A Harvard career adviser explains how managers can bridge the Gen-Z generation gap at work

 

By Shalene Gupta

Gen Z is still young, but this demographic cohort has already weathered a global pandemic, rampant inflation, and the ever-present rise of climate change. The oldest among them have had to enter their first jobs while the world was adjusting to remote work and the ramifications of COVID-19, not to mention endless worker shortages, a youth mental health crisis, and unprecedented levels of workplace burnout.

 
 
A Harvard career adviser explains how managers can bridge the Gen-Z generation gap at work

Fast Company recently spoke with Gorick Ng, author of The Unspoken Rules: Secrets to Starting Your Career Off Right, about the Gen-Z workforce, typically defined as people born between 1995 and 2010. Ng also works as a career advisor at Harvard, specializing in first-generation and low-income students. Ng has spoken to thousands of Gen-Zers and employers. He shared with us his insights on what Gen Z is facing at work and how both Gen-Zers and managers can bridge the generational gap.

Fast Company: What attributes make Gen Z unique in the workforce?

Gorick Ng: To begin with, whenever we hear about the term ‘generational differences,’ we’re inclined to talk about differences instead of what we have in common. What research has shown time and time again is that young people today aren’t that different from the young people (October 30, 2022). What we’re talking about is the difference in perspective of someone in their twenties versus their sixties. What Gen Z wants is not that different from other generations.

 
 

That said, they are shining a light on the importance of diversity and not afraid to vote with their feet. I’ve spoken to a number of Gen Z who say that before they walk into an interview or sign a job offer, they look at a company’s leadership page to see if anyone else looks like them. If the answer is no, they are tempted to look elsewhere.

FC: What kinds of generational gaps is Gen Z facing in the workplace given the context of the pandemic?

GN: What I see is the rift between what is expected and what is taught in school has widened. I’ve visited high school and university classrooms during the pandemic and seen the instructor teaching to a wall of black backgrounds with names—and who knows what’s going on off camera? Are the kids sideways or in their pajamas? I was talking to one law firm where every intern starts in the mail room and three of the 10 are then hired on. The mailroom is a test of your competence, commitment, and compatibility: If you can be trusted in the mailroom, you can be trusted with more. But the interns didn’t realize that, and people working remotely didn’t realize that. One showed up to a Zoom meeting in their pjs lying down. The higher ups were thinking, what makes you think that’s acceptable? But this is also how the interns approached school, and if you don’t have a parent or mentor to explain what the expectations are, you don’t know any better.

 

The pandemic really damaged the infrastructure for teaching the cultural norms of an institution. When students came back to Harvard, staff realized over half of the student population has been educated remotely and doesn’t know what the Harvard experience is. We can see that in the workplace too. I’ve seen organizations that have had so much turnover during pandemic that those who know what the culture was prior to the pandemic are outnumbered by those who don’t know—and those who know are very senior.

FC: What should organizations do in the face of this rift?

GN: I believe the organizations that will win out in the future are the ones who put talent first. In an era where worker well-being can be so transparently analyzed on websites like Glassdoor and Fishbowl and more, as well as social media, the companies that will win, have the best brands, most engaged workforce—are the ones who care about employees’ needs and wants.

 

When I survey students on what they want from their careers, they overwhelmingly tell me they want financial stability and work/life balance. Only about 2% of any student audience I survey wants to climb the corporate ladder.

FC: What is one tip you have for managing Gen Z?

GN: Ask for their feedback. Understand what motivates them. One of the most underrated conversations that I wish more managers would have is what are your goals, what brought you here, what would make this a more meaningful experience for you and where do you see yourself in the future? How can we craft an experience where we can build your career together?

 

FC: On the flipside—I know you wrote a whole book about this—what advice do you have for Gen-Zers starting their first jobs?

GN: When I ask managers across industries and job types about their biggest complaint toward early-career hires, they often repeat the same word—”entitlement”—in the form of expecting to become CEO after merely showing up to work for two months. 

On the flipside, I’ve talked to hundreds of managers, leaders, and executives, and when I ask them what is the one characteristic that’s lacking in the workforce and can set someone apart, they say an ownership mindset. That means not just looking at a problem and assuming it’s someone else’s but looking at it and saying, Hey, what can I do? It speaks to a mindset we’re not taught in school. 

 

School is about keeping up. Work is about stepping up. It means removing the word ‘just’ from your vocabulary. You might ‘just’ be an intern, but you were hired to help the team achieve its goals. You might have been asked to clean up the spreadsheet, but your mandate is to provide insights that makes the team say wow. If you are ‘just’ sending emails, your mandate might be closing a sale. If you are ‘just’ editing a blog post, your mandate is to sell an idea. Think, why am I being asked to do this? What’s the broader objective? Figuring out what matters to those who matter can really separate those who are just clocking hours to someone who will be a future employee.

Moreover, you can align yourself with work that matters. The more your work matters the more you matter to the organization. Managers often don’t delegate well, they toss work over the fence and expect you to figure it out—most people end up taking those instructions at face value and then getting stressed out when their work isn’t making an impact.

In school you learn by reading what’s assigned and listening to who is on stage. In the real world, you learn by googling, meeting people, and asking questions. In school it’s all about finding the right answer, which is in the back of the text book. In the real world, it’s not a matter of finding the right answer; it’s about giving a compelling argument.

Fast Company

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