Posted May 14, 2021 by Mark Perna
A recent study uncovers key data about Gen-Z workers and how employers can best support the youngest generation at work today. Mark’s article, “OK Boomer: 5 Surprising Insights Into What Gen-Z Workers Want In A Job,” published at Forbes.com on April 27, 2021.
Ask enough older workers what it’s like to work with younger colleagues, and you’re almost guaranteed to get at least one eyeroll in response. When older business leaders and workers are surveyed about younger workers, many voice their frustration over Gen-Z’s alleged entitlement, short attention spans and desire for immediate gratification. Some critics also point to the unwelcome intrusion of so-called helicopter parents into the workplace.
While Gen-Z’s viral phrase “OK, Boomer”—and Boomers’ swift comeback “OK, Zoomer”—may be unique to our time, this kind of intergenerational friction isn’t. Even Boomers faced similar criticism when they began working alongside members of the post-war Silent and Greatest Generations. It’s just human nature to be wary of something new—especially when it’s the next generation energetically championing a different way of thinking and working.
But today’s organizations don’t have the luxury of gradually adopting the changes that are already transforming the workforce. As a “silver tsunami” of Boomers increasingly retire in the coming years, demand for top Gen-Z talent will skyrocket. That shift has only been accelerated by the pandemic, which promises to change the workplace forever.
That means that organizations need to strategize now about how to deliver what Gen-Z workers want in a job. This will mean putting aside the knee-jerk “OK, Zoomer” response and embracing what Gen-Z can bring to the world of work.
Using research from the recently released Gen Z Spotlight Report from the Washington State University Carson College of Business (CCB), here are five insights into the Gen-Z mind and how they approach their professional lives.
1. They worry about their career (a lot)
The CCB report, which surveyed more than 1,000 Gen Z workers in the Pacific Northwest (PNW) region, found that younger workers are much more concerned about the future of their careers than their older colleagues. Some 68% of younger workers reported that they worry about their career growth potential—compared to 43% of older employees. Some 79% of those surveyed also reported that they have high ambition and drive when it comes to furthering their careers.
“We found that Gen Z employees are ambitious, require stimulating work and expect to be recognized for their work,” says Chip Hunter, dean of CCB. “Employers can leverage this information by cultivating an entrepreneurial environment in addition to putting emphasis on recognition for quality work, and by tying success at work explicitly to the values their young employees hold.”
2. Younger workers are ready to head back to the office
Most members of Gen-Z were essentially born with technology in their hands and screens in front of their faces. Yet the shift to remote work in the wake of the pandemic had an adverse impact on their mental health. While just 34% of older workers complained about remote work, some 47% of younger workers reported that working from home has had a negative impact on their mental wellbeing.
“Navigating remote work with little experience to fall back on has proved challenging for them, particularly when it comes to their mental health,” says Hunter, “It’s not hard to see why when we consider their typical living arrangements, their limited financial resources and their desire for independence.”
He also points out that compared to older employees, Gen-Z employees are more likely to be impacted by pain points such as at-home distractions, decreased ability to focus and a disrupted work/life balance. “Additionally, our Gen-Z workforce thrives on social interaction and connectedness,” says Hunter. “Having been in the workforce for such a short time, many have not had the opportunity to build meaningful career connections or experience the full breadth of their company’s culture, which can be disheartening.”
3. Your organization’s values matter
The report found that Gen-Z employees have different values and expectations than employees from older generations. Some 83% of younger workers reported that they want to work for an organization where they can make a positive impact on the world, while 75% said they prioritized a workplace that valued a healthy work-life balance.
“This generation cares deeply about issues like cultural inclusivity, sustainability and a healthy work-life balance,” says Hunter, “and 70% of Gen Z employees in the study want to work for a company whose values align with their own.”
This reinforces what many companies have already realized: to recruit and retain Gen-Z talent, they must adapt their culture and communication.
4. Gen-Z is “work ready”
One interesting finding from the CCB study is that, despite their often-negative preconceived notions of younger workers, many business leaders and older workers acknowledge that Gen-Z brings valuable new technical skills and creativity into the workplace.
“Many business leaders and older employees alike agree that Gen-Z employees are more tech savvy, can be more creative and have more developed STEM skills,” says Hunter. “Older colleagues should see Gen-Z’s skillset as an opportunity to fill in gaps and to cultivate diverse perspectives.
“By recruiting Gen-Z employees into positions where their skills fit best, and supporting them in those roles, they can positively shape perceptions of this generation.”
5. They’re optimistic about the future
Not surprisingly, the pandemic has shaped how many of us perceive the future. While 52% of the older workers reported being optimistic about what the future will bring, more than two-thirds of Gen Z (68%) employees expressed a positive outlook about what’s to come.
“As we begin to return to the workplace, and make our way out of the pandemic, our companies’ leaders need to pay attention to the values and mindsets of their Gen-Z employees,” says Hunter. “If they do, they’ll come out the other side with loyal employees, a brand reputation that will help them continue to build their talent pools and better overall performance.”
The “OK Boomer,” “OK, Zoomer” phenomenon is basically a groan of exasperation in words—for both generations. To forestall this verbal eyeroll in younger workers, their older counterparts must first check that response in themselves.
“OK, Zoomer” is never a productive answer when you’re faced with an “OK, Boomer” mindset. Instead, employers need to welcome the youngest working generation into their ranks as valuable and valued contributors.
And for Gen-Z workers, it’s also worth noting that expressing an “OK, Boomer” attitude will never improve a tough situation. We can find a better way forward, rooted in mutual respect for the unique perspective of each generation.
Armed with these five insights, organizations can position themselves as an employer of choice for a new cohort of talented workers. When it comes to “OK, Boomer” and “OK, Zoomer,” let’s all leave those phrases—and the attitudes they express—in the past.