My People Have Arrived! A Warm Welcome to Gen Z

When I was 12 years old, my father and I talked about jobs as we headed out of the grocery store. I was making the point that I wanted to work at a job I liked. He informed me that every job would have its upsides and downsides. Then, he laughed when I told him that I agreed, and I would seek one with more upsides than downsides. I always admired my parents’ willingness to do whatever it took to put food on the table, but I wanted more options than they had. I wanted fulfilling work.

In college, an older student asked what I wanted to do. “I want to do something I love and get paid for it.” He smirked and said, “yeah, isn’t that everyone’s dream?” Later, one of my professors asked me what I wanted to do. I again explained that I wanted to pursue a career that would offer flexibility, fulfillment, and freedom. She said, “I wish you the best,” in the diplomatic tone that signified, “good luck with that.”

In one of my first “real jobs,” I had an opportunity for a position that was of high status, excellent pay, and great benefits—a position far beyond what was available to most people my age. I knew that it would suck my soul dry, underutilize my innate talents, and provide a set of golden handcuffs that would later be difficult to break. When I told my mentors, parents, and older friends about my decision to pursue a more fulfilling option, I expected them to support me. The only response was, “you’re turning down a great opportunity. It’s a lot of money.” I turned to people in my faith community, expecting that surely since they espoused the need to shine a light and make a difference, they would understand. They didn’t. I had never felt so alone, but I followed my gut and took a different path.

I loved my new job. I was excited about the learning opportunities in the field, the ability to make a difference, and the fabulous team with whom I worked. At a conference, I said as much in a group setting. Later, I heard one of the women in the bathroom talking about me, ‘oh to be young and have that kind of enthusiasm”…but in a tone that insinuated, “she’s so naïve, give her time, and she’ll see the real world (and be cynical like me.).”

Throughout my early career, I worked hard, to the exclusion of my health. I learned that I couldn’t do a traditional 8’oclock if I wanted to manage competing health and work priorities. So in my late 20s, I brought up the need for a flexible start time at an interview. During that time, it was unheard of to push the envelope of work flexibility during interviews. My boss was fantastic and supported innovation and fresh thought (he’d be perfect for Gen Z). I did my best to be a great employee and team player. In return, he gave me flexibility as I pursued the growth and development opportunities to further my career.

During my time as a counselor and career coach, I heard a theme in the stories of people who sought me for advice. When I was in my 20s, I listened to women in their 60s who had followed traditional paths and woke up wondering if they’d lost the best years of their lives. Later, I worked with executives who had become successful and unfulfilled. Their work owned their lives, and it was terrifying to transition mid-late career. Over and over again, I heard, “My job has no meaning, but I’m good at it. I earn a lot of money. What if I’ve wasted 20 years? What do I do next? What if I fail?”

Needless to say, when younger millennials came on the scene, seeking to find meaning in their work, the chatter around me made me laugh. “What is wrong with young people today? Isn’t a paycheck enough anymore? Can you believe it?” As time passed, people figured out that the millennial generation split into two segments and that the frustrations associated with one part of the age group didn’t generalize to everyone. People figured out that you will have exceptional employees and horrible employees in every generation. The chatter died down a little until Gen Z came on the scene.

“What?!!!! They want flexibility? They want meaning? You mean they want us to take a stand on social issues? They want promotion opportunities? They are on their phones ALL the time. How do we handle this?”

To be fair, I work with high achievers. Thus, I believe I get the cream of the crop from every generation—people who want to learn, grow and make a difference. At the same time, I suspect that those motivations exist in many people. We may approach life differently, but that doesn’t change our underlying intentions, fears, and dreams.

Last night, I stopped at a makeup store and asked, “Is anyone here under 30? And if so, what do you find to be the most annoying thing about old people?” I expected to hear some criticism about outdated language or behaviors. It was sadder than that. “The way they judge me…my jewelry, my body, my choices about how to make money.” Close to the end of the conversation, I thanked them and noted that I’d asked because I was tired of hearing all of the negatives from the business world and wanted to highlight the positives.

The older person present said, “It’s not about the specifics of young people. They (the people complaining about the new generation of employees) have a system with which they are comfortable, and they don’t want to upset the status quo.”

Her comment makes me wonder if generation after generation has the same argument, using different words. Is it really about understanding new generations, or is it our willingness to open the doors to new ideas and new growth? Do we want to understand Gen Z, or are we just scared of the change they might bring?

As for me, I’m working with individuals and teams of 20-something-year-olds. They are sensitive, respectful, hard-working, and grateful for any wisdom I can pass on. They respect my time. They ARE on time. They want to be accepted by me in the same way I want to be accepted by them. I want more of them because finally, my people have arrived.