As we reach the end of 2020, you’d be forgiven for feeling a glimmer of optimism amid headlines about vaccines and some slightly sunnier economic forecasts. Still, the OECD is warning of unprecedented economic damage and ongoing global uncertainty.[1]

The economic uncertainty closely parallels another type of uncertainty: the working world’s trepidation toward welcoming the next generation, Gen Z, those born around 1997 to 2012. And those uncertainties are dovetailing into some urgent questions about what organisations should do to prepare.

On the most recent episode of People People. Unfiltered, I spoke with Mark Royal, an associate client partner at Korn Ferry with a focus on culture, employee engagement, and employee experience (not to mention two Gen Z children of his own). Mark had some great insights into what Gen Z will be expecting, how they should be engaged, and the lessons leaders should take from millennials’ integration into the workforce.

Circumstances shape young workers, and young workers now face extraordinary circumstances

While the pandemic is a defining event during some formative years for Gen Z, Mark and I also agreed that generations tend to develop their own distinctions based on how they’re raised – trends that can be influenced by older generational characteristics.

“If we think about the millennials, they were by and large the product of the Baby Boom generation, a large and idealistic group,” said Mark. “And they brought those experiences, derived from their parents, with them into the workforce.

“Well, Gen Zed really owes its origins to Gen X as parents. And you think about Gen X, that's a smaller, more sceptical, more individualistic group.”

Mark theorised that the pandemic will only deepen these leanings, but that another economic crisis will impact how Gen Z approaches their careers.

“For many, the Global Financial Crisis was a defining event. It impacted their families. They may have seen parents lose jobs or have seen their families struggle financially. And I think that has led them to carry forward a pragmatism and financial focus.”

This might contribute to even stronger desires for structure, defined roles and measurements of success – priorities that are likely to grow after the chaos of a global pandemic.

Leaders should take lessons from millennials’ workforce debut

Not that long ago, the speaking circuit was dominated by presentations with titles like “The Millennials Are Coming.” There was a big concern that workforces, practices and processes were all tailored to Baby Boomers and Gen X. Millennials were digitally minded and highly educated yet often underemployed due to fallout from the Global Financial Crisis – how could businesses capitalise on their strengths while redesigning experiences for a new generation?

Millennials and Gen Z are very different – yet often mistakenly conflated – generations. But there are some key lessons from millennials’ entrance that People & Culture leaders should consider while reassessing practices and policies with Gen Z in mind.

Millennials and Gen Z are very different – yet often mistakenly conflated – generations. Businesses should capitalise on their strengths while redesigning experiences for this new generation. Click To Tweet

From Mark’s view, some leaders misjudged millennial employees’ intentions and motivations.

“At the time, millennials were the most highly educated generation the world had seen, but they were entering a workforce when entry-level jobs were few and far between. They came into the workforce feeling they were behind in their careers. As a result, a lot of those workers were eager to be tested and maybe even impatient for new opportunities to grow.

“That wasn’t coming from a place of a needy or demanding generation, though. It was a generation responding to the challenges they faced.”

The challenges will be different and, in some cases, greater for Gen Z. Not only will many face a disrupted job market, but some will have also faced disruptions to their education. So what can organisations do to approach generational differences in an empathetic, constructive and intellectually curious way?

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Helping Gen Z learn the ropes – and learning from Gen Z

Again, we’ve learned from millennials that major economic crises can have long-term consequences that last far beyond the immediate crisis. As Mark pointed out, the Global Financial Crisis impacted many millennials’ careers and even their health.[2]

There are similar risks for Gen Z, with the front end of the generation already facing challenging new learning environments, cancelled internships and the evaporation of entry-level jobs.

Gen Z face a disrupted job market with cancelled internships and the evaporation of entry-level jobs as well as disruptions to their education. Click To Tweet

Mark noted that long-term impacts will depend on too many unknown factors.

“How quickly the global economy recovers from COVID-19 disruption, how quickly we get back onto a path toward a new normal – I think that's going to have a big impact on how much of this carries forward.”

From my view, organisations – and People & Culture leaders in particular – have a responsibility to develop Gen Z into the next wave of leaders. As for what that looks like in practice, here are a few considerations we explored:

  • Gen Z is likely to be even less monolithic than previous generations. Mark made a great observation about how different circumstances could look for younger Gen Z workers than those who are closer to starting their careers. “As a result, the early wave Gen Z employee may bring some different perspectives from those who will follow. I think it'll be important for organisations to bear that in mind and promote a broad view.”
  • Exercise empathy and meet younger workers where they are. Mark explained a range of practical steps for factoring in Gen Z’s circumstances and helping them acclimate to new environments. One of those includes an approach that’s likely to become more important for reasons beyond Gen Z. “Clarity around what new employees are being asked to do, how it connects to organizational objectives, and how it can lead to a career path within an organisation will be very important.”
  • Recognise the strengths and diversity Gen Z can bring to business. Providing Gen Z with seasoned mentors will be critical. But equally, I think there's a ton that we can learn from Gen Z as they enter the workforce. This sort of reverse mentorship may result in higher engagement scores for more tenured employees, whether that’s elder millennials, Gen Z or Baby Boomers. Mark and I agreed that Gen Z will bring fresh perspective and is likely to offer a distinctively empathetic yet entrepreneurial approach.
  • Factor in new generational priorities when designing value propositions. Mark theorised that Gen Z may not be as enthusiastic about the gig economy as some millennials, pointing to their scepticism toward uncertainty and glossy marketing hype. “I think organisations would be wise to think about how they structure their value propositions. We can emphasise parts of the gig economy that will appeal to Gen Z, such as independence, but Gen Z employees may prefer rewards that impact their wallet rather than a pat on the back. There can also be investment in work-life balance or paid time off, recognising again that Gen Z's going to value flexibility.”

As the next generation of workers stands poised to challenge old assumptions in positive, transformative ways, there’s also an uncertain world creating professional circumstances that those of us in People & Culture have a duty to address. For a deep dive into these issues, make sure to join us on People Unfiltered.

1 OECD (2020). OECD Economic Outlook, Interim Report September 2020.

2 Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality (2019). State of the Union: Millennial Dilemma.

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About the contributors

Aaron Green is the Head of SAP SuccessFactors, APJ. In this role, Aaron leads a business that enables organisations of all sizes to deliver extraordinary results for their People & Culture strategies. Prior to joining SAP SuccessFactors, Aaron was the VP of HCM for Oracle Asia Pacific, and held various Strategy and Sales leadership roles at Oracle from 2004. Aaron researches and identifies emerging trends in the practice of Human Resources and Workforce Management to deliver industry-leading innovation for organisations around the world.

Mark helps clients attract and retain talent, foster innovation, manage change more effectively. He plays a leading role in Korn Ferry's annual research with Fortune magazine to identify the World's Most Admired Companies. Mark co-authored the book The Enemy of Engagement, which gives managers new insights and tools for ensuring their teams are both willing and able to make maximum contributions.

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