Ready for Generation Z in the workplace?

Sarah Johnson
Sarah Johnson

It’s graduation season and with it comes a new cohort of high school and college graduates joining the work force. Last year, a total of about 2,600 students graduated from Mesa County District 51 high schools and Colorado Mesa University.

This year marks the first big wave of Generation Z, defined by the Pew Research Center as those born between 1997 and 2012. If employers want to maximize the benefits these young people bring to the workplace, they must start by understanding the unique set of skills, priorities and characteristics of Gen Z.

First, they’re not Millennials 2.0. Gen Zers are separated from other generations, including their Millennial predecessors, by two defining historical contexts: They’re the first generation to have grown up with ubiquitous technology and mobile applications and don’t remember the pre-9/11 world. 

The result is a post-recession generation that’s more competitive and motivated by financial security than Millennials, but also values diversity, inclusion and technology balanced by human interaction. This has implications for employee recruitment, retention and the physical work environment.

Members of Generation Z saw their parents struggle during the Great Recession. More of them grew up being frugal than Millennials, many of whom were in college by the time the financial downturn hit. Gen Zers are typically realistic about financial matters with a healthy dose of skepticism regarding debt. For them, financial incentives and the likelihood of career advancement could be more appealing than they were to Millennials, who are characterized as jumping from job to job and collecting experiences over seniority.

Training opportunities are likely to be valued by Gen Z, too, particularly since some shy away from college and its accompanying debt. In a interview, Gen Z expert Ryan Jenkins said, “Gen Z is seriously considering forgoing a traditional college education to go work for a company that provides college-like training. In fact, 75 percent of Gen Z say there are other ways of getting a good education than going to college.”

Members of this generation have been digitally connected their whole lives. They embrace technology quickly and easily, a trait that could lead to creative tech solutions for workflow and productivity challenges in an organization.   

As the first truly “digital natives,” members of Gen Z also could be presumed to prefer technological approaches to all others. In an article for, Jenkins noted a survey of 300 first-year college students found 72 percent reported they prefer face-to-face contact to other forms of communication at work. Similarly, an Ernst & Young survey of Gen Zers indicated 92 percent prefer to work either solely with innovative co-workers or with a combination of co-workers and tech.

Gen Zers might prefer to work independently much of the time and won’t be as likely to embrace teamwork and collaboration as Millennials. Unfortunately, a 2018 report by global health services company Cigna indicates Gen Zers feel the loneliest, which can have a distinctly negative effect on physical and mental health, job satisfaction, productivity and overall quality of life.

Employers can take steps to respect the work style of Generation Z and mitigate the loneliness and isolation they report by designing a workplace that encourages interaction while still offering private areas for independent work. Support for informal workplace connections can be helpful, too, At Mesa County Public Health, for example, we encourage walking breaks and provide healthy snacks in the break room at specific times of the day.

Helping managers recognize, understand and take advantage of unique generational traits is essential right now when many workplaces are likely to have five different generations working together. Each generation has unique characteristics and priorities that can be optimized for the benefit of business.

Ultimately, however, many of the elements of a positive and productive workplace cross generational lines. Open communication, constructive feedback and recognition for a job done well remain important no matter the age of the employee.