When it comes to changing the way Americans work, size matters: the scale of the company, the breadth of a trend, and even the magnitude of a generation.
Typically, it’s been generations like the baby boomers (ages 58 to 76) and millennials (ages 26 to 41) who have introduced new ideas and protocol updates to the workforce. Millennials, who overtook baby boomers as America’s largest generation in July 2019, are credited with normalizing job hopping and the gig economy, putting a greater emphasis on work-life balance, and forcing more technological adoption in the workplace.
But lately it feels like all we hear about is Gen Z, and their work preferences and attitudes. Right now, they’re the smallest generation in the U.S. workforce, and this population is never expected to surpass millennials in terms of overall size.
Currently, there are just under 35 million Americans estimated to be living in the U.S. who are between the ages of 18 and 25, and even once the youngest members of Gen Z (just 10 years old in 2022) are factored in, there are only about 68 million members of this generation, according to the Census Bureau, compared with 73.4 million millennials.
Right now, Gen Z are the new kids on the block, the bright shiny generation that attracts media attention—as well as the scorn of their elders. But will they be able to really leverage any lasting change to workplace norms and trends?
Attitudes and approaches spill over from generation to generation
These days, it’s hard to tell which attitudes are strictly driven by Gen Z and which by millennials. “Gen Z and millennials have a lot of things in common,” says Meghan Fennell, a director at Deloitte Global who supports diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts.
Younger millennials and Gen Z, for example, both grew up with social media and had the opportunity to share their opinions more publicly—in some cases, forcing companies to be more accountable. That plays a huge role in how comfortable they are in engaging with employers on topics like social and corporate responsibility as well as the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Both millennials and Gen Z also are deeply worried about the state of the world. In the wake of ongoing crises—a pandemic, political unrest, climate change—that’s formative, Fennell says. “It will be interesting to see how that continues to impact their lived experiences over time…and how that connects in with their values.”
The similar attitudes that millennials and Gen Z have toward work and society at large, in many respects, have only been heightened in the wake of COVID-19, says Lindsey Pollak, a leading career and workplace expert.
Pollak says she’s hearing all the time from clients that Gen Z doesn’t want to work in the office; they want flexibility. “I don’t think that’s Gen Z. I think that’s COVID,” Pollak says. “What has happened is ‘Gen Z’ has become code for ‘What the heck happened to young people after COVID?!’”
Over time, employers will need to sort through whether the issues popping up now are because of the pandemic or a generational shift thanks specifically to Gen Z. “I think everyone has been through a different pandemic and a different experience,” Pollak says. And that may play out in a way where workers need more support—but perhaps for different reasons.
“Gen Zers are not fundamentally different human beings,” Pollak says. But they, like millennials, have grown up in a different culture than older, pre-digital generations. “So don’t look at Gen Zers as different people, look at the culture in which they have grown up.”
Employers can’t ignore Gen Z
Despite their smaller size, there’s no getting around the fact that Gen Z is the future workforce, Fennell says. For employers looking to fill entry-level positions, chances are, it will be with a member of Gen Z.
“No matter how small they are, organizations cannot discount [Gen Z’s] values,” Fennell says. Over a third of Gen Z (37%) reported they rejected a job or an assignment based on their personal ethics over the past year, according to Deloitte’s 2022 Gen Z and Millennial Survey.
The events of recent years have also increased their importance in the workforce. It seemed Gen Z were on track to follow in the footsteps of their Gen X parents (still the smallest generation in the workforce) in potentially being a smaller—and often overlooked—generation.
But then the pandemic hit. Now Gen Z is shaping up to be more similar to the so-called Greatest Generation, Americans born between 1901 to 1927 who were involved in World War II, says Pollak, who recently published Recalculating: Navigate Your Career Through the Changing World of Work. The Greatest Generation were a very small generation, in terms of population, but because of what they lived through at a very significant age, they had a very wide impact, Pollak says.
Gen Z is shaping up to have a similar experience, Pollak says. “I don’t think we can discount the fact that Gen Zers were at a very pivotal age—meaning [they were in] middle school, high school, and college—when a pandemic hit,” Pollak adds.
Would the class of 2020 have been so notable if they hadn’t graduated into a global pandemic? Probably not, Pollak says.
Global trends differ from U.S.
Although Gen Z may be the smallest generation in the workforce right now in the U.S., that’s not the case globally. Gen Z made up about a third of the 7.7 billion global population in 2019—just edging out the 31.5% of people around the globe who are considered millennials, according to a Bloomberg analysis of United Nations data.
While population growth may be on the decline in the U.S. and much of Europe, the number of young people in India, Asia, Africa, and Latin America continues to grow. This makes a big difference in how multinational companies approach Gen Z’s attitudes and aspirations.
“I just consulted at a company where the vast majority of their employees are outside the United States, so Gen Z is more impactful to them because most of their employees are not in the U.S.,” Pollak says.
Gen Z is also slightly more vocal and more adamant about their values than millennials are, Fennell says. “There’s an anticipation that they won’t accept the status quo,” she adds, saying that Gen Z is more likely to push for big changes in the workplace—from getting employers to adopt more flexible work models to supporting better mental health on the job.
And many of those trends benefit all employees. So employers may be “well poised” for success if they continue to pay attention to what Gen Z really cares about, Fennell says.