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Gen Z Is Coming—Don’t Make the Same Mistakes You Did With Millennials

Monday, May 7, 2018
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In May 2013, the cover of Time magazine was a picture of a teenage girl taking a selfie, with the famous caption “The ME ME ME Generation.” The related article took this concept even further, describing Millennials as self-absorbed, participant-award winning, helicopter-parented risks to society. As a member of the Millennial generation I look back at that magazine cover and article, shake my head, and wonder, “Gee, what could possibly go wrong with this depiction?”

Fast forward 10 years and Millennials make up the largest percentage of the workforce. And by all general accounts this transition has generated much less consternation than expected. Most, if not all, myths about the Millennial generation have been busted.

As Gen Z prepares to enter the workforce, we have a great opportunity to learn from the past. How can we avoid making the same mistakes with Gen Z that were made with Millennials?

First, let’s cover some basics regarding Generation Z. I’ll make the argument that broad generalizations can be a dangerous thing, but the information below also helps provide context around Generation Z’s formative experiences:

  • Generation Z is roughly defined by those born in the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s, which makes this generation currently 14–24 years old.
  • Currently Generation Z makes up about 25 percent of the U.S. population. Notably this makes them a larger generation than Millennials and Baby Boomers.
  • They believe in higher education, but are very concerned about the cost. Only 65 percent of Gen Z-ers believe the benefits of graduating college exceed the costs.
  • The Great Recession had a significant impact on the attitudes of Gen Z; watching older siblings and parents struggle to enter or stay in the workforce has led to a suspicious view of large corporations and a stronger-than-average entrepreneurial desire.
  • Perhaps the greatest hallmark of Gen Z is their access to technology and social media. They were one of the first generations to have widespread access to the Internet at an early age. They have always had access to social media.

Back to the question at hand: How can we avoid making the same mistakes with Gen Z that were made with Millennials? Remembering that every mistake is also an opportunity, rather than highlight what went wrong last time, I’m going to share four ways we can welcome Gen Z into the workforce that also open up new possibilities for all of us.

Avoid Broad Generalizations

There is another term for “broad generalizations”: stereotyping. Stereotyping is a bad idea. There is no reason to place arbitrary limits or categories on the individuals who are going to lead your organization in the future. However, there is a big gap between saying “I will try not to stereotype” and “This is how I will ensure stereotypes don’t harm future employees.” Consider these ideas:

  • Appreciate nuance. Remember that culture happens at multiple levels. For example, there is the macro/national level, the local/regional level, and the micro/family level. All three of these levels of culture can significantly impact the traits and values of any one individual.
  • Assess your expectations of younger employees. Ask yourself if you are expecting too much, or too little, of these individuals.
  • Challenge your assumptions. As you gain firsthand experience and data on the newest generation, consider how this data does or doesn’t align with your preconceived notion.

The trick is learning to avoid making stereotypes in the first place, or at least, finding a way to limit the negative impact of these broad generalizations.

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Be Open to New Ideas

Similar to the previous suggestion, there is very little insight generated by requesting leaders “be open to new ideas”—it’s too broad a request on its own. However, being open to new ideas is an incredibly powerful antidote to many of the challenges younger generations experience. Here are some tips:

  • Honor formative experiences. Generations are typically defined by what is happening in the world during their first 10–15 years of life. Formative experiences provide a fascinating lens to the values and perspectives of each generation, and should be validated rather than questioned.
  • Admit when you don’t know something. Again, this is easy to write, hard to do. While potentially difficult, you can learn a lot by admitting limitations and asking questions without presumption. Many organizations are leveraging the collective intelligence of younger generations under the title “reverse mentoring.”
  • Encourage critical thinking. Younger generations need help to channel their new, exciting ideas. Rather than shutting these ideas down (“That won’t work here!”), consider encouraging younger employees to critically think about the strengths and potential weaknesses or risks within the idea.

Remember That Society Isn’t Falling Apart

The Stanford Marshmallow Test measures a child’s ability to delay gratification. In the test, a child is offered a choice of one marshmallow now or two marshmallows if the child can wait 15 minutes. The child is left alone in a room with the marshmallow; the test comes in how long the child can wait.

Historical and present-day results for the marshmallow test provide a fascinating insight into general traits of different generations of children. Compared to previous generations, children today are both able to wait longer and are more likely to wait for the second marshmallow. The marshmallow test is an interesting reference point because results are highly correlated with future success. Children today are objectively better at this test, and the general idea is that these capabilities will set children on a path to greater success as adults.

Hopefully this isn’t viewed with surprise. Younger generations should be getting better, smarter, and more capable. It would be irresponsible to ignore advances in education and society, and place the same expectations on younger generations that we held for ourselves. When preparing for Gen Z to enter your workplace, spend less time fretting about whether they’ll lack fundamental personal capabilities such as self-control, and free yourself to think creatively about how they can enhance your workforce.

Take Time to Prepare Leaders

As it relates to developing talent, this is the most important opportunity. Developing leaders is a process, and it doesn’t happen overnight.

  • Share your expertise. Avoid assuming someone is too young or inexperienced to grasp a concept. Take a proactive role in helping future generations continue and advance the capabilities that you helped create within your organization.
  • Take risks. Go outside of your comfort zone and push yourself and younger generations to try something new.
  • Above all, remember where you started. You too were once the newest member of the workforce. Someone invested in you, which is how you got to where you are today.

You might have noticed that this post is less about Generation Z, and more about creating an inclusive organization. In that sense, I hope you look beyond today’s context of generations, and embrace these ideas as ways to support and enhance the rich diversity that makes up today’s workplace.

Integrating Millennials into the workforce has been a bumpy process. I’d like to think that we learned a lot along the way. One of the biggest learnings is that we can do better. Let’s not make the same mistakes with Gen Z that we did with Millennials.

About the Author

Rick Rittmaster, manager of learning and development at MTS, partners with individuals, teams, executives, and external resources to build a more capable and engaged workforce. Working in learning and development, Rick enjoys the sometimes tricky job of building people-centered solutions that meet MTS’s talent management needs. In addition to current learning and development initiatives, Rick also advises on innovation strategy and employee engagement initiatives, and manages the new employee orientation process.

4 Comments
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Thanks for the reminder to seek understanding and respect differences - from a "boomer"! It is our differences which make us strong collectively.
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I love the lessons learned approach on this. There has been so much discussion about the Millennials and how different they are than previous generations. I think each generation is "generally different" based on your point - they are shared by the first 10-15 years of their lives and what was going on then. Great work!
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Thanks for this great insight, Rick! As a fellow millennial, I actually canceled my Time subscription because of that cover story. I definitely agree that there's an opportunity to do better with Gen Z, and you present some nuanced and important ways to make that happen.
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