Welcome to the World of Work, Gen Z

Gen Z, born roughly between 1996 and 2012, is graduating from college this month. You heard that right: Millennials are old and you’ve got a new crop to worry about now.

This generation of young people — all 70 million of them — is the most diverse in U.S. history. Some marketers are selling them as the “anti-millennials”: responsible, mature, and private. We are already seeing differences in Gen Z behavior compared to Millennials, but the anti-Millennial? I don’t think so. Each generation builds off the other and certain Millennial trends will be taken to the next level with Gen Z.

Some of my clients have already worked with Gen Z during college internships, and I have been able to speak with them about this next generation of employees. They’ve shared with me what excites them and what concerns them about what they’ve seen so far.

Get excited:

Resourcefulness is at the top of the list. Over the years, I’ve collected hundreds of stories from parents who have children between 11 and 17. They talk about how their children use YouTube  to figure things out themselves, without adult direction. From fixing cars to building model train sets, they know how to find the answers and directions they need. A teacher was recently telling me that her students factcheck her while she’s giving a history lesson. Through a fake smile and cringed teeth, she calls this behavior “super fun.”

In the workplace, managers who have worked directly with interns over the past few years have noticed a shift in behavior. A few years ago, interns asked for a lot of direction and consistently wanted permission before moving ahead. Today, young people feel more comfortable finding answers on their own and moving forward.

Heads up: This generation may be more likely to ask for forgiveness than ask for permission. Set guardrails and provide enough explicit instruction in order for them deliver what you’re looking for.

Be aware:

Intellectual curiosity is a big area of opportunity for Gen Z, particularly within the knowledge sector.

Intellectual curiosity is the ability to wonder, to constantly learn, to never accept a theory or an answer at face value. Intellectual curiosity is when the question is even more important than the answer.

Albert Einstein said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determined to find the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.”

While Gen Z’s resourcefulness makes them great at finding answers and taking action, employers are concerned about a different skill: asking the right question.

I’ve heard complaints from HR professionals, managers and people working in talent acquisition for years about intellectual curiosity and the ability to learn things the hard way. In the era of Google, when it seems like any answer is readily available, the art of asking the right question has become even more important.

In an effort to be efficient, Gen Zers are likely to find an answer and assume that that answer is the answer. Those of us who have been in the world of work for a while know that the first answer is often wrong, incomplete or perhaps even idiotic in retrospect.

To come up with better questions and more innovative results, we have to be able to sit uncomfortably in situations for a while, to just wonder, contemplate options and debate.

Recruiting intellectually curious people will be imperative as Gen Z floods the workforce. Try some of these questions to help gauge their skills:

  • What electives did you take in college?
  • What are your favorite books?
  • What were you doing on your favorite day in your last job?
  • Tell me about a rite of passage your participated in. What did you learn?
  • Tell me about a time when things didn’t go the way you wanted.
  • Tell me something you’ve taught yourself to do over the past year.

Seasoned managers will tell you that Gen Z’s resourcefulness will be a boon but not enough to truly succeed in the workplace. Without the patience to spend time with a problem or the curiosity to explore beyond the task immediately in front of them, teams may find themselves chasing down the wrong paths or missing more strategically successful solutions.

Intellectual curiosity can be fostered through a culture that explicitly values questions, varied interests, wide-ranging discussions and broad bases of knowledge. The time to take a look at your own culture to make sure you’re ready to transmit this valuable skill to Gen Z is now — right after graduation day.