Starting Your Career in a Pandemic: Advantages and Challenges for Gen Z

Young woman of Gen Z age works outside with laptop and coffee

Gen Z will bring diversity, new approaches, and are excited to make contributions. In turn, organizations should be open, flexible, and welcoming.

Generation Z is between the ages of 10 and 25 now. We categorize groups of people by age, not because age is that important, but because they share life stages and experiences.

A significant percentage of Gen Z's lives have been profoundly affected by the pandemic, natural disasters, political and social shifts, and living in uncertainty. As this generation enters the workplace, they have some distinct advantages and unique challenges.

Whenever we want to understand more about how humans are dealing with work, we go talk to Martha Bird, ADP's Business Anthropologist.

Q: We've been talking about tech and Millennials for years now. Is Gen Z unique in their use of tech?

Bird: Hardly any Gen Zer remembers a time before mobile phones. Phones are their televisions, creative performance stages, books, journals, cameras, research libraries, and the place to hang out with friends.

The one thing phones don't seem to be is mail. My 18-year-old niece recently told me she had only sent eight emails in her lifetime. Most of her communication takes place on social media platforms like YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok or through SMS.

The rapidity in which she navigates between platforms, produces entertaining videos, scans do-it-yourself and life hack content, shops favorite brands, and offers comments is incredible to witness for this Gen Xer. The mobile phone is all she knows. Constant customization is what she does and she's efficient about it.

Gen Z can very easily relate to the digital workplace. Communications platforms like Teams or Slack are highly knowable, albeit about productivity rather than entertainment (for the most part). Using these on a laptop (as one typically does in an office setting) however, might seem a bit "old skool."

Technology changes. People adapt. As people adapt, technology continues to change.

Q: What are some other aspects of Gen Z that are unique?

Bird: Research suggests that as people in the global north tend to live longer, our overall developmental strategy has slowed in what the Psychologist Jean Twenge has identified as a "slow life strategy." It's a form of cultural adaptation.

The things a Gen Z teenager might be doing today are quite different in chronological terms from Gen X. I'm a late gen Xer. At 16, I had my driver's license and a full-time summer job at a local restaurant.

Gen Zers often wait to get a driver's license, tend to have fewer responsibilities outside the home and are likely to be less economically independent for longer than other generations at the same age. All of this has been exacerbated by the pandemic.

But Gen Z also has a lot to offer. Remember, there's a lot of work/play going on via technology like self-directed learning, online collaboration on projects, exposure to a greater range of people and thoughts, ongoing self-fashioning, and uncensored expression of personal values.

Q: What can employers anticipate as Gen Z enters the workplace?

Bird: The impacts of technology on Gen Z mindsets and practices is key.

DIY learning via YouTube, collaboration on projects through Google or Office, and exercising self-expression and influence through TikTok and Instagram bode well for their transition to office tech. I also expect they will notice that business tech lacks efficiency and can lack flexibility, transparency, and the authentic self-expression Gen Z is accustomed to and values. Traditional organizational hierarchies may also prove puzzling. They may well make their perspectives clear by questioning the current office wisdom and practices. And that's okay.

Innovation requires respectful friction — everyone has something to learn. Gen Z is accustomed to tools designed for ease and use on mobile. The transition to laptops will feel clunky.

Gen Z is already leaning in on work/life balance and flexibility. Leaders need to take these expectations into account when planning for "the future of the office." Or more to the point, where and how work gets done.

Q: What are some of the challenges Gen Z will have in the workplace?

Bird: Some recent grads have joined companies and never been to the office because of the pandemic. They aren't familiar with the cues, rituals, symbols, space flows, and even the significance of who sits where.

They've also worked for a couple years from home. Some may be happy to get their manager out of their kitchen. Others will never be convinced that they should go to an office.

As people who grew up communicating digitally and through phone screens, there are also some old school skills that will require patience to impart. For instance, how to behave in effectively meetings, 1:1's, interviews and presenting to a broader audience. Many Gen Zers are eager to learn these skills and are willing to practice.

In a recent five-year study by Stanford, Oxford King's College London, researchers were surprised to learn that Gen Z prefers in-person communication over all other available modes.

It's my belief that in-person, human skills matter and they will always matter

Q: What about adding another generation to the workplace? We have Boomers, Gen X, Millennials, and now Gen Z?

Martha: I am not too worried about issues with multigenerational teams. They have their challenges, often around the way things have always been done. But multigenerational teams can also be a source of curiosity, learning and creativity. An awareness that different generations have different cultural references is a great starting point.

Inclusivity requires we get curious about people different from ourselves. We pick up some lingo here and there, watch TikTok videos and are willing to open our minds to the strangeness of the unfamiliar. We suspend our stereotypes. Better yet, we can share what we learned — that's a great team building activity.

Q: If you could implement one approach to helping organizations move forward as Gen Z joins the workforce, what would it be?

Bird: Mentoring — both experienced people guiding less experienced people and reverse mentoring, where younger and more diverse people mentor leaders on how to see and manage biases and communicate more effectively.

Like all of us at one point or another, we need solid role models. And we all need to realize that culture is fluid and practices evolve.

Gen Z will bring diversity, new approaches, and are excited to make contributions. In turn, organizations should be open, flexible, and welcome our new mentors.

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In the post-pandemic world of work, the organizations that prioritize people first will rise to the top. Find out how to make HR more personalized to adapt to today's changing talent landscape. Download: How to Design a People-Centered Workplace