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Meet Generation Z: Professional Development among the Next Wave Of Retail Workers

Since my first book, Managing Generation X, came out in 1995, our clients, including many in the retail industry, have turned to us for help dealing with generational change in the workplace. Given the high percentage of young people in retail organizations, it should not be a surprise that this usually means they need help understanding and enhancing the professional development of the latest group of young workers entering the workplace. First it was Generation X, who were born from 1965 to 1977. Next it was Generation Y, born 1978 to 1989. Now it is Generation Z, born 1990 and later—the newest “new” young workers.

We have been tracking young people in the workplace steadily since 1993. Since 2008, we have been tracking the emergence and professional development of Generation Z. Gen Zers, born in the ’90s and raised in the 2000s during the most profound changes in at least a century, represent the watershed generational shift of our era. The 22-year-old members of the baccalaureate class of 2012 were born in 1990, the first birth year of Generation Z. In 2014, the bleeding edge of Generation Z was already more than 11 million strong, or nearly 7 percent of the North American workforce, and their numbers have grown dramatically.

This is the emerging workforce, and they will fill up a new “youth bubble” in the workplace in the next few years, just as millions of aging Baby Boomers will retire. Generation Z represents the greatest generational shift the workplace has ever seen. Generation Z will present profound challenges to leaders, managers, supervisors, HR professionals, and educators in every sector of the workforce.

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Defining Generations

How do we recognize a new generation when we see one? Demographers, sociologists, historians, and other “experts” often debate this question, just as experts differ about the exact parameters of each generation.

I’ve been conducting in-depth interviews with young people in the workplace since 1993. Back then, the youngest people in the workplace were the leading edge of Generation Y. While a general consensus has emerged that 1978 is the first birth year of Generation Y, the last birth year has remained an open question.

Many demographers argue that all those born between 1978 and 2000 belong in the same generation, one gigantic “Millennial Generation.” They argue, rightly, that the technology revolution on a macro level and the helicopter-parenting revolution on a micro level are two of the most important formative influences of anyone born in the Western world during these years. Nonetheless, this time frame is simply too broad to define just one generation, because the 1990s and the 2000s are two distinct eras.

How could today’s 16-year-olds be part of the same generation as today’s 38

-year-olds, especially if a generation is defined, not just in biological terms, but also as an age cohort with a shared historical perspective? Looking at technology alone, the acceleration from the 1990s to the 2000s—wireless Internet ubiquity, tech integration, and the rise of handheld devices—amounts to historic change. On the micro level, even the helicopter-parenting phenomenon has redoubled qualitatively in its intensity, from the 1990s late Boomer parenting focus on self-esteem to the 2000s Gen Xer parenting focus on safety and cultivation.

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The result is that those children of the 2000s simultaneously grew up way too fast and never grew up at all. They are privy to everything from a dangerously young age. Their access to information, ideas, images, and sounds is completely without precedent. At the same time, they are isolated and scheduled to a degree that children never have been. Their natural habitat is one of physical atomization and relative inactivity, but total continuous connectivity and communication. They are used to feeling worldly and precocious—highly engaged in a virtual peer ecosystem—while enjoying the discourse at least of protection and direction from parents, teachers, and counselors.

But this story is about much more than the acceleration of technology and helicopter parenting.

Throughout the boom years of the 1990s, we monitored, measured, and documented the shift from Generation X to Generation Y. The ’90s were to Gen Y what the late ’70s and early ’80s were to Gen X. So we were able to see changes in attitude and behavior among the youngest Gen Yers, even when they were just teenagers trickling into the workplace. The workplace of the ’90s was plentiful with opportunity. Unlike today, back then legions of older, more-experienced workers were not competing with teenagers for entry-level jobs in retail and food service. The boundless optimism and LPM 2014-03-25 at 3.34.11 PMself-confidence of Gen Yers in their teenage years, especially their enthusiasm for institutions, was in marked contrast to the cynical loner ethos of Generation X.

Then we followed the first wave of Gen-Y college graduates into the workforce—the class of 2000. Things were great. The dot-com boom had not yet burst. Enron had not yet collapsed. Unemployment was at 3.9 percent. The NASDAQ was over 5,000. The United States was positioned as the sole global superpower; the BRIC countries—Brazil, Russia, India, and China—had not yet broken through. The West was riding high on nearly a decade of peace and prosperity.

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It was that thriving ethos of the 1990s that shaped the professional development mindset of Generation Y—irrepressibly high expectations, undaunted self-confidence, and unrelenting fountains of suggestions and requests.

What a Difference a Decade Can Make

The young people now joining the workforce have been shaped by nearly a decade of war and economic uncertainty and the contrast in their attitudes and behaviors is vivid. Here’s the big picture for Generation Z. They are dubious about their long-term prospects (five years) and fearful about the short-term (tomorrow). Compared with their forerunners over the last decade, today’s young people have much lower expectations, their expressions of confidence are more cautious, and their demands modest.

Can you blame them? Those born in 1990 were 11 years old on September 11, 2001, that infamous day. Ever since then we have been a nation at war. They graduated from high school in 2008, just as the economy was on the verge of collapse and entering the deepest and most protracted recession since the Great Depression. Then they graduated from college amid a stumbling, jobless “recovery” in which unemployment remained stubbornly high, especially among those under the age of 25, and forced to compete for job opportunities with people their parents’ age.

Are the shifts in all of these macro and micro forces of history—economics, geopolitics, technology, parenting—from the 1990s to the 2000s the very sort that makes one age cohort distinguishable from another in generational terms?

It seems the answer is yes. Shaped by the 2000s, those young people entering the adult world today are thinking about their economic future more like children of the 1930s than their immediate forerunners, those children of the ’90s. But Gen Zers are totally plugged in, to each other as well as an infinite array of answers to any question at any time. And their parents tended to the soft touch, as opposed to sending them out to sell apples on the street.

Managing Gen Zers

What should the grown-ups know about this leading edge of Generation Z now descending upon the workplace? Our research reveals five key formative trends shaping Generation Z.

Social Media Is the Future. The information technology revolution is complete. Gen Yers were the transition. Gen Zers are all the way there. They have never known a world in which one could not be in conversation with anyone, anywhere, anytime, and they will shock you with their ability to leverage this connectivity. Managing Generation Z requires mastering the tools of social media. But managers must take control. The key is command-driven use of social media.

LPM 2014-03-25 at 3.35.12 PMHuman Connections Are More Important than Ever. The highly engaged parenting, teaching, and counseling approach to the young accelerated dramatically from Y to Z. Gen Zers are less likely to resist authority relationships than Gen Yers did, but will only perform for individuals when they are engaged in intensive working relationships.

Skill Gaps Are Significant. This generation more than any other will suffer from the growing gap between the highly skilled and the unskilled. The technical skill gap is huge, but the nontechnical skill gap is even more pervasive. On the one hand, managing Generation Z requires a huge remedial effort on broad professional development skills like work habits, interpersonal communication, and critical thinking, as well as a huge investment in remedial technical training. On the other hand, there will be a growing elite among the emerging workforce—those with the greatest technical skills training and also the benefits of personal and professional development opportunities. Retaining those among the growing elite will require increasing differentiation and reward.

They Possess a Global Mindset, Yet Local Reality Attachment. They know more about faraway parts of the world than Gen Yers ever did, but they are also likely to be far less geographically adventurous. They are plugged into the boundless world online, but the key to engaging them in their environment tactically is a relentless focus on the local.

They Represent Infinite Diversity. The emerging Generation Z reflects a whole new way of thinking about diversity and inclusion. Again, Generation Y was the transition, while Generation Z is all the way there. They are less likely to fall into previously recognized categories and much more likely to be mixing and matching various components of identity and points of view that appeal to them. They are ever-creating their own personal montage of selfhood options.

Bringing out the Best in Gen Zers

Based on our working model of professional development challenges and solutions, our research points to seven key strategies for bringing out the best in Generation Z in the workplace.

Promote High-Intensity Relations. What types of peer relationships and what types of authority relationships bring out the best in Gen Zers?
• Small, highly defined work groups with a strong peer leader.
• Tight and well-defined chain of command.
• Teaching-style leadership.
• Customer service-style management.

Provide Continuing Re-education. There is a growing nontechnical skill gap among the emerging young workforce. The basics of personal responsibility, problem solving, time management, and interpersonal communication are often missing in the new young workforce. Employers are finding it is worthwhile to make a heavy investment in building an ongoing professional development culture of highly defined behavioral norms. This requires a process of teaching personal conduct, work habits, and the conduct of working relationships.

Define Laser-Focused Roles. How do Gen Zers best get up to speed and assimilate into new roles? The more structured and defined the roles and responsibilities, the more quickly and effectively Gen Zers are able to take on work and succeed. What are the features of typical early career stage roles that tend to be problematic for Gen Zers? How can redefining roles with laser focus make the difference between success and failure? Consider two approaches—narrow specialization and a system of workplace inclusion ranks with corresponding criteria, testing protocols, and rewards and responsibilities attached to each rank.

Take Control of—at Least Some of—the Virtual Ethos. What is the impact and what are the challenges with the transformational reality of social media? We are studying its impact and the challenges posed to employers. Meanwhile, we have been piloting solutions that are based on command-driven approaches to social media in the workplace in which employers can use social media effectively while reducing the downsides for use in recruiting, on-boarding, ongoing communication, training, professional development, performance management, and knowledge transfer. Command-driven social media means the employer controls who is in the group, what is discussed and when, and the employer is able to supervise and participate in the online community.

Plan for Global Outreaching and Local Nesting. What are the opportunities and pitfalls for Generation Z presented by globalization? The flip side is the intensive Gen-Z focus on tactile control of the local environment and the intensive gravitational pull of the local for Gen Zers. How can employers use the Gen-Z focus on the local to increase engagement? How can employers use the reality of non-geographical connections to increase reach when it comes to recruiting, retention, innovation, sourcing, and sales?

Build Continuity though Short-Term Renewable Loyalty. There is a strong continuation of the trend toward highly transactional employment relationships. Gen Zers seem to be responsive to clearly defined exchanges of time/tasks for directly calibrated rewards. The most effective way to drive professional development and performance and maintain ongoing working relationships with Gen Zers is for managers to explicitly negotiate performance and reward on an ongoing basis in a transparent open exchange.

Retain the Superstars for the Long Term by Building Dream Jobs. There is a steady exacerbation of the growing divide between the “most valuable” new young workers and everyone else. No matter how bad the job market may be for some, there is a growing elite among the young workforce who will be in much greater demand than supply. There is a growing premium on those with skills in greater demand than supply, especially those who have availed themselves of personal and professional development opportunities.

The key for employers to recruiting and retaining the “most valuable” young rising stars, at the high end of the talent-skill-effort spectrum, is going to be the ability to create dream jobs for those superstars. What are the dream job elements? How can employers make dream jobs for young stars that also make sense for the organization? Dream jobs are always contingent on ongoing performance but built on a long-term understanding of tremendous work conditions, rewards, and flexibility for the superstar in return for consistent superstar contribution with the intention of maintaining a long-term working relationship.

Read Not Everyone Gets a Trophy: How to Manage the Millennials” for more on Bruce Tulgan’s latest book,

This article was originally published in 2014 and was updated September 26, 2016. 

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