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Succession Planning

Ready or Not - Here Comes Gen Z

On Sunday I’m presenting a Learning Lab at #ASAE17 on Generation Z. Still trying to understand the Millennials? Well, ready or not, here comes Gen Z – the oldest who are turning 21 this year.

On Sunday I’m presenting a Learning Lab at #ASAE17 on Generation Z. Still trying to understand the Millennials? Well, ready or not, here comes Gen Z – the oldest who are turning 21 this year. 

Here’s a brief introduction to the next next generation. 

Zs didn’t experience the typical childhood. They are first generation of the 21st century and they came of age during the most disruptive decade of the last century. 

Born 1996-2009, Gen Z’s arrival marks the end of clearly defined roles, traditions and experiences. Marriage equality, war, climate change, terrorism, recession, mobile technology, political conflict, emojis, and the refugee crisis are just a few of the dramatic changes that influenced Zs.

While every new generation has faced its share of disruption in economics, politics, and society, no other generation in history was raised with the ability to connect with every human being on the planet, and no other generation was raised amidst such widespread disruption.

As a result, Z has been taught the skills to successfully defy the norm, not just talk about it. Throughout history, the behaviors and choices of young people have been an indicator of future workplace, consumer, and economic trends. The same is especially true right now.

Think this generation is too young, inexperienced, or immature to assume any real responsibility or influence considerable change? Think again.

Based on our research at XYZ University, we’ve identified six unique, defining influences and behaviors of Gen Zs. 

· Hackerz 

In contrast to Gen Y/Millennials, who have seen a full cycle of boom and bust, Z's have experienced only economic malaise and political and environmental disruption. Raised during the most disruptive decade in history has taught Zs that real and significant change is entirely possible. It’s also taught them the world has many flaws. As a result, Zs have learned to think like hackers—fixing, changing, and creating new solutions and opportunities in hopes of finding a better way to do things.

· Curatorz 

Gen Z isn't just consuming content; they're creating it. In fact, 80% of Zs consider creativity an important aspect of their lives. This is the first generation to spend more time watching YouTube than television, and they also post more videos than any other generation. It’s become an art to create memes, and get content across in videos, emojis, on Instagram, or Snapchat.

· Geekz 

Gen Z grew up in an era in which societal standards began to shift dramatically. Norms were flipped: "gay" was no longer taboo, diversity was mainstream, and bullying became uncool. Suddenly, the nerds were the popular ones, and describing yourself as a “geek” — especially passionate about your favorite hobby, class, or subject matter — was considered cool. Zs revel in their individuality. They prefer to be offbeat and quirky and they are the first generation to ignore branding, marketing, and trends.

· Entrepreneurz 

Perhaps because they're comfortable pushing their creations, opinions, and solutions out into the world, Gen Z is also entrepreneurial. Research shows more than half want to run their own start-up, and 76% percent aim to make their hobby their job. They believe success will come from their network, hard work, and ideas rather than qualifications, and they learned, at a very young age, how to be strategic competitive, and innovative. Zs aren’t afraid to speak up or to fail.

· Heroez

From Harry Potter to Avengers and the Hunger Games, Zs were surrounded by and gravitated towards the hero storyline. Similar to the heroes, Gen Z shuns social conformity and wants to make a difference: 60% want their jobs to impact the world, 26% volunteer, and 76% are concerned about humanity's impact on the planet. Because of Z’s fluency with digital tools and platforms, they have learned to be advocates and to express themselves in creative ways, and they want to use those skills to make an impact.

· Builderz

Sociologists have identified there’s an inclination to build and conserve when times are tough. Zs are definitely driven to build – businesses, campaigns, communities – and at the same time they are conserving. They are more likely to save money than previous generations, and actively seek to conserve resources to prevent climate change. This Build-Conserve continuum hasn’t been in practice for 100 years, and will certainly influence consumerism and participation in dramatic ways.

It would be detrimental for organizations to ignore Z’s influence and determination. This generation didn’t experience the typical childhood, and their approach to adulthood isn’t likely to be typical either. They came of age during the most disruptive decade of the last century, and they will continue to disrupt and innovate – with or without your organization.

Want to learn more? Contact us.

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.

Sarah Sladek

Concerned about declining engagement in our nation’s membership associations, non-profits, and workplaces, Sarah Sladek founded XYZ University, the nation’s first and only generations-focused training and engagement strategy company, in 2002.

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