Gen Z: Here's what we know so far

Cam Marston

Cam Marston is an expert and speaker on the impact of generational change on the workplace and marketplace. As an author, columnist, blogger and lecturer, he imparts a clear understanding of how generational demographics are changing the landscape of business. Marston and his firm, Generational Insights, have provided research and consultation to hundreds of companies and professional groups, ranging from small businesses to multinational corporations, as well as major professional associations, for over 20 years.

Some people call them the iGen. Most people call them Generation Z. Whatever you call them, this newest generation is emerging into the adult world, and those who have services to sell, employees to manage or (likely) both need to pay attention. While we don't know a lot about their values yet—and we won't until they start spending their own money instead of mom and dad's—we can draw a few conclusions and make a few predictions. Here are mine.

They immerse themselves—and then they're over it.

This may be stating the obvious, but the digital world is incredibly important to Gen Z. In some ways they almost live online, and their FOMO (fear of missing out) is very real. This was true with the millennials, and it's only escalating with Gen Z.

When Gen Z kids get interested in something, they saturate their experience with it, then dismiss it and move on. I see this especially in boys with video games (my own children included). They get a new game, immerse themselves in it for days while hardly leaving their room, and then say, "All right; I'm done. Time for the next thing."

"This may be stating the obvious, but the digital world is incredibly important to Gen Z. In some ways they almost live online, and their FOMO (fear of missing out) is very real."

They'll be shaped by the pandemic.

While the millennials were dramatically affected by 9/11, Gen Z's outlook will be shaped by the COVID-19 pandemic. It hit them right during that coming-of-age period when people are most vulnerable to experiences that shape their outlook on the world—in fact, they're in the midst of all that right now. Exactly how they will be affected remains to be seen.

They're vulnerable to mental health issues.

While I hate to use the word "delicate" or "fragile," we are seeing some of those qualities in Gen Z's mental health. There's an interesting study I often refer to in my speaking engagements that measures the number of times a 12th-grader goes out with friends in a given year. Between 1976 and 2017, that number has continuously declined. And of course, in the past year and a half with COVID, it will have dropped even more dramatically.

This means Gen Z is a less-socialized group. While some might argue that video games, texting and social media have replaced hanging out in person, I'm not in that camp. Interpersonal interaction is not the same thing as connecting via a screen. We're seeing that teenagers and young adults are isolated and lonely, which leads to some mental and emotional fragility as they grow older.

They need their workplace to be safe.

Employers hiring Gen Z workers need to be aware of this emotional vulnerability and offer a lot of grace. Young employees are looking for a personal relationship with their direct supervisor, so the manager needs to be checking in on a regular basis. Make eye contact. Ask, "How are you doing?" and "What's going on with you today?"

This doesn't mean supervisors take on the role of therapist, but they can foster a personal connection. That way, if things get a little bumpy, employees feel like they have a safe place to express—and hopefully work through—their concerns and misgivings.

In the workplace: Gen X meets Gen Z

Generation X is made up of the "latchkey kids" who had to take care of themselves after school because their parents were working—and often divorced. "Figure it out," they told their children. "I won't be home until later, so it's up to you."

Flash-forward 30 or 40 years and Gen Xers still carry that "figure it out" mentality. The characteristic that helped them make a PBJ sandwich at age 12 is now their mantra in leading employees. "Yes, I could give you the answer," the Xer manager says, "but it's better if you figure it out yourself. You'll own the process and you'll never forget it."

Gen Z, on the other hand, is growing up with people who give them the answer if they like them. If a Gen Zer asks how to do something, parents say, "Here's the answer—or better yet, just let me do it for you." When Gen Z enters the workplace and the boss says, "Figure it out," their first reaction is, "Why do you hate me?"

To keep teams from dissolving, Gen X managers must be aware of how "Figure it out" lands on a younger team member. Second, they need to let the employee know, "I really do like you. Not giving you the answer doesn't reflect my care and concern for you. Rather, I'm trying to get you ready for the next stage of your career. You've got to own these skills, and you'll do that by figuring this out yourself."

They're influential socially.

While Gen Z doesn't have much money, they do wield powerful social influence. That's because our nation follows the trends set by its youth. It may take time for boomers and Gen Xers to pick up these cultural trends, but they inevitably do.

Take TikTok, for example. This video-sharing social network was used primarily by Gen Z, then millennials and now Gen Xers and baby boomers are catching on. (If my Gen X wife left me, it would be for TikTok.)

They've been raised by "drone" parents.

The helicopter parents who raised (and shaped) the millennials were physically present with their children at every possible moment to protect them and enhance each experience. Gen Z, on the other hand, is being parented by drones.

The drone parent—and I include myself in this category—is not physically present, but the kids know we're watching through the apps on their phones, the trackers on their cars and the school portals that show us every assignment. There are innumerable virtual ways to check in with (and on) our kids.

And when we strike, we strike out of the blue. We knock our kids over with shock and awe, usually by blowing up their phone with demands to know, for example, why on earth they're going that fast in their car right now.

The result? This generation feels like they're always being watched, and this will shape them as adults. We don't know if they'll simply accept it as life or rebel by patronizing companies and employers that grant them some anonymity. My guess is they'll accept it and come to want that ability for themselves. The same technology that's watching them now will allow them to watch their pets, their children, maybe their elderly parents. The benefits and detriments are all in the same bucket—they can't escape being watched, but at the same time they like what the technology does for them.

They need purpose and meaning.

A major determining factor in how dollars are spent by millennials—and I predict this for Gen Z as well—is the presence (or absence) of a corporate social conscience. This means it's important for companies to have an identifiable mission stating why they do what they do, who they do it for and how they do it. Those mission-oriented statements are important in appealing to and getting attention from millennials and Gen Z.

Companies also need to proclaim how they're giving back to their communities and doing good in the world. A clear altruistic motive needs to be apparent for young consumers to buy in to a product or service.

For veterinarians and animal health companies, this should be a no-brainer. I'd love to see all these people with their hearts in the right place continue to get good, solid attention that raises the awareness of the greater marketplace. With some focus on the preferences and predilections of younger pet owners and employees, I'm confident that the animal health industry can launch itself into an even more successful future.

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