Understanding Gen Z for a Smooth Workplace Transition

By Kristine Penning, AgCareers.com (July 7, 2020)


Generation Z: the next frontier. This is the voyage agribusiness is about to embark on. Its continuing mission: to understand this upcoming generation, to harness the unique energies and qualities they will bring to the workplace, and to boldly go where no one has gone before.

While most Gen Z’ers will have little to no idea what Star Trek: The Next Generation is, professionals in the agricultural industry, like those aboard the Starship Enterprise, are about to explore a strange new world as they welcome the next generation into the workplace. You may have heard Generation Z buzzed about for years prior to reading this article. The difference? This time, Generation Z is really entering the workforce.

Although we are just beginning to understand Generation Z’s professional characteristics, their adolescent traits have emerged enough to distinguish potential patterns and anticipated workplace behaviors. As this generation begins to pursue internships and work opportunities, eventually graduating to full-time careers in just a few short years, agricultural organizations are tasked with preparing attractive workplaces for them, as well as understanding how to collaborate in order to “live long and prosper”. An overview of perceived Generation Z characteristics and tendencies sheds light on how we might work with them in the future.


Who is Generation Z?


Like all generations before Z, there is no specific birth range that experts can agree on. The best descriptor of their age is marked by one cataclysmic event: Generation Z is the first generation to have grown up in a post-9/11 world. This puts Generation Z’s birth years in the early 2000s (or perhaps a couple of years prior). This generation is so defined by the September 11, 2001 terror attacks that historian Neil Howe has coined the phrase “Homelanders” to describe them, referring to the birth of the United States Department of Homeland Security (as stated in a 2014 issue of Forbes). A look back at what they have endured in their lifetimes pans images of school shootings, financial crises, catastrophic natural disasters, and violent hate crimes bookended by a global pandemic. Their media consists of The Avengers and songs by Billie Eilish. Their lives are marked by terrorism, social and (particularly) racial unrest, and economic recession, breeding a generation of pessimism, carefulness, and volatility.


These qualities characteristic to Generation Z blend fascinatingly with their savviness toward technology. The first generation to have never experienced a world without the Internet, Generation Z has not had to wait to find answers to their questions, as Google has always been at their fingertips. Their phones have always been smart. Their activities are not confined to a single screen or even two; they multitask on up to five, constantly consuming information and entertainment at the risk of experiencing FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out). Shopping malls are relatively obsolete to the Gen Z’er who would much rather purchase items online.

The collision of Generation Z’s caution and knowledge of technology results in interesting traits. They would rather spend their time gaming inside than pursuing sports and outdoor activities. Attention spans are limited to just a few seconds, forever trying to escape boredom and equating it to something wholly negative. Anxiety and depression are pervasive issues among this generation, with many attributing it to their use of technology and inescapable societal unrest. Continuous screen time and constant contact leave little time to develop empathy, though they crave immediate exchange. While these traits, on the surface, may seem disheartening, there is certainly potential and much to be learned from this voracious and self-directed generation, like there is of all generations, including the more familiar Generation Y.


How Do They Differ from Gen Y?


Millennials, or the latter half of Generation Y (born in the early 1990s), have already been thoroughly analyzed and examined. The labels that older generations tend to associate with Generation Y might include “entitled”, “self-absorbed”, and “overly confident”. These labels are frankly not without base. Generation Y experienced their formative years at a time when it seemed that virtually anything was possible. Dr. Tim Elmore, founder and president of Growing Leaders, a non-profit organization designed to develop emerging leaders, wrote in his 2015 book Generation iY that the life paradigm of Generation Y is that “life is a cafeteria”. The world is their oyster. They spend money rather frivolously and voice their opinions on social media. They crave experiences, adventures, and relationships just as they crave “likes” on their Facebook statuses and Instagram posts. They live for today and feel hopefulness for the future.


Unlike Generation Z, Gen Y grew up in a time of optimism and stable economics. The times and culture that Generation Z has grown up with have certainly shaped them as well. Consider how the Builders, a generation born from the Great Depression, were merely grateful to have a job and conserve their income. Similarly, Generation Z is more cautious with their spending after watching their parents struggle with debt and their older siblings move back home. Gen Z is also protective of their security. Rather than utilizing Facebook and Instagram as Gen Y prefers, Gen Z gravitates toward more anonymous and visual platforms like Snapchat. They would rather communicate with images than words. Overall, Generation Z is more realistic than their idealistic predecessors. They understand that there are larger problems to be faced outside of their own.


While this information might be a breath of fresh air to older generations tiring of Millennial attitude and outlook, the elements of carefulness and cynicism distinctive to Generation Z cannot be overlooked. And while these qualities may come across as challenging, there is also much to be gleaned from their perspectives.


How Will We Work with Them?


Looking ahead to a when you will employ your first full-time Homelander, keeping activity in mind is key. Generation Z, according to Elmore in Generation iY, is most interested in making their hobby their career. They are interested in movement and will lose steam quickly if bored with their work. This might sound difficult in a post-COVID-19 world, but Gen Z’ers desire challenging, meaningful work that allows for creation, for problem-solving, and for autonomy. With this knowledge, it is important to consider connection, imagery, risk, and values when working with the next generation.

The security technology offers is arguably a decisive factor in the lure it has for Generation Z, aside from the fact that they grew up with it. It is so secure, in fact, that it is often preferable to in-person interaction. Remember to balance screen time with in-person experiences and connections to foster cross-generational mentorship and learning. Encourage them to embrace people and to make connections between the problems the world may face, and how people play a role in solving those problems. Since meeting in-person is more difficult due to the current pandemic, make video calls and conferencing a priority. You might perhaps consider weekly “happy hours” via video chat to casually communicate about life outside of work.

As you communicate and interact with Generation Z, remember that they are visual thinkers and learners. Imagery is a powerful language to this generation in the form of live streaming, on-demand media, symbols and icons, GIFs, Tik Tok videos, and competition. It is also a powerful tool for recruiters to keep in their toolbox when approaching Gen Z’ers about career opportunities.


Help Gen Z’ers accept failure and not run from it. Fear is a prominent trait and motivation of Generation Z. Challenge your future workforce to try something they may be afraid of. Invite risk and adventure into their work and their projects. As Generation Z has shown to be capable of hacking and creation, diminish the worse risk of boredom with the risk of innovation against failure. Create an environment in which failure is realistic and even welcome.


On a final note, Generation Z has grown up in an era where morals are constantly questioned. There are more gray areas than there are black and white. Homelanders, as stated before, want to answer the problems they have watched the world face as they grew up while doing what they love to do. Guide those ambitions with sound leadership and firm company values. Encourage passion and aspiration.


Generation Z certainly holds a unique set of challenges, but also much promise. As you explore this new frontier, celebrate what is and cultivate what is possible. As agriculture continues to advance and diversify, Generation Z brings a new and needed perspective to the industry. Learn and encourage as we work together for the best of our shared mission.


About the Author




Kristine Penning works as creative marketing specialist for AgCareers.com, the leading talent solutions provider in the agricultural industry. She resides in Central Iowa and farms with her husband Reece.



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