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The Next Generation Gap

Generation Z

Illustration by Thomas Fuchs

Move over, millennials: A new generation is hitting the workforce, and its members aren’t interested in shared office space or constant collaboration.

Born 1995 to 2012, Generation Z will begin graduating from college this spring. Analysts say they are independent, focused and fiercely competitive. And yet, at nearly 73 million strong, they’re still being mistaken for millennials (born 1980 to 1994). No surprise—millennials have gotten so much attention, some say, that all “young people” tend to get lumped into their ranks, even though nearly half of the nation’s 83 million millennials are now parents themselves, according to Time magazine.

It’s a mistake that generational expert David Stillman has seen before; his work on generation gaps began 20 years ago, when his own peers in Gen X clashed with baby boomer bosses over philosophical issues such as working remotely and prioritizing family time. Two best-selling books later, he sees another generation clash coming and is advising companies large and small to get to know Gen Z while there’s an opportunity to adapt rather than react to conflict.

This time around, Stillman is bringing reinforcement: his 17-year-old son Jonah, a high school senior. True to his Gen Z identity, Jonah decided to quit alpine snowboarding, despite ranking sixth in the nation, so he could head out on the speaking circuit with his dad. Together, they’ve piloted one of the first national studies on Gen Z’s workplace attitudes and written the new book Gen Z @ Work: How the Next Generation Is Transforming the Workplace. “If you try to treat us like millennials,” Jonah warns, “it will backfire big time.”

Millennials were brought up by baby boomers who taught them that if everyone pitches in, we can all win. Gen Z is a product of angsty Gen Xers who know that 401(k)s don’t always grow, jobs often get cut and there are no extra points for “participation” in Little League.

“If anyone deserves a trophy for baseball participation,” David Stillman quipped to his son during a recent speech at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management, “it’s me—for getting you to all those games on time.” That elicited guffaws from the crowd of 40- and 50-somethings, most of them executives at Fortune 500 companies.

“Our parents taught us that in the real world, you might win and you might lose,” Jonah says later over the phone. “We’re willing to fight for a job and to challenge the way things are being done.”

Half of Gen Zers surveyed by the Stillmans, in conjunction with the Institute for Corporate Productivity, would prefer their own office to open environments. They’d rather work independently than collaborate. They’re interested in creating their own job description and not afraid to try different things—even simultaneously. They are picky about working for digitally sophisticated companies and prioritize organizations with social causes that align with their own. Gen Zers also tend to be private—favoring Snapchat’s vanishing photos over Instagram’s public posts—as their parents have drilled into them the dangers of oversharing on social media.

The Stillmans describe Gen Z as the first “digital pioneers.” Tech proficient as millennials may be, they are old enough to remember life before phones were smart and Wi-Fi was constant. Gen Z has only known a connected world, and as a result, they don’t draw a distinction between working in an office and working in a coffeehouse—it’s all work; they’re always online. Their world is “phigital,” the Stillmans say, meaning every physical aspect has a digital equivalent. To Jonah, dialing into a meeting via video conferencing is no different than sitting face to face in a boardroom.

“I told you to be there,” David Stillman recalls harping at Jonah, who opted to Skype rather than drive downtown to meet with a prospective client. “I was there,” Jonah replied. David admits that the meeting went well and the client was impressed by Jonah’s maturity and his tech savvy. Still, he says, it’s the perfect example of a fundamental generational divide.

The father and son duo use the Skype vs. boardroom incident in their presentations—everywhere from Land O’Lakes to the National Builders Association. Then they ask their audience to log into a mobile app and vote: Does video conferencing count as being at a meeting or should Jonah have actually been there, in the flesh?

“As much as I hate to admit it, my dad usually wins,” Jonah says. “But usually by only 10 to 15 percent.” And to be fair, their predominantly executive audiences are stacked in his 48-year-old father’s favor.

Companies that celebrate individuality are going to have an easier time working with Gen Z, David says, pointing to Nxtbook Media, a digital publishing company in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where employees create their own job titles. One of the sales reps is the Duke of Solutions. The human resources director is Master of Smooth Operations. “Most people come to a job and are told, ‘This is who you are.’ It doesn’t really mean a whole lot,” says Nxtbook’s Chief Inspiration Officer Michael Biggerstaff. “I honestly think about my role every day. Regardless of how I feel, I have to try to be inspiring when the opportunity arises.” Baby boomers at Nxtbook have come around to the idea of naming their own job, though many call it their “fun” title while using a standard description outside the office. But millennials get into it, Biggerstaff says, and the current Gen Z interns love the idea.

In other instances, it’s the nuances between millennials and Gen Z that are inspiring change. Recruitment specialist Jeff Boodie noticed an uptick in job candidates coming to his web-based employment platform through mobile. “That was revolutionary five years ago,” Boodie says, and it led to his new venture, JobSnap, a smartphone app that bills itself as the “hiring voice of Generation Z.” Designed for first-time job seekers with little or no work experience, JobSnap lets users upload a 30-second video to showcase their personality and has been described as the Tinder of job hiring, because both candidates and employers have the option to swipe right or left. When both do the same, they get matched. JobSnap is currently being used by 250 LA-based companies, and Boodie plans to expand nationally this year.

Meanwhile, in classrooms across the country, new standards are focusing more on discovery, with less time spent on memorization. “Teachers are no longer the sage on the stage dispensing knowledge and then giving a test to see how much students remember,” says Melissa Kondrick, a 29-year-old sixth-grade math teacher at Pleasanton Middle School in Northern California. “Now it’s different—we call ourselves coaches on the sides. The students work in groups and go through their own fact-finding process. We’re creating a generation of problem solvers. There’s not always just one answer to the question.” No one knows that better than Jonah Stillman, who is currently figuring out where he’ll go to college in the fall—and how he’ll balance academics with a national speaking tour. “We’re willing to try things and fail,” Jonah says of his generation. “We’re more scared not to try.”

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