Workplace Wellbeing

Gen Z: How to Understand This Generation and the Way They Want to Work

Gaining a deeper understanding of Gen Z can help leaders engage a generation dealing with profound uncertainty, anxiety, and stress.

Written by
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Dave Fisse
Clinically reviewed by
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One Gen Z woman in a black hat working with another Gen Z woman at a table

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    Just as you may finally have Millennials figured out, here comes the newest generation of employees: Gen Z.

    Gen Z is the generation born between 1997-2012, following Millennials. Currently between 11-26 years-old, they represent over 25% of the U.S. population and will soon be the largest generation worldwide. 

    Possibly even more perplexing to many, Gen Z is slowly but surely influencing the future dynamics of workplace culture, and the way we work.

    Understanding the newest generation of employees

    The business world is constantly evolving to better align products and solutions with the needs and demands of new generations of consumers. Similarly, HR and People leaders must evolve to keep pace with the generational differences that are sure to reshape the makeup of our future workforce.

    Committing the time and effort to gain a deeper understanding of Gen Z’s characteristics, traits, and values will pay dividends for forward-thinking leaders. This can equip you to develop and deploy well-informed strategies that successfully engage a generational cohort dealing with profound uncertainty, anxiety in the workplace, and stress. 

    Growing up in an “always on” tech environment

    Raised on the Internet, smartphones, and social media, Gen Z has only known a world of constant connectivity. 

    Pew Research beautifully captures the dynamic of growing up in an “always on” era of technology: “The iPhone launched in 2007, when the oldest Gen Zers were 10. By the time they were in their teens, the primary means by which young Americans connected with the web was through mobile devices, WiFi, and high-bandwidth cellular service. 

    “Social media, constant connectivity, and on-demand entertainment and communication are innovations Millennials adapted to as they came of age. For [Gen Zers] born after 1996, these are largely assumed.”

    A recent article states that Gen Z spends half its waking hours immersed in screen time. “This cohort of consumers, born in and after 1996, watches an average of 7.2 hours of video a day, which is nearly an hour more than the 6.3 hours spent by Gen X, according to new market research provided exclusively to The Times.” 

    With screen time consuming a large portion of Gen Z’s time and attention, it’s perfectly reasonable to be concerned about the potential effect of far less frequent in-person contact and more long-term isolation.

    Uncertainty is Gen Z's normal

    The newest generation entering the U.S. workforce is experiencing an unprecedented wave of real-world stressors that are impacting their mental wellbeing. These include:

    1. The COVID-19 pandemic, now approaching its third year, has mandated long periods of isolation
    2. The threat of gun violence in the classroom
    3. Higher personal debt accrued in college loans
    4. An unstable economy and threat of recession that serves as a barrier to entry and/or growth potential in the professional field of choice

    These are just some of the potential triggers that can help explain why America’s young adults are most likely of all generations to report poor mental health.

    Gen Z’s first college graduates entered the workforce just months before the pandemic shut the entire world down. Young adults are living at home with their parents in greater numbers than any generation in recent history, and 54% are making this choice because of the current economic climate.

    Many Gen Zers are coping with the distinct possibility of delaying important financial and personal life achievements or milestones, such as college graduation, marriage, car or home ownership, and having children because they simply cannot afford it.

    An elevated level of mental health challenges

    A series of consumer surveys and interviews conducted by McKinsey found that Gen Zers (between the ages of 16 and 24) report the least positive life outlook, including lower levels of emotional and social wellbeing than older generations. 

    Gen Zers (ranging from middle school students to early professionals) are reporting higher rates of anxiety, depression, and distress than any other age group. 

    A survey conducted by The American Psychological Association found that: 

    1. 90% of Gen Z experienced psychological or physical symptoms as a result of stress in the last year.
    2. 70% of Gen Z say that anxiety and depression are significant problems among their peers.

    Deloitte’s 2022 Gen Z and Millennial Survey of over 23,000 Gen Zers across 46 countries revealed that “a worryingly high number of (Gen Zers) still don’t feel comfortable discussing mental health challenges or using the support made available to them, despite increased messaging on mental health at work. Stigma therefore remains a persistent challenge.” 

    3 additional character traits unique to Gen Z 

    Competitive advantages and disadvantages

    While Gen Z is much more savvy with the latest technological advances, they may likely be much less comfortable with face-to-face interactions than any other cohort. 

    Taking it a step further, a phone conversation could also be an unfamiliar practice, and outside of their comfort zone, given the amount of communication taking place via text messages, Snapchat, or Tik-Tok.

    Sources of fear, anxiety, or stress

    This is a generation that grew up with mass school shootings, a spike in sexual harassment, and increased isolation, whether due to the reliance of social media as a communications channel, or a global pandemic stretching into its third year. 

    Unsettling times with more stressors, deep-seeded uncertainties, and time spent alone can result in heightened levels of anxiety and depression

    It’s essential for People leaders to recognize the signs of both, and know how to  initiate and conduct a confidential peer-to-peer conversation. The two most important elements are approaching employees who may be struggling in private, and leading with empathy. 

    Regularly talking about mental health challenges in the workplace can help normalize these conversations, and create a safe space for them to happen. 

    Diversity and inclusion

    Gen Z is the most diverse generation in the nation’s history. Diversity and inclusion is a multi-dimensional priority that extends beyond just race and gender to identity and orientation as well.

    There are tangible benefits for organizations with diverse workforces, including increased innovation, enhanced performance, deeper customer satisfaction, and larger profits.

    What does it all mean for HR leaders and teams?

    Gen Z’s attitude toward the demands of a typical work environment, perspective on the rigors of career advancement (climbing the traditional corporate ladder), and what success looks like varies greatly from Millennials, based on their unique life experiences. 

    A Gen Zer in their mid-twenties has seen the majority of their professional life shaped by a global pandemic that mandated long periods of self-isolation. Considering such a unique and impactful life event, how could you assess the comfort level a new employee may feel in an intimate office setting five days a week? 

    This is just one example of the challenges that await HR leaders welcoming the newest (and soon-to-be largest) generation of young professionals into their workplace.

    How Gen Z is shifting the way we work 

    Gen Z represents the next generation of business leaders, guiding the companies of tomorrow in their transformation to adapt their unique values. It’s our responsibility to provide the very best support system for new and future Gen Z employees now, to help ensure each one reaches their full potential.

    Make no mistake, the emergence of mental health challenges plaguing young adults entering the workforce over the next decade will present new challenges for HR and People leaders. Fortunately, the flags have been raised relatively early, allowing business leaders to proactively develop HR planning and training models that meet Gen Z’s expectation of peer support and wellbeing in the workplace.

    Success is achievable if we embrace an evolution in the way we work. This begins with a workplace culture free from the stigmas surrounding mental health, where greater flexibility, communication, empathy, and understanding reinforce positive outcomes for your Gen Z employees.

    Now, leverage your new understanding of this generation to attract, engage, and support them.  

    About the Author
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    Dave Fisse

    A proud Pacific Northwest native, Dave lives in Los Angeles where the abundance of sunshine fuels his creativity. The University of Oregon School of Journalism provided the foundation for his 15-year career as a copywriter and storyteller. Dave is passionate about advocating for men's mental health, spending quality time with his wife and three-year-old, and watching Oregon Ducks football in the Fall.

    About the clinical reviewer
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