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Generation Y

The Perfect Entrepreneurial Storm

A few weeks back, I was a mentor for the Girls Going Places Entrepreneurship Program in Minneapolis. I was truly inspired by how business-saavy these young girls were, and being in the generational line of work, I know that today's students and young adults claim the largest volume of start-ups in America.


A few weeks back, I was a mentor for the Girls Going Places Entrepreneurship Program in Minneapolis. I was truly inspired by how business-saavy these young girls were, and being in the generational line of work, I know that today's students and young adults claim the largest volume of start-ups in America.

This business-savvy generation presents great opportunity for some, and great challenges for others. In either case, this generation presents significant change for our business climate as we know it.

An April 27, 2009 article in BusinessWeek refers to this change as the "perfect entrepreneurial storm". Just as the famously independent Generation Y enters business school, the world economy goes to hell in a handbasket.The former blue chips of Wall Street can no longer offer long-term job security and generous end-of-year bonuses, giving this new generation of MBA graduates the impetus to pursue their own business ownership dreams.

If business schools are smart, they will rush to embrace this entrepreneurial generation and give them the tools they need to realize those dreams. The time is certainly ripe. Most colleges had already observed declines in enrollment in nearly every major–with the exception of business.

What can business schools do to unleash this generation's inner entrepreneur? The BusinessWeek article advises them to take a cue from the Tuck School of Business (Tuck MBA Profile) at Dartmouth, which is hosting a new business plan competition, with a $50,000 prize, in an effort to inspire new entrepreneurial ideas and create jobs on both a local and national level.

Or they can follow the lead of schools like the Haas School of Business (Haas MBA Profile) at the University of California, Berkeley. The school's Lester Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation provides students with the expertise to pursue their ideas, and improve their negotiating hand with venture capitalists. It's a great example of how to encourage innovation in both new and established companies, and we need more such schools offering innovative solutions to the entrepreneurial challenge.With their accumulated store of knowledge about how to launch a business, and proximity to the profitable ideas in technology and the sciences, business schools should be the ideal platform to nurture a new generation of entrepreneurs. And this generation—highly social, confident, and networked—seems ready for the challenge.I would add that high schools could take a lesson from Thomas Alva Edison High School's Business Entrepreneurship Program. The Business Enterprise program utilizes work-readiness training, job shadowing, e-mentoring, college site visits, guest speakers, and entrepreneur and high tech clubs to give students a foundation of skills to build upon and transition from a high school setting to post-secondary two-year and four-year educational programs.If more schools provided business training at an earlier age, perhaps America's workforce would be successful at bridging the talent gap and not be in danger of lagging behind Europe, India, Australia, and other countries already preparing their next generation workforce.Certainly the world needs this new generation of business-savvy entrepreneurs—now more than ever before. If the economy is going to recover, their optimism and their new ideas will be a big part of the reason.

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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