Coming Soon to Your Office: Gen Z

5 minute read

As a business consultant and management professor, Peter Drucker observed the attitudes and idiosyncrasies of seven distinct generations: New Worlders, Hard Timers, Good Warriors, the Lucky Few, Baby Boomers, Gen X and even, at the very end of his life, Gen Y. But it’s Gen Z, I believe, that would draw most of Drucker’s interest now.

A new study of this cohort—17 years old and younger—suggests that when it comes to thinking about work, these teens are poised to greatly accelerate certain trends that Drucker had anticipated with a mix of hopefulness and concern. And employers better start preparing for them now.

Although many companies are struggling to integrate millennials into the workplace, “what we’re also seeing right on their tail is another tsunami, potentially just as disruptive,” says Jamie Gutfreund, chief strategy officer at the Intelligence Group, a division of the Creative Artists Agency, which undertook the analysis with an assist from the early-career networking site Intern Sushi. The likelihood of this enormous impact, she notes, has emerged despite the fact that Gen Y, at about 90 million strong in the United States, is nearly twice as big as Gen Z.

Several results in particular grabbed my attention—and undoubtedly would have grabbed Drucker’s.

For starters, 60% of the 14- to 18-year-olds surveyed last April, as part a larger sample of 900 people who responded online, said that “having an impact on the world” is going to be important to them in their jobs. That’s a sharp increase from the 39% of millennials who expressed this sentiment in 2010, when they were in the same age range.

That more and more students are intent on making a real difference with their lives is something that Drucker started to pick up on decades ago—and he advised organizations to seize the opportunity. “Instead of bemoaning that young people are lazy or self-centered,” Drucker remarked in 1989, executives should ask, “‘What do they have?’ They have a tremendous desire to contribute.”

The question now is how they can best be positioned to make good on that desire.

For members of Gen Z themselves, the answer seems to lie in the second significant finding from the Intelligence Group report: They’re bent on accumulating real-world experience, even if this means foregoing a part of their formal education. In 2010, 71% of millennial teens considered earning an advanced degree as one of their life goals. By 2013, that number had fallen to 64% for Gen Z teens.

Also telling: Fifty percent of Gen Y teens in 2010 said they wished they had a hobby that would turn into full-time job. Among Gen Z teens, that has soared to 76%.

“There really are a lot of these younger kids who are figuring out much earlier on what they want to do,” says Shara Senderoff, the co-founder and chief executive of Intern Sushi, which set out a couple of years ago to reinvent how students apply for internships (“the new entry-level job,” in Senderoff’s words) by giving them a platform to tell their stories in more creative ways.

Senderoff and Gutfreund say that this inclination to dive quickly into a work setting, and spend less time in the classroom as well as on frivolous outside pursuits, makes perfect sense in the wake of endless stories about unemployed and underemployed college grads, and anxiety over accumulating mountains of student-loan debt.

Drucker surely wouldn’t have advocated that people get less education at a time when knowledge has become our most vital resource. What’s more, as I’ve made plain, there is overwhelming statistical evidence that a college degree is still the best investment that a young person can make.

Yet what form someone’s ongoing education might take isn’t at all a given. “In the knowledge society, clearly, more and more knowledge, and especially advanced knowledge, will be acquired well past the age of formal schooling and increasingly, perhaps, through educational processes that do not center on the traditional school,” Drucker wrote.

For employers hoping one day to recruit and retain the cream of Gen Z, a real chance exists to develop a whole new model of lifelong learning—a combination of hands-on experience, training and mentoring.

There are risks. Drucker worried, for instance, about tilting too far in the direction of doing. We may “overvalue immediately usable, ‘practical’ knowledge and underrate the importance of fundamentals, and of wisdom altogether,” he warned.

He also would have stressed that it’s not only up to employers to embrace new ways of judging talent and keeping them satisfied; young employees and would-be employees have obligations, as well.

“The decision ‘What should my contribution be?’ . . . balances three elements,” Drucker explained. “First comes the question: ‘What does the situation require?’ Then comes the question: ‘How could I make the greatest contribution with my strengths, my way of performing, my values to what needs to be done?’ Finally, there is the question: ‘What results have to be achieved to make a difference.’”

Drucker, who was born in Austria in 1909, immigrated to America in 1937 and delivered his final university lecture just months before his death in 2005, pointed out that his was the last generation of people in business “who measured their value entirely by experience” instead of by the amount of their education and knowledge.

No one is saying that we’re destined to return entirely to that earlier convention. But it’s fitting somehow that experience may again count for more, now that we’ve reached Z.

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