It may not look pretty, but it has the potential for great success.
2020 was supposed to be Gen Z’s big year. After long awaiting their turn, the newest generation was set to enter the workforce at one of the best times in history. A booming job market, stocks soaring, more growth on the horizon all looked promising for soon to be college graduates. Then a pandemic hit months before the Class of 2020, the first graduating class comprised fully of Gen Zers, finished school and entered the workforce. Not only were graduation ceremonies and senior weeks cancelled, but also job interviews, career fairs, and even employment offers.
While data on rescinded offers is not readily available and is not included in unemployment numbers, anecdotally, it has affected thousands of recent graduates. Many smaller companies, and even large companies like Uber rescinded offers, and even more pushed start dates to the Fall or Winter. And it’s not just graduates affected — summer internships at hundreds of companies including Disney, Geico, American Airlines, and countless others have been cancelled or drastically shortened.
Given all of this, Gen Z’s employment outlook may seem grim — the working world that the eldest of Gen Z saw in late March and early April hardly looked promising, and still doesn’t in many ways. However, this unforeseen crisis that changed everything this spring has provided an important inflection point for our economy and our workforce that may set Gen Z up to reach new heights of workforce success in their careers.
Rapid Change Requires Creative Solutions
I’m certainly not the first to say that our economy and workforce has been accelerated years into the future due to the COVID-19 Pandemic. We have seen what may be lasting shifts in consumer demand — further away from brick and mortar retail, increased demand for digitalization. Labor demand has equally shifted in a period of a few months — shifts economists expected to see over the next several years. A recent report by Brookings, points to a push toward automation as a result of the pandemic that will displace thousands of service and factory jobs in the coming years and Big Tech will only continue its rapid growth.
But even for those Gen Zers who didn’t major in Computer Science, the new economy is going to call for massive innovation across several industries — healthcare will need new innovative minds to anticipate and better respond to future novel diseases, the travel industry will first need to develop new safety protocols and then launch an aggressive and clever marketing campaign to make people feel safe getting back on a cruise ship. Those brick and mortars that do want to survive are going to have to find the most creative ways to get people into the store — truly creating shopping experiences. Our cities will need a plan to rebuild and reimagine things like public transportation; companies moving to a heavier remote work environment will need to figure out how a myriad of people issues — how to change compensation, how to maintain company culture, and keep employees motivated remotely. Across every field and industry there are unique problems brought about by COVID that will require creative solutions from creative minds — and who better than those entering the workforce with a fresh perspective.
With their familiarity with emerging technologies and understanding of market trends, Gen Zers can become change agents in their organizations right from the outset of their careers (if companies allow them to do so). I would argue that Gen Z is actually entering the workforce at an exciting time — one of unprecedented change that requires solutions that Gen Z is uniquely poised to generate. And by generating those solutions now, Gen Zers will have set themselves up for prosperous careers.
An Opportunity To Build Crucial Skills
Some words we’ve heard a lot through the pandemic, relating to both business and life, are resilience, adaptability, tenacity, and creativity. And yes, while these were crucial for us to have getting through the pandemic, the truth is that these were important skills before the pandemic and will certainly be important after. And Gen Z has learned them firsthand. (Note — I call them skills rather than traits for a reason — because they can be learned and continually perfected.)
While I talk with optimism about the great potential for Gen Zers entering the workforce, I am not naïve. As mentioned before, job offers have been rescinded, start dates pushed, and the job market looks barren for those graduating without employment. And when we talk about the Gen Z workforce, we know that we aren’t talking about solely college graduates — while Pew says more Gen Zers are enrolled in college than ever before — 57% — that still leaves 43% without a college education and potentially competing for lower skilled jobs that may be even harder to find. So, when we talk about the opportunity Gen Z has to change organizations, we’re really only talking about an elite few that are entering innovative organizations right now. As I mentioned, the problem solving and creativity skills that those Gen Zers will gain will be invaluable to developing their skill sets for their careers. But what about everyone else? They have the opportunity to build these skills too.
It’s not hard to imagine a world a year or two from now where a common interview question is “What did you do during the COVID-19 Pandemic?” And it’s in Gen Z’s hands to come up with a good answer to that. If your internship got cancelled, how did you take advantage of the extra time and develop new skills? How did you use the transition to online learning to focus on taking control of your academics? How did you lead your student organization through this time? What personal growth did you experience? What the pandemic that has taken so much away has given us is an opportunity for growth and an opportunity to build skills — the skills I mentioned above that will serve us well in the workforce. Those Gen Zers that take advantage of this time to develop skills will not only be able to have an answer to that question when it comes — they will be prepared to put those skills to the test in their careers.
A New Worklife is Emerging
Not only is our economy going through a period of fundamental change, so are our organizations. The business media has been inundated with articles on the future of remote work — and with tech giants like Twitter and Facebook already announcing new Work From Home policies, it is true that organizations across the board are going to consider adapting their remote work standards. An idea gaining steam in many organizations (and one I’ve endorsed) is a flexible work policy, where employees are expected to come in the office at least part of the time but largely are given choice on where and when they want to work based on their schedule. According to Forbes, this plays right into Gen Z’s preferences. Gen Zers are most likely to prefer a flexible work setup that allows them to cater to their own working needs. The same article pointed out Gen Z’s distaste toward physical meetings — which may very well also be going by the wayside as a result of the rise of Zoom.
In short, our organizations are becoming Gen Z friendlier. When our workplaces are more in line with Gen Z’s working preferences, we are sure to see an incoming working generation that is more productive and more satisfied at work. The challenge of course will be the ability to maintain culture and workplace relationships, which are becoming increasingly important for the young workforce. But if there is anyone to meet that challenge, it is the generation that grew up developing relationships online.
2020 was supposed to be Gen Z’s big year. And it still can be. If we do it right, 2020 will go down as a year of rapid change, massive personal growth, and substantial skill building that will set Gen Z up to have perhaps the most successful workforce experience of any generation before them.