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Generation Z


Why organizations should tailor the workplace to empower Gen Z and share benefits across all generations 

Published 6 February 2024 in Talent • 12 min read

The changing world of work is challenging both seasoned employees and newcomers to the workplace. Rather than regarding first-time workers as difficult and forcing them to adapt to old norms, organizations should collaboratively support them to thrive in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) world. In meeting the needs of Gen Z, employers can enhance working life for all generations and support their shared aspirations.

Gen Z – that is, people born between 1997 and 2012 – have become the frequent target for criticism about their apparent lack of commitment and motivation to work hard or put in long hours. They can be regarded as opinionated, of having the attention span of a TikTok post, are too easily offended, defensive and self-oriented. Three quarters of managers who responded to a recent survey said Gen Z was difficult to work with.

But doesn’t it take two to tango? So, if Gen Z brings specific ways and dynamics to the workplace, isn’t that true of all generations? I’m not dismissing the presence of tension, but asking if we might frame it more productively. What if we look at this more as a culture clash than a blame game? Simultaneously, we can acknowledge that there may be some fundamental shift to business as usual that affects workers of all ages, stages and levels. The key query is not: What is wrong with Gen Z, but how can we engage all employees, including Gen Z, to craft a workable world of work where humans and business and the environment can thrive?

These questions might usefully occupy managers and leaders of workforces with increasing numbers of Gen Z employees if they are to maximize the contribution of a generation that will represent more than a quarter of the working population by next year.

We have a challenge in the workplace whenever members who share a collective experience appear to act solely out of self-interest, at the expense of others
We have a challenge in the workplace whenever members who share a collective experience appear to act solely out of self-interest, at the expense of others

What has shaped the intergenerational strife with Gen Z?

What happened to make Gen Z the proverbial ‘whipping boy’ of the workplace? It helps to look at their life experiences and how these might have shaped them.

Gen Z are true digital natives and may not remember a time before the iPhone. While not involved directly in the 2008 financial crash and subsequent austerity, they probably know people who lost their jobs or homes. They have witnessed terrorism, civil unrest, seminal and violent racial events, and an almost constant series of wars. Tsunamis, earthquakes and devastating storms provide a backdrop to the ever-present fear of climate change, a mega-issue of the 21st century. A formative chunk of their school or college experience was virtual and sometimes contributed to loneliness and mental health challenges. Many missed out on the impact of an in-person education full of negotiating formal and informal interactions with teachers and peers.

On top of this, they experienced a heavily digital childhood with less playground time. Some of this generation is online almost 24/7 via social media platforms like TikTok, Instagram and Snapchat. It’s here they often find social reinforcement for unique voices and sharing perspectives around the clock. When they were in school, they were encouraged to speak up about what they cared about – and many still care deeply about – including workplace norms. It is therefore perhaps unsurprising that Gen Z may assert strong opinions and exhibit a lack of automatic deference for a culture and system that so far may have been disillusioning and confusing.

Keeping in mind this context may make it easier to appreciate why Gen Z’s attitudes and approach are different in many ways than those of seasoned workers.

GenZ talent retention
“Leaders and managers should be considering how to nudge collaborative capacity across generations, taking a journey of discovery, with the objective of co-creating updated workplace norms. ”

The seeds of change were sown before the pandemic

Technical challenges to the status quo in the world of work were piling up well before COVID – like ‘always on duty’ working regimes facilitated by chat and messaging platforms. Other changes, like the predicted use of AI and its interface with employees, and widespread skilling and re-skilling efforts were suspended for a couple of years during the lockdowns and remote working. But the larger and more pressing challenges are related to the complexity of the work and the workplace, as Robert Kegan writes in his book ‘In Over Our Heads: The Mental Demands of Modern Life’.

As some senior managers fret about whether to get the whole team into the office on a Wednesday or a Thursday, these tactical questions pale in significance compared to the more complex issues presented by ‘restabilizing’ a business and creating a new direction for work itself in a post-COVID world. Some leaders and managers will insist on trying to fix new and complex challenges using the old tools in the business box, but some of the fundamental changes need new mindsets and approaches.

I believe that the intergenerational tensions raised by working across generations bring the need for new mindsets and approaches into sharp focus. Much has been written and talked about the necessity of ‘training’ Gen Z to integrate into the workforce. But perhaps leaders and managers should be considering how to nudge collaborative capacity across generations, taking a journey of discovery, with the objective of co-creating updated workplace norms.

Actively involving younger colleagues can build cohesion

We have a challenge in the workplace whenever members who share a collective experience appear to act solely out of self-interest, at the expense of others. I don’t believe Gen Z owns this turf – it’s relevant for all of us. Perhaps the Gen Z colleague has not experienced as much of the community socializing that was a central feature of growing up for previous generations. And to be sure, like all new workers (and many experienced workers!), they need to learn to communicate effectively for the context, but I am less convinced that the conflict is about Gen Z ‘being difficult’.

So, for those interested, and who believe that their approach may make a difference, here are some tips to reduce barriers and increase co-creation of the future of work with Gen Z colleagues as contributors and collaborators in the process.

Establish shared goals

Be explicit that you want to craft a workplace where workers of all ages can thrive. As covered in Tsedal Neeley's book, Remote Work Revolution, where she recommends biannual ‘team relaunches’, ask people to contribute voice, mentoring, invitations, energy and to align this objective with the measurable result that works for all ages and moves the needle on thriving at work.

Normalize learning

Make it ok to be a learner and for adaptation to be a process that takes place over time. The individual can learn AND a learning environment (learn and develop vs blame and assess) can help to create the conditions where it is considered normal to have to learn the rules of the road.

Engage in relevant self-disclosure

Invite a conversation about transition to the workplace and to your specific company culture. Everyone has a chance to tell a bit of their experience – and failures (senior people go first to encourage candor and set up psychological safety.) A particularly relevant and helpful topic might include tips and foibles in adjusting to the workplace. The sharing of failure promotes shared vulnerability and helps to establish dialogic loops to create norms of trust and candor. This topic is itself informative and reminds us we have all been there. I have included references to further reading below.

Above all, frame this adjustment as a journey, not an event

It’s not about fixing a generation as much as it is about increasing the opportunities and capacity to learn and adapt together. Give windows of time and look to move the needle through the above processes over a period of time, rather than single activities.

From both tactical and developmental perspective, emotionally intelligent engagement with an experienced colleague can show the new hire ‘how we do things around here’ and can establish cross-generational communities and cohesion. Giving Gen Z access to tech, ongoing learning and career development opportunities, job-related up-skilling and re-skilling, and being inclusive also pays dividends.

Build engagement and a shared vision for all employees, but expect some bumps in the road

Gen Z workers often want reasonable things that workers on many levels want and these desires are not faults of Gen Z, but may represent shared aspirations. Current leaders may find value in heeding the wisdom behind the call, while also managing that youthful impatience and the demand for the change to be real NOW.

Retaining this generation of workers is a challenge worth taking on, even as they reject the performative ‘busyness’ of their parents’ generation. Far from being difficult, they want to know how they can most effectively make an enlivening, meaningful and sustainable contribution to an organization whose purpose and lived values they can share and of which they can be proud.

So, for Gen Z, the social/corporate ‘contract’ is regarded with a degree of suspicion. In addition, some of them are experiencing economic insecurity, which they expect to continue, prompting them to work multiple jobs, so loyalty may be minimal. They also want agency over their lives and don’t see their career as linear progression from junior to middle to senior. Consequently their steady state is footloose and willing to move jobs if they get a better offer or their current work, or company doesn’t suit them, and they may move often.

The attributes Gen Z looks for in a boss include honesty, integrity, passion and vision, together with the ability to mentor and guide

To retain Gen Z, it’s worth knowing their most important considerations when joining an employer were: career advancement opportunities (95 percent), a manager they can learn from (93 percent) and professional development and training opportunities (91 percent).

We can all be better equipped for tomorrow’s existential challenges and Gen Z leaders may be able to guide the way

Today’s ‘leading from the front’ style of star individual performer with little or no training in leadership won’t last forever. Indeed, if we insist on holding the frame that leadership is about knowing the answer and solving the problem, we’re going to stay confused, because we don’t know the answers and can’t solve all the problems in readily available ways. The attributes Gen Z looks for in a boss include honesty, integrity, passion and vision, together with the ability to mentor and guide, to give honest feedback and set clear criteria for success in their jobs.

Leadership for the future is less leading from the front and more accompanying employees on a shared journey punctuated by frequent engagement, including checkpoints on career and personal development. It’s more about everyday leadership – the cumulative ‘micromoments’ of the way we interact day in and day out. It’s important to co-create our way forward and it is possible to lead in ambiguity; in fact the ability to do so is essential to the future of work. We can expect Gen Z to embrace this sort of approach – subject to their having a positive experience of it themselves – as they assume leadership positions.

People mostly pass on what they experience, and we need to learn through and from the experience of recrafting the world of work in this era. It’s important that we get this right for Gen Z – and for all of us – and help them succeed, because over the coming decade or so, we will be passing them a large and challenging portfolio of unfinished business to deal with.

The way they work and lead their teams, businesses and countries will have a fundamental effect on our shared future, long after today’s leaders have retired. We will leave them to deal with the uncertainties, ambiguities and complexities of daily business, while also expecting them to address climate change and a cocktail of related social, environmental and geopolitical challenges.

Further reading:


Heidi Brooks

Heidi Brooks

Senior Lecturer in Organizational Behavior at Yale School of Management

Heidi Brooks teaches and advises on the subject of everyday leadership: the everyday micro-moments of impact that shape our lived experiences. Creating more courageous communities—especially within organizations—is a particular passion of hers. Brooks specializes in large-scale culture change projects focused on individual and collective leadership effectiveness in organizations.


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