Since Millennials first started entering the workforce, around 2001, they’ve turned the place upside down. They’ve flattened hierarchies, introduced meaningful work as a valid expectation, made authenticity cool, expanded the role of collaboration, changed the way we interact with businesses, and planted social messaging and the emoji smack dab in the center of any kind of communication. But the oldest Millennials are creeping up on 40, introducing the question of what effect the next generation—known by some as the “post-Millennials”—will have? This demographic is better known as Generation Z, which strikes me as a tad apocalyptic. They’re also referred to as the Plurals, Digital Natives, the Homeland Generation, Net Generation, or the iGeneration. Whatever you call them, they will comprise a third of the population by 2020.
To be honest, no one can successfully predict the impact of an entire generation. And frankly, there’s some confusing data around them. Pundits will tell you that they are frugal and hard-working because the economy was tanking when they were kids, and because their parents now benefit from the hindsight of overindulgent “helicopter parents.” Many Plurals saved up to pay their way to college, often choosing less expensive schools to avoid the debt trap their parents and older siblings fell into. You’ll hear that they are committed to individuality and uniqueness, embracing everyone’s differences. On the other hand, many have no compunction about spending $90 on a pair of Lululemon yoga pants, partly as a social statement, because the brand stands for physical wellness (“and other sweaty pursuits”), including tackling tough social conversations. So, the Plurals are not easily pigeonholed.
But take it from a few experts, and a few Plurals.
No arbitrary rules
On the opposite end of the Lululemon spectrum, the current icon of this generation may be Emma Gonzalez, the shaven-headed, bisexual, Cuban American Parkland shooting survivor who’s not afraid to speak truth to power, not afraid to cry in public, and who helped organize one of the largest protests in U.S. history. (She wears norm core.) Gonzalez’ generation is ethnically diverse; they’re predicted to be the last predominantly white generation. They champion social, cultural, and identity freedom and eschew the labels that society has long used to categorize people. For example, Jaden Smith (son of actor and musician Will Smith) wore a skirt to prom—not specifically in support of transgenders, but as a statement about his personal freedom to wear what he finds fashionable. Odds are, this generation is going to take a mallet to any cultural or work norms that aren’t propped up by a valid reason.
Odds are, this generation is going to take a mallet to any cultural or work norms that aren't propped up by a valid reason.
For Plural entrepreneur and designer Isabella Rose Taylor, that includes the traditionally structured 9-to-5, in-office workday. Taylor graduated high school at the age of 11, got her degree in Fashion Marketing from Parsons School of Art and Design in 2017, and is working on a business degree while building her own design and fashion line in Austin, Texas.
“There’s so much accessibility with Slack or Skype,” Taylor said. “It used to be that work and life were very separate. With social media we’re constantly connected to everyone, so it’s not as necessary that the work setting be so typical.”
Instead of 9-to-5 workdays and regimented work settings, Taylor predicts that people can work where, how, and when they want to except when a decision or collaborative project require they be in the same space.
“I’ve done a lot of my education online,” she said. “I see, instead of a typical workspace, having some aspects of it be more self-paced.”
Keep your corporate ladder
Generations expert Ryan Jenkins quoted a report by Dell that predicts 85 percent of the jobs that will exist in 2030 haven’t been invented yet. The Plurals know this and want to keep their options open by constantly learning new skills, not necessarily related to a particular job, role, or industry.
A report by Dell predicts 85 percent of the jobs that will exist in 2030 haven’t been invented yet.
This generation has watched as new technologies are created, adopted, and discarded at a rapid-fire pace throughout their lives. They are nimble and wary of ruts—skill sets become obsolete every day. What if everyone abandons Instagram next month? You have to know where social media is moving and get there first.
“The one-size-fits-all career paths won’t appeal to Gen Z,” wrote two management professors in HR Executive. “They seek a more customized career path that fits their specific needs and capitalizes on the experiences they have already gained. Gen Z wants to use their talents and experience multiple roles.”
The management professors say companies should create rotation programs that let employees do different jobs, do cross-training, and maybe even start having employees write their own job descriptions.
More than 70 percent of Plurals want to be entrepreneurs. “More than half of Gen Zers say they were encouraged by their parents to seek early employment, and many responded by starting their own companies. They sell crafts on Etsy, build websites for small businesses and rake in cash for clever YouTube videos,” writes Lindsey Pollak for the National Association for Colleges and Employers.
Case in point: Isabella Rose Taylor sold a clothing line to Nordstrom by age 13.
As budding entrepreneurs, The Plurals, like Millennials, are looking for mentorship—not management. Instead of a boss telling them what to do, they want someone to offer personal guidance about how to succeed, implement what they learn, and reach their goals.
Mentorship can go both ways. In her own company, Taylor admitted it would be more comfortable and natural for her to work with people of her own generation because they have a similar way of communicating and functioning. But, she said, the best situation is when people from different generations have to work together and grow from that. “I think it’s good that the generations are having to work with each other. It’s good for us to become more used to structure, and it’s good for them to adapt to more flexibility.”
In fact, some companies have appointed younger employees to mentor the older ones in such arenas as working with collaboration software and social media. It’s called “reverse mentoring.” In the future, management may veer away from policing toward mutual mentorship.
Some companies have appointed younger employees to mentor the older ones in such arenas as working with collaboration software and social media.
The Plural generation is very comfortable with finding the information they want and need for themselves and they value independence and self-reliance. Want to learn a language? Get on Duolingo. Want to learn to play guitar? Watch YouTube. They either have been left to figure things out on their own, or are empowered to by today’s vast digital landscape.
So while Millennials wanted collaboration and open workspaces, 70 percent of a group of Plurals surveyed said they’d rather have their own workspace and they agree with the statement: “If you want something done right, do it yourself.” This attitude may align them more closely with their older colleagues than with the Millennials they’re so often compared with.
Taylor notes that Plurals don’t need to see each other too often. They’re comfortable with a digital relationship. But when asked whether there might be something missing—some energy or chemistry that happens when people are in a shared space—she acknowledged that she and friends have often discussed this.
“I think people underestimate the social aspects of growing up with technology,” she said. “I feel like we are more connected—in the sense that we know what’s going on in the world. But there’s a lack of personal connection. That deeper connection. I think we may have a fear of it as something maybe a little bit foreign. With a digital interaction, you’re able to put up that barrier of a perfect appearance, and I can hide behind that.”
Odds are, Plurals will have a bigger impact on the workplace than Millennials, if for no other reason than Millennials had to break down a lot of calcified structures to create the systems we have now. Current businesses and managers are more accustomed to change and fluidity, and to the transformation brought by technology. Millennials and Plurals are also more closely aligned, in many ways, than the generations that came before them.
A call for empowered customer service
Plurals are also powerful consumers—and as the Plurals enter the workforce, they’ll shape how companies deal with customers because they’ll be the customers. AdAge reported that Plurals gravitate toward brands “that are cool, make them feel in control, listen to them and innovate.” From the study AdAge referenced, “Most Plurals hold strong opinions and expect brands to as well. Seventy one percent of Plurals said that they respect brands that take a stand on political or cultural issues in their advertising.”
In this world, it will be crucial that brands are able to capture and respond to the voice of the customer. Customer service in the Plural world will include making it easy to self-serve through a variety of digital channels, ensuring that customers have choice and control over their experience, with round-the-clock service options to accomplish what they need, when they need it. Companies should prepare to empower people to get what they need without restrictions or excessive amounts of human interaction.
The Plurals who, by their own definition, aren’t so great with people, may need coaching on how to empathize to excel at some aspects of providing customer service. But as consumers, they are also likely to force the omnichannel vision into a reality, requiring brands to seamlessly carry a conversation from a chat to a messaging platform, and so on—whether they’ve talked to a chatbot or a human. Bottom line, there are new kids in town, and they’re undoubtedly going to shake things up.
Susan Lahey is a journalist who lives in Austin and writes about everything that piques her curiosity including travel, technology, work, business, art, sustainability, and cultivating deep, messy, exquisite humanness in the digital age.