Young business woman

Generation Z is Canada’s most culturally diverse cohort. In the 2016 census, 27.5 per cent of them identified as a visible minority, compared to 21 per cent of those born before them. (David Wile)

Features | From Pivot Magazine

Young blood

Generation Z is bright, ambitious and ready to join the workforce. Is your company ready for them?

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Like many little boys, Sam Thorpe grew up dreaming of becoming a firefighter. “For my entire life, I’ve been into superheroes,” he says. “As far as I’m concerned, firefighting is as close as I can get.” Now 16, he’s well on his way. Last May, he graduated from the Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services Youth Academy, and he still volunteers with the group at parades and other events. He plays soccer to keep fit, plans to build muscle mass at the gym and intends to become a firefighter sooner than most; the average starting age is around 28, thanks to a lengthy list of qualifications, including prior work experience. 

Firefighting pays—$72,000 to start, with the possibility to break six figures—and it’s a stable career (unfortunately, things will always catch fire). Thorpe knows it’s exactly the kind of decent, dependable paycheque he will need if he wants to continue living in Vancouver’s East Village, his rapidly gentrifying neighbourhood. Though he is still a long way from leaving home, he socks away about 20 per cent of every thing he earns in a savings account, and affordability regularly comes up in conversations with friends. An average Vancouver home goes for more than $1 million. It’s an expensive city, he says. “Jobs that would cut it in other places don’t really cut it here.” 

Sam ThorpeSam Thorpe, 16, trained at Vancouver’s youth firefighting academy. (Courtesy of Sam Thorpe)

Focused and confident beyond his years, Thorpe is a quintessential member of Generation Z. Born in 1995 and beyond, they’re youthful idealists who hope to improve the world while building their own secure financial futures. They don’t remember 9/11, but the 2008 financial crisis—and the havoc it wreaked on their parents—is still stuck in their memories. They’re the first generation to grow up with the Internet, and their comfort with technology is so innate that they’ve been dubbed the iGen. 

And they’re coming to an office near you. The oldest members of Generation 

Z are now in their early 20s, fresh out of college and university, and itching to join the workforce. Whereas millennials were derided for being lazy, entitled and dismissive of their elders, this generation is ambitious, industrious and loyal. “Make Way for Gen Z,” a landmark global survey forth coming from the International Federation of Accountants, shows they want career stability more than anything else. That may sound like music to the ears of baby-boomer bosses, but it’s not that simple. Gen Z employees are eager to work, save and settle down in a world that’s not necessarily designed to deliver secure employment or steady pay. They’re trapped in the modern gig economy—where, for many, work means jumping from firm to firm, contract to contract—when what they want is to be company men and women, taking advantage of their benefits and sticking around to earn 10-year anniversary pins. 

Employers will need to understand what interests, motivates and repels Generation Z. They may find pleasing Z means crossing X and Y, not to mention boomers who have yet to retire. But if they don’t adjust the way they recruit, train and retain employees, companies stand to lose out on everything these youngsters offer: hard work, commitment and, most importantly, an inborn grasp of the technologies, like artificial intelligence and blockchain, that their businesses will need to prosper. Because if they can’t get what they want from big companies, they’ll happily start their own. 

Twelve 12 per cent of Gen Z were already saving for retirement.

A quarter of Canadians belong to Generation Z—there are about 8.4 million of them in the country. While 1995 is commonly accepted as the boundary between Gen Z and millennials, there’s no consensus on when Gen Z cuts off on the opposite end. Australian futurist and demographer Mark McCrindle is leading the charge to sort anyone born after 2010 into Generation Alpha. 

Particulars aside, Generation Z is Canada’s most culturally diverse cohort. In the 2016 census, 27.5 per cent of them identified as a visible minority, compared to 21 per cent of those born before them. And Hubert Denis, a researcher with Statistics Canada’s demography division, says that proportion will rise in coming years as immigration continues. 

Regardless of ethnicity, Gen Z’s first language is technology. “They have always had cellphones and are more connected than any previous generation,” says sociologist Michael Haan, Canada Research Chair in Migration and Ethnic Relations at Western University. They’re online nearly every waking minute, he says. Instagram, Snapchat and YouTube are their daily tools. 

Gen Z’s preoccupation with tech should be obvious to anyone who’s spent any time with a teenager. But what else is this generation about? Richard Worzel, a Toronto-based futurist, cautions against erroneous stereotypes like “all millennials are lazy.” But he does believe generations develop unique cultures, often in opposition to their parents’. “It’s uncool to be like mom and dad,” he says. If the millennials were “Everybody gets an award for participating,” Gen Z is more “I want to achieve.” 

“The State of Gen Z 2017,” a study by the Center for Generational Kinetics in Austin, Tex., quantified this go-getter streak. They interviewed roughly 1,000 members of Gen Z and 1,000 millennials, and found the younger group was just as likely to be employed as those 10 years older than them. Seventy-seven per cent of Gen Z (ages 14 to 21, in this case) made money through part-time work, freelance jobs or earned allowance. More surprisingly, 12 per cent were already saving for retirement. “This bodes well for Gen Z’s future self-reliance and long-term contribution to the economy,” the report concludes. 

They’re willing to put in the hours because they believe they need to. According to a report by HR consulting firm Robert Half, 77 per cent of Gen Z think they will have to work harder than previous generations to have satisfying careers. They may be right. Following the 2008 crisis, the world presents more challenges for Gen Z than it did their predecessors. “Their parents are not baby boomers, and they’re not going to be transferring as much wealth,” Haan says. 

Low earnings and the ever-increasing cost of housing hurts all young people, not just Gen Z, says Paul Kershaw, a University of British Columbia professor who founded Generation Squeeze, a non-profit that advocates on behalf of young people. It takes longer to save for a home and even longer to pay off a mortgage. Many 20- and 30-somethings pay so much rent that they have trouble accruing any equity, Kershaw says. “Compared to when today’s aging population started out as young adults, hard work doesn’t pay off like it used to.” 

Traditional jobs that offer benefits and pensions are eroding, and the mere desires of the workforce won’t bring them back.

Accordingly, Generation Z seems to be interested in jobs that promise a healthy salary. Research by the recruitment firm Randstad found that 45 per cent of Gen Z and millennials (who were surveyed together) were, unsurprisingly, interested in working in technology. Careers in education, law, government and health care placed next in this and similar studies. Meanwhile, in an RBC report, the six industries expected to grow most by 2024 are predominantly technical and scientific professions, with “computer system design services” leading the pack. 

Generation Z may want to be teachers, lawyers, doctors and start-up billionaires, but the most recent census shows a shift away from full-time jobs. In 2015, 56 per cent of men and 44 per cent of women aged 25 to 54 worked full-time all year, down from 63 per cent of men and 46 per cent of women a decade earlier. Those are the lowest proportions of full-time workers since Statistics Canada started collecting such data in 1980. There are several reasons why, including the financial crisis, increased automation and the dawn of flexible work—for example, WeWork, the global behemoth that rents office space to freelancers, has more than 350 locations and was valued at US$20 billion last year. Traditional jobs that offer benefits and pensions are eroding, and the mere desires of the workforce won’t bring them back, says Worzel, the futurist. “The gig economy is going to do just fine, thank you very much.” 

It’s not that Generation Z is opposed to flexibility. When “The State of Gen Z 2017” report asked them what they want most in a job, they said a fun work environment and a flexible work schedule were their top two priorities. But when “Make Way for Gen Z,” which surveyed nearly 3,400 young people across the G20 countries, asked a similar question, “a stable career path” topped the list, viewed as important or very important by 89 per cent of respondents and 93 per cent of Canadians. That was followed by salary and benefits, important to 87 per cent of G20 respondents and 92 per cent of Canadians. (About nine in 10 respondents said a career in accounting would satisfy these priorities.) The opportunity to work abroad was the lower priority, important to only 63 per cent of global participants and 50 per cent of Canadians. 

Those in Generation Z believe they can have it all: good pay, stable employment, meaningful work and the freedom to hunker down with a laptop at a local café when they get bored of the office. After all, they are an optimistic—perhaps even quixotic—group. The reality is that such perfect jobs rarely come along, especially so early in a career. Just ask any lawyer: no one makes partner without first putting in painful all-nighters as an articling student trying to pay rent. 

Hannah AlperHannah Alper, 15, has her sights set on a career at CNN. (Courtesy of Hannah Alper) 

Hannah Alper wants her work to provide more than just a paycheque. At 15, the Toronto native has already found a way to mesh her budding career with her activism: she has spoken at We Day dozens of times, and her first book, Momentus: Small Acts, Big Change, a compilation of interviews with her inspirational heroes, hit Indigo shelves last year. 

Technology is baked into Alper’s life. She can barely remember learning to shoot video, but knows it must have been before she turned nine, when she started a blog dedicated to environmental protection and animal rights. Naturally, she spread the word through social media. “I got Instagram and Twitter when I was 13,” she says. “My generation has grown up in an online world. I was born into it.” 

Yet in true Gen Z fashion, even a superstar like Alper dreams of a career with a legacy media company. She has her sights set on a job at CNN. Despite her early success, she’s realistic about the challenges of earning a living as her own boss. “While I would love to do that, I think it would be difficult,” she says. “And I admire CNN. Why build something from the ground up when there’s already a corporation that’s so successful doing something I love?” 

Like Alper, roughly four in five members of Gen Z aspire to work for a large corporation or mid-sized company, according to the Robert Half report. Last year, one such business, a large IT services firm, hired Amalia Jimenez, a Toronto-based organizational development advisor, to increase its professional effectiveness, which included determining how to get—and keep—Gen Z in their office. She found that young employees were happiest if companies offered them stimulating career experiences and opportunities to move around within the organization. They strive to advance and expect plenty of positive reinforcement for their successes, she says. Jimenez points to a 2016 Deloitte report, which recommends providing younger employees chances to contribute, like hack-a-thons and collaborative development programs. It suggests promoting young professionals early in their careers so they see a path to leadership roles, and providing coaches and mentors, rather than managers, to help them grow. “The traditional model of identifying leaders through a nine-box grid and then waiting until they are ‘ready to lead’ is simply too slow,” the report states. That certainly fits with Alper’s view. “A lot of people say my generation are the leaders of tomorrow.” But look at Parkland, where Florida students mobilized for gun control, she says. “I think we’re the leaders of today.”

Smaller start-ups, with their millennial founders and young staff, are typically most effective at courting Generation Z. But even mammoth institutions like KPMG Canada are catching on. They recognize such employees will be crucial to navigating the business environment of tomorrow—Dell estimates that 85 per cent of the world’s jobs in 2030 don’t exist yet. “We need to understand what’s happening and move quickly,” says Soula Courlas, KPMG Canada’s national leader of people and change advisory services. That ethos comes right from the top, she says. In 2017, CEO Elio Luongo sent a firm-wide email inviting staff to apply, via video or essay, to join his Leaders of Tomorrow Circle. He invited 31 employees with the best submissions to join the circle, and he meets with the group quarterly to gain insights that help shape business strategies.

Generation Z will also expect a more thorough onboarding process, Jimenez says. “You won’t just give somebody a list of critical phone numbers, a fake buddy who’s supposed to help them figure out the organization, and say, ‘Good luck!’ ” She says successful companies do a lot of handholding from the second young employees walk through the door—or even earlier. The Mississauga, Ont., branch of Axis Communications, a Swedish security systems supplier, sends new recruits backpacks of company swag before their first day. When they do arrive, they’re greeted with a team breakfast and one-on-one meetings with each department. Within their first year, Axis staff also attend orientations in Boston and Sweden that further welcome them into the company.

Once they’re settled, Gen Z employees prefer constant feedback to annual performance reviews. They want to know their work is valued and learn how they can improve. Isaac Operations, a manufacturing-optimization business in Toronto, embraces this state of perpetual evaluation; they perform mini-reviews every two weeks.

Another Toronto company, Eighty-Eight, is tuned into Generation Z’s hunger for flexibility. The communications agency, made up of mostly millennials and Gen Z, allows employees to work from home and offers a work-from-the-cottage week every summer. The firm also tailors its benefits to its young workforce, offering a $500 annual education budget and a vacation fund that matches employee contributions with company money.

Employers are increasingly recognizing young workers’ desires to make a difference. Salesforce, for example, offers staff seven paid days a year to volunteer with a cause of their choice. Erin Bury, the 33-year-old managing director of Eighty-Eight, also encourages her employees to pursue their passions outside of the office, in stark contrast to strict policies against moonlighting at some large firms. “Most of our staff have side hustles, whether it’s freelance design work, photography or a Shopify store,” she says. “And we’re supportive.”

Generation Z’s ideal workplace is also filled with technology. They expect not only cliché gadgets—an Amazon Echo here, a VR headset there—but a totally digital workplace. Planning projects, dealing with clients, claiming benefits—if there’s an app for it, Gen Z will want it and won’t have much patience for the email threads and paperwork of eras past. “They’ll demand that of the workplaces they work in,” says Bury. “And they’ll be easily frustrated by workplaces that can’t keep up.”

In the foreseeable future, digital natives will comprise the entire workforce. But for the time being, employers face a generational dilemma.

As it stands, few workplaces are keeping up. According to a survey of 1,000 workplace managers by the New York–based app-development company APPrise Mobile, only one in five employers is altering their workplace to cater to Gen Z. In fact, the survey revealed elder generations’ apprehension for the newcomers: 36 per cent of them said it would be more difficult to manage Generation Z than previous cohorts, and roughly a quarter thought it would be harder to train and communicate with them. 

It’s easy to imagine why. In the minds of boomers and Generation X, Gen Z may seem like smartphone-obsessed zombies with miniscule attention spans. When they were in diapers, these older generations were rising through the ranks of their companies, doing their jobs for decades without the help of trendy apps and digital assistants. They may well wonder, “Why do we need this now?” Technologies that are intended to make workplaces more efficient may have the opposite effect on old-fashioned staff, who’ll lose more time learning new platforms than they’ll gain using them. 

In the foreseeable future, digital natives will comprise the entire workforce. But for the time being, employers face a generational dilemma. They have four different groups of workers under the same roof, each with their own attitudes and technical abilities. How do they cater to one of them without alienating another? If they adopt new technologies and transform their workplaces, they risk ostracizing senior staff. If they don’t, Generation Z won’t bother applying. 

Instead, they’ll start their own businesses. In the Randstad study, 37 per cent of Generation Z said they intend to one day lead a company they created. Bury says this generation is even better positioned than millennials to do so. They certainly have the tech know-how and the drive, and they can take advantage of e-commerce platforms like Shopify, which lower the barriers of entry for business owners. Plus, Generation Z grew up idolizing Silicon Valley superstars. Entrepreneurship wasn’t considered cool when millennials were in high school, says Bury. “We didn’t have Mark Zuckerberg,” she says. “We didn’t have Twitter and Snapchat, which everyone heralded as the cool companies of our age.” 

Thorpe, the Vancouver teenager, has no plans to start his own business, though. In his final year of high school, he plans to volunteer with student council and the yearbook, and he’ll continue to dabble in the gig economy— he takes odd jobs setting up for shows at arenas and playing piano at a local restaurant. But what he really wants is a long-term, full-time career in fire-fighting. He considers it a calling, not a job. “I’d almost do it for free,” he says. Would he, really? “I’m joking, obviously,” he adds with a laugh. “We all need money.”