’re not trying to annoy you,” she tells managers. “They’re trying to get better.” To younger workers: “It’s not because they don’t like you. It’s that no one gave them feedback, so they don’t think they’re supposed to.”

• Buddy up. Mentorships often pair the most experienced employees with newbies, and that can be valuable. But Pollak also likes the trend of pairing employees with a “buddy” or a mentor with only a year or two of seniority. This gives millennials an opportunity to recognize their common ground with gen Z and shine. “Millennials grew up with the Internet and social media and all of that,” Pollak says. “They could be phenomenal mentors.” DW

Carrie Kirby writes about travel, money, and technology. She blogs about travel with her gen Z kids at Themilesmom.net.

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