Gen Z’s Effect on Your Workplace

There’s a lot of generational coverage out there (enough for us to have been covering it for four years), and I take most of it with a grain of salt. So much of what we call a “millennial trend” is either a life stage — boomers acted no differently a few years after graduating college — a sign of our economic times, or a depiction of the new way of work — for example, wanting flexibility isn’t a trend unique to Gen Y because today’s world of work and technology enables that.

Recently studies have been flooding my inbox on Gen Z, and I question how much we know about this generation— many are awkward middle and high-schoolers and barely know themselves, but slowly I’m realizing there’s much to be discussed. My brother’s a high-school freshman, and he’s studying for his first round of finals. Last week I asked him if he was prepared and had taken thorough enough notes, and he said he was watching YouTube videos he searched himself to relearn lessons from earlier this semester. He said it’s how him and all of his friends study. Yes, the world of work (and education) is changing, but it’s partially because of young students and leaders and how they’re reframing our world.

Thomas Koulopoulos, author and chairman of Delphi Group
Thomas Koulopoulos, author and chairman of Delphi Group

I interviewed Thomas Koulopoulos, chairman of Delphi Group and co-author of “The Gen Z Effect: The Six Forces Shaping the Future of Business” to find out more about this generation and what we can expect in the future. Below are edited excerpts from our interview.

A lot of data is coming out on Gen Z, but they’re still so young. Many are in high school. How do we know the information that’s coming out on their future work and leadership styles is accurate?

Koulopoulos:There is a great deal of speculation about how Gen Z will work and much of it is based on looking at the way they currently collaborate in their education and their play. When we wrote “The Gen Z Effect” we broke down the behaviors of Gen Z into six forces that seem to be most prominent in shaping a Gen Z future: changing demographics; hyperconnectivity; a shift from affluence to influence; slingshotting and mass adoption of technology; global universal education; and lifehacking — the determination to short circuit obstacles and impediments to progress.

Among these forces, there were some obvious trends that were on an irreversible trajectory. For example, the hyperconnectivity that Gen Z will experience is increasing at a rate that is just about as predictable as Moore’s law. In each decade since 1960 the number of computing devices has increased by one order of magnitude. Today we have about 10 billion interconnected devices. By 2020 we are projecting 100 billion. If you follow that trend line Gen Z will be living in a world with one trillion interconnected devices. The technological dimensions of this are certainly interesting as they describe a world in which every object is somehow connected, but they are nowhere near as interesting as the behavioral changes. The total number of connected computing devices has been increasing by one order of magnitude each decade since 1960 (Figure 1).

So, can we project Gen Z’s future of work and leadership styles? It’s a daunting task because we are describing a behavioral shift that has no precedent in human history. Consider that at some point during the next 10 years, and for the first time ever, humanity will be totally connected and all of the world’s inhabitants will have the opportunity for a university education. That alone will create an entirely new set of leadership challenges and opportunities.

Figure 1: Number of connected computing devices
Total number of connected computing devices
Source: Delphi Group, 2014

That being said, what are your predictions? How will Gen Z change work?

Koulopoulos:It’s important to keep in mind that when we talk about Gen Z, we are not just talking about people born after 1995. One of the cornerstones of the book is that going forward it will make little sense to put generational chasms between people—not that it ever did, but the increasing number of generations in the workplace means that we will be dealing with not just two or three generations but five or six simultaneously. Gen Z will need to transcend the traditional notion of generations and rather then be defined strictly by age, use shared behaviors as the common ground. It used to be that technology defined the generation you belonged to, especially in an enterprise setting. No longer. We are moving towards a single set of unifying technologies that we all use in our work and in our lives.

Given that cross-generational landscape, several things are fairly certain.

First, Gen Z will work longer. In our research we saw a dramatic change in attitudes towards conventional retirement. Among native Gen Zers, more than 50 percent told us they would never retire. Across all age groups, the number is still an impressive 30 percent. So expect work to include collaboration with an unprecedented range of age groups.

Second, Gen Z is hyperconnected and fundamentally terrified of being disconnected. They believe that the value of being always on is always greater than whatever perceived toll it takes on solitude and privacy. This sounds maddening to those of us who are not Gen Z by birth. But we are far too quick to judge. When I tell people that over 80 percent of Gen Z natives (born after 1995) sleep with their mobile device (75 percent for Gen Y and 33 percent for boomers) they are typically aghast at such aberrant behavior. Then I ask them if they have a landline in their bedroom. Nearly every boomer does. Will they answer it if it rings in the middle of the night? Of course they will. Why? Because it must be an important call. However, did their parents or grandparents have a phone on their nightstand? You see, behavioral change may be driven by technology, but once the behavior is established we find myriad reason why we can't live without it. Primary among these is that the behavior of connectivity creates security and certainty in an increasingly volatile world. The result is that the way we work will no longer be bound by time and place. It will instead be integrated as part of our lives. You may not like it at first, but if you want to play with Gen Z you will have to use that playbook.

What about their values? Do you think those are different than generations before them?

Koulopoulos:When we talk about generational value systems, it is always tempting to bring up ways in which new generations and new behaviors erode existing values. But most often that is a feeble attempt to dismiss new behaviors that we don't yet understand in a new context. For example, Gen Z has deep contempt for intellectual property. More than 75 percent believe that the patent and trademark system is fundamentally flawed. More than half told us that it will eventually be abolished. (By the way, 20 percent of 1,000 respondents across all ages told us the same thing). To those of us in the workforce for several decades, that sounds like an ill-informed and naive point of view. But to Gen Z natives, who have grown up experiencing the power of sharing, openness and transparency in how they live and play, trying to lock up what you know is always less effective than combining what you know with the knowledge of others. 

In their model of the world, in which innovation moves much faster than it ever has, the speed of that sort of collaborative innovation is always more effective than the closed model the rest of us have grown up with. A great example is a website called 99designs on which graphic designers compete for work. The requestor posting the job will get responses from dozens of submitters, each of which can (at the requestor’s option) see the designs submitted by everyone else! If you’re a boomer that immediately seems untenable. Who would possibly participate in that sort of a marketplace? The answer is about 980,000 designers who use the site and who get that speedy sharing trumps solitary genius. 

How will this generation change leadership, specifically? How will they define being a leader, leadership and leadership development?

Koulopoulos:Gen Z is not just the next generation — it’s the biggest experiment in human behavior ever conducted. We are effectively giving every human being who has reasonable intellectual ability an opportunity to be part of the global workplace and marketplace. At the same time, we are opening the doors to transparency for organizations and nations, and their leaders. This leaves no place to hide for inept leaders.

Leadership under this intense level of scrutiny may be considered by many to be nearly impossible. But that’s only because it’s not the model that people who think that way have grown up with.

By the time Gen Z finds its way into leadership roles, they will have been fully indoctrinated in a new model of collaboration, sharing, transparency, connectivity, learning and influence. Might this create decephalized organizations in which leaders are no longer needed? In some cases, it absolutely will. We can already see these sorts of organizations — from Wikipedia to Anonymous — which seem to function just fine as a swarm of individuals with a common cause.

However, Gen Z is not a Death Knell for leadership. The need for a person with the ability to influence and create gravity for others will not fade away, in fact, just the opposite is happening. Influence is becoming something which can be earned and leveraged by people who may not have the right pedigree, resume or access to capital. In many ways Gen Z is hacking leadership by short circuiting traditional paths to the top. In the process we believe that it will usher in the democratization of leadership by providing avenues to leadership that would have been closed to those with great ideas and great vision but otherwise lacking in resources.

This article originally appeared in Diversity Executive's sister publication Chief Learning Officer.