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Generation Y

Crisis At Work: Students Lack A Good Work Ethic

There is a crisis in the work force today: youth are not learning a good work ethic during their school years. This especially applies to inner-city schools where funding is limited.

There is a crisis in the work force today: youth are not learning a good work ethic during their school years. This especially applies to inner-city schools where funding is limited.


Here’s an example:


The Urban Poverty and Family Life Study did a survey of 179 Chicago employers in 1988 and found that they shied away from hiring inner-city kids because of a poor work ethic, low job dependability, a bad attitude, lack of basic skills, and low interpersonal skills. A 2004 study by “Entrepreneur” trade journal confirmed that this is still the case with inner-city kids.


Clearly, this is very damaging to the workforce and places the foundations of our economic system in peril. But how can we remedy it?


I think that in order for any solution to be viable, there must be two things in place: high expectations, and practical lessons. It is an unwritten rule that kids will achieve—in general—what you expect them to achieve.



When I was in high school, my parents set the expectation that I wouldn’t get involved in drugs or underage drinking—and I never did. However, if they had ever doubted that I could resist those pressures, I’m certain I would have given in.


Of course, high expectations aren’t enough. You also need a program in place that will teach and reinforce behavior. After all, we don’t learn by osmosis, but by practice.


One program that can be a good model is “Voyager: Direction for Learning and Careers” at Thomas Edison High School in Minneapolis. It was started in 1994 by the Minneapolis Regional Chamber of Commerce and is currently only offered at Edison.


Of the approximately 900 students at Thomas Edison, about 85% participate in the free and reduced lunch program, and many come from single parent, working families. The students represent about 30 cultures and speak 30 to 40 languages. Many are second-generation Americans.


The Voyager program is a two-year leadership program that prepares students for the working world by providing career-oriented leadership training. It teaches students the very “soft skills” (such as a team mentality, a good work ethic, interpersonal communication and leadership skills) that are needed in real life work, said Shirley Poelstra, Career Experience Coordinator at Edison. It also builds students’ leadership, sense of responsibility and self-confidence.


So, how does it do that?


There are approximately 70 juniors and seniors in the program who were selected as sophomores. Each group of students takes a business class or seminar together during the week.


“When they go to that class they know the students and they’re a team,” Poelstra said in an interview. “That holds them accountable, because they don’t want to let the team down.”


Each student connects with a mentor at Target Corporation. They also participate in career-building events, receive college essay and resume writing advice, and must give in-class speeches to compete for president and vice president positions. Additionally, all students must complete 50 hours of community service.


“Now it’s their turn to give back,” Poelstra said. “Colleges and scholarships will look for that as well.”


Voyager also sets high expectations for the participants. The program administrators call each student on to his or her full potential and help them achieve goals.


“When you set the bar and expectations high, students will follow that,” Poelstra said.


The caliber of the students who participate in this program demonstrate its real success. Poelstra said that it is raising up leaders in the school and community. Ninety-five percent of Voyager participants pursue post-graduate studies. Also, Poelstra credits the Voyager program, in part, with keeping gang activity to a minimum.


This year, six Voyager students will attend the on October 20, 2009. Their participation will be co-sponsored by DreamWorks Animation and Limelight Generations.


Poelstra said she hopes the students will “see what the expectations are of employers for their generation of kids. It’s an opportunity to network, and an opportunity also for the business people to see who the Voyager kids are.”

Zs came of age in an era of disruption

In many ways, it’s symbolic that Generation Z is named after the last letter in the alphabet because their arrival marks the end of clearly defined roles, traditions, and experiences. After all, Gen Z is coming of age on the heels of what has been referred to as the most disruptive decade of the last century. America has become an increasingly changing and complex place.

For example:

  • ‍Zs were born into a “modern family era” in which highly involved dads help out at home, and the nuclear family model (two parents, married, with children) represent only 46% of American households.
  • ‍Zs are the first generation to be born into a world where everything physical, from people to places to pennies, has a digital equivalent.
  • From the time they were infants, Zs had access to mobile technology. As a result, their brains have been trained to absorb large amounts of information, and Zs are especially adept at shifting between skills and subject matter.
  • Zs tend to have crystal-clear memories of sitting up for the first time at six months old because they can easily and quickly reference the photos and videos their parents shared on social media or saved in the “cloud”. 

Members of this generation have undoubtedly been shaped by crisis and disruption. This generation will largely be responsible for confronting the aftermath of the Great Recession, high youth unemployment, the effects of climate change, terrorism, energy sustainability, and more. These dark events have undoubtedly made this generation more cautious and pragmatic, but they have also provided this generation with the inspiration to change the world – and their grit will likely allow them to do it.

Coming of age during disruption means that most Zs will be comfortable being the disruptors. While Millennials tend to be collaborative and innovative, this generation tends to be sincere, reflective, thick-skinned, and self-directed, and will likely approach work in much the same way.

Zs were raised to be competitive

In the era following World War II, Boomers (1946-1964) were born and eventually became the wealthiest, most prosperous generation in history. Raised to aspire for the American Dream, this very large generation moved into positions of power and influence, and served as the workforce majority for 34 years.

With the American Dream alive and well, Boomers had no reason to teach their children, mostly Millennials, about competition. Instead, they taught them to focus on academic achievement and to be team players because if everyone works hard, everyone can win.

Enter Generation X (1965-1981). In contrast Boomers, Xers came of age during a time when change and economic and political uncertainty began to take root. They have lived through four recessions, struggled with debt and economic decline most of their lives, and watched the best educated and accomplished generation of all time (Millennials) graduate during the Great Recession and become the most debt-ridden generation in history.

Gen Xers can be defined by their independence and anti-status quo approach to life, and they have taught their Gen Z children to be competitive, believing only the best can win. They have encouraged their children to be realists, finding something they are good at and aggressively pursuing it.

Xers have raised their Zs with an intense focus on competitiveness -- in academics, sports, and other activities. This approach to parenting has many implications, but one stands out in terms of business: Gen Z is likely to lead.

Millennials in the workplace created and aggressively advocated for collaborative work environments. In fact, their aversion to leadership has been so strong, some Millennials sought out companies that boasted boss-free or team-managed workplaces.

In contrast, Zs have been raised with an individualistic, realistic, and competitive nature. They have been taught the skills to successfully defy the norm. This means we’re going to see the pendulum shift away from collaborative workplaces towards a widespread demand for, and pursuit of, leadership development.

Zs are career-focused.

While Millennials have been criticized for their “delayed adulthood”, Gen Z is showing signs of “early adulthood”. Educators and parents often describe this generation as being more serious and contemplative about the world. Zs are thinking about their career paths and exposing themselves to career training at an earlier age than Millennials. It’s probable that some of this early onset of adulthood is caused by parents, who are pressuring their children to be competitive and successful and to avoid the debt that plagued both the Gen Xers and Millennials.

The numbers from our global research found 46% of Gen Z said they know what career to pursue and 51% have taken a class at school focused on their career interests. Forty percent joined an extracurricular program (team, club) based on their career interests.

Zs are seeking financial security. 

Zs have been shaped by the aftermath of the Great Recession. They watched Millennials become debt-ridden and are concerned about falling into the same trap. XYZ University’s survey results show 66% of Zs said financial stability is more important than doing work they enjoy, which is the exact opposite of Millennial survey results.  Also, 71% of survey-takers have a paying job.

Zs value leaders who are positive and trustworthy.

When presented a list of leadership traits, Zs ranked positive and trustworthy the highest. While Millennials and Gen Zs both value trust in a leader, Millennials usually cite collaboration and vision as most important. In other words, Millennials focus on the outcomes leaders inspire, whereas Zs are more likely to consider leaders’ attitudes and personalities. To Z, what leaders encourage others to do isn’t as valuable as how they make them feel.


Zs want to be challenged.

Both Millennials and Gen Zs place a very high value on feeling challenged and appreciated in the workplace. However, according to our survey results Millennials rank appreciation slightly higher than challenge, whereas Zs rank feeling challenged slightly higher than appreciation.

Time will tell how Zs go down in history, but we know this generation’s influence on history will be unlike any other.


Does your organization have what it takes to engage the next generation? Take this quiz to find out.


Sarah Sladek is CEO of XYZ University. Our generational intelligence can assist you with engaging and retaining young talent and members.

Melissa Hackenmueller

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