THE POST-MILLENNIAL GENERATION IS WORKING ITS WAY THROUGH B-SCHOOL. EMPLOYERS ARE PREPARING FOR THEIR ENTRY INTO THE WORKFORCE. SAY HELLO TO GENERATION Z.
Think back to your college days.
Remember how good it felt to top the $200,000 mark while securing venture capital for your startup?
What about that summer after your freshman year when you ran a cost analysis of short-term labor options at your internship site and, in your spare time, taught yourself the basics of Python programming?
Or that time Under Armour offered you a brand ambassador gig?
If none of these scenarios sound familiar, that’s OK. They’re actually a sampling of unique experiences that three University of Notre Dame business students — Erikc Pérez-Pérez (BBA ’19), Kaleigh Brauns (BBA ’21) and Brandon Hardy (BBA ’20) — will take with them from their undergrad days.
These bright, talented and driven individuals are exactly the kind of students you’d expect to find at a top-ranked school such as Mendoza College of Business, and their accomplishments thus far are noteworthy in their own right. But their personal success stories contain elements that also point to a larger narrative taking shape around the generation coming of age on the heels of the millennials: Generation Z.
While the contours of this up-and-coming generation are still being mapped out, marketers and corporate HR specialists have had their eye on this new demographic — the largest and most diverse generation to date — for years.
The Pew Research Center identifies those born between 1997 and 2012 as part of this generation, which makes Gen Z’s oldest members right around 21 — a year older than Google. It also means Gen Z’s youngest members headed off to first grade this year.
A common thread running through Gen Z’s childhood and adolescence is the ubiquity of the internet, which is as much a part of their growing up years as electricity and running water. Going forward, this is the new normal; Gen Z is simply the first to take the innovations of the Internet Revolution for granted growing up.
“The Gen Z group, they have never known a non-digital world,” says Jessica McManus Warnell, who has taught management at Mendoza for 18 years and studied millennials as they took their place in the workforce. “They have instantaneous information at their fingertips all day long. They have instantaneous connection with each other, and that’s their expectation of the way the world works.”
If the past is any indicator, the changing of the generational guard is never business as usual. This was true of the Boomers, Generation X, the millennials. The experiences of their formative years gave each of those generations a new vantage point from which to see the world and put their own spin on the status quo. Gen Z is no different. Already, their experiences and expectations are quietly reshaping our world, from how we learn to how we work.
GEN ZER'S STATUS as the first “digital natives” in history, the first generation raised just a click or tap away from access to information, entertainment and their social circle, is an important piece of their collective identity and can’t help but inform other facets of their emerging generational profile.
Members of Gen Z are viewed by marketers as increasingly self-reliant, an identity made possible at least in part by the internet’s power to give any motivated, curious mind a portal to the kind of knowledge that was once locked behind a more formal educational model. Gen Zers’ penchant for non-traditional forms of acquiring knowledge paired with a lifelong learning mindset is likely a game-changer — regardless of the complexity of finding quality online resources.
“The first answer to any question is usually: Google it,” sophomore Kaleigh Brauns says. “We turn immediately to the internet, our phones and technology to solve problems.”
The double major in Mendoza’s new business analytics major and ACMS (applied and computational mathematics and statistics) describes herself as a “goal-oriented” person. “If I want to accomplish something,” she says, “I generally do every single thing in my capability to make it happen.” For instance, in eighth grade, to make sure she was ready for her advanced high school math classes, she enrolled in a community college algebra course.
While Brauns anticipates earning a graduate degree at some point, she’s also comfortable with self-directed learning to gain more immediately applicable knowledge or results. For instance, when she wanted to pick up golf, she hit the range one summer and ended up good enough to make the varsity team her senior year of high school. When she wanted an introduction to programming, she found an online course she could do at her leisure. And when she wanted to learn about the stock market, she bought a few shares with money from a summer job and turned to a popular online investment site to get her up to speed.
Earlier this year, AACSB International, the Executive MBA Council and the International Consortium for Executive Education released findings from a study they commissioned in order to get a read on millennial and Gen Z views on graduate business education. While 60 percent indicated they were very or extremely likely to pursue an MBA or MA/MS in management, nearly 80 percent also indicated that “a more self-directed approach or just-in-time set of courses...would be more attractive than an established program model.”
More than a quarter of those surveyed felt nontraditional credentials such as certificates or digital badges could substitute for a formal degree and 90 percent felt such educational options have some value in place of or in addition to a degree or non-degree program.
Kaleigh Brauns (BBA ’21)
Business analytics and ACMS (applied and computational mathematics and statistics)
When sophomore Kaleigh Brauns looks at data sets, she sees more than numbers. She sees a way to solve problems and improve people’s lives. She used data to determine the most cost-effective option to fill short-term labor needs at the manufacturing plant where she interned as a financial analyst after her freshman year. While she’s fairly certain graduate school is in her future, she’s also comfortable with finding an online resource to help her get up to speed on whatever piques her interest. She is comfortable pursuing self-directed learning opportunities. Kaleigh also isn’t afraid to request permission to write a 32-page research paper when a 10-pager would do. Her freshman writing and rhetoric paper, “Manufacturing Monopolies: Why Drug Manufacturers are at the Root of the Recent Rise in Pharmaceutical Prices,” won an Undergraduate Library Research Award.
THERE ARE SIGNS, too, that Gen Zers possess something of an entrepreneurial spirit that leverages digital tools in business endeavors. The 2016 Gallup-HOPE index, which measures the entrepreneurial attitudes and experiences of fifth through 12 graders, found overall that about 40 percent of students aspire to start a business or invent something that will change the world.
“One of the most important things to me is being able to stay flexible,” says senior marketing major Erikc Pérez-Pérez, a first-generation college student who runs a photography business on the side. This attitude helped him move fast when he met two Mendoza finance majors who were trying to launch a startup. Their original effort to crowdfund production of a flat Bluetooth audio speaker had fallen short, and they were looking for some marketing help. With just a weekend to prepare, Pérez-Pérez reshot product photography and gave their Kickstarter campaign a marketing makeover. It went on to raise 150 percent of its goal. Afterward, he recommended changing the company name, Flato, and Resonado was born.
With the help of the IDEA Center, Notre Dame’s new resource for commercialization and entrepreneurial activities, the team secured an additional $25,000 grant and became the first student-run company to rent space in the IDEA Center’s new Quinn Hall. To date, Resonado has garnered roughly $200,000 in hard and soft financing, four prizes at the 2018 McCloskey New Venture Competition and invitations to events like TechCrunch Disrupt SF.
Bryan Ritchie, Notre Dame’s first vice president and associate provost for innovation and a teaching professor in Mendoza’s Department of Management & Organization, says Resonado is a great example of young entrepreneurs at work. Still, he senses something of a disconnect between many Gen Zers and their entrepreneurial impulses — a tension compounded by a generalized fear of failure that also hounds millennials.
His team at the IDEA Center, which helps faculty members, students and others to “de-risk” and commercially develop their ideas, preaches “#BoldFail” to a generation that reflexively insists it’s not an option. “Fail fast. Fail often. Learn, iterate, pivot, try something else,” Ritchie says, noting how freeing this message is to students. For Resonado, the consumer market the founders initially pursued wasn’t panning out. Only when they switched to a B2B strategy did things take off.
As students become comfortable with these mindsets, things start clicking and that digital savvy comes into play. “They can see things that no other generation can see because they’re using the stuff so deeply,” Ritchie says.
Erikc Pérez-Pérez (BBA ’19)
Before he flew out to San Francisco for an investor pitch meeting in September, senior Erikc Pérez-Pérez had a few tasks to clear off his plate. Like midterms. Oh, and a Chicago photo shoot for his photography business. Pérez-Pérez says that was the busiest week of his college experience so far. After finishing up his work for classes and his photo shoot, he headed out for a whirlwind trip to San Francisco for his startup company, Resonado. In about 48 hours, he traveled to California, pitched to a group of West Coast investors and took care of some business meetings, then returned to South Bend in time to deliver a speech at a Friday night Silicon Valley Bank dinner on Notre Dame’s campus.
DESPITE HIS DISTINCT sartorial sensibilities and uncanny knack for networking, junior Brandon Hardy didn’t set out to make a social media splash when he arrived on campus with his bow ties and goal of meeting five new people a day. Cameras other than his own always seemed to find the accountancy and political science double major and his (now retired) gold lamé jacket in the crowd at football and basketball games.
He remembers when he realized exactly how far his reach extended. One day, he recalls, he looked down at his phone and saw 60 direct messages on Instagram thanking him for his posts, asking him questions and just saying hi — all from people he didn’t know. “I was literally just living my best life,” he says of the status updates, snaps, tweets and posts that have helped earn him thousands of digital followers on his personal social feeds in the past three years.
These days, Hardy’s social media presence is about more than simply keeping up with friends and family. He leads the student social media team for University admissions, and his personal influencer clout landed him a side gig as an Under Armour brand ambassador on campus in fall 2018.
Social media has curated Hardy’s combination of charisma, networking instincts and a desire to inspire others into a personal brand that is authentic and relational (an important trait to Gen Zers who grew up consuming digital advertising) and has growing marketplace value.
Brandon Hardy (BBA ’20)
Accountancy and political science
Brandon Hardy, a first-generation college student, has done plenty of globetrotting since arriving at Notre Dame, and he’s shared every step of the way with his social media followers, who now number in the thousands. This summer alone, he was at Notre Dame’s Jerusalem Global Gateway (there’s great video of his dip in the Red Sea), in Chicago for another KPMG internship, out in Hollywood for KPMG’s Future Diversity Leaders Conference, and at the University’s Kylemore Abbey Global Centre in Ireland. But one of the most significant trips for him was to Guatemala after his freshman year. He spent time at a school helping children learn English. “Notre Dame is a place where we say we want to be a force for good in the world,” he says. “I think I was able to do that, but I also took away more than I gave, for sure.”
AS THE LEADING EDGE of 61 million Gen Zers such as Brauns, Pérez-Pérez and Hardy is starting to trickle into the workplace, many companies already have devoted considerable time and resource to studying the oncoming wave and reconsidering their recruiting practices and workplace culture.
There are several broad themes in their reports that are unsurprising:
Gen Z individuals are comfortable with technology, so they expect to use their devices and apps as fully on the job as they do in their personal lives. Often they have availed themselves of online learning opportunities and certifications, and walk into a job application with tech skills in their back pocket.
“Almost everyone has a side hustle,” says one recruiter — an Etsy page or side job, or some other manifestation of the gig economy.
With the tech providing greater mobility, and the fact that work teams often are geographically far-flung, the traditional 8-to-5 workday is becoming archaic. Gen Z workers want work arrangements that better blend with their desires to take a 10 a.m. spin class or Skype with a colleague in China at midnight as part of a normal workday. Increasingly, flexible work spaces that allow the person to work from home or maybe a co-working space such as WeWork — which now occupies more Manhattan office space than any other company — are givens.
Diverse workplaces, too, are the new norm, reflecting the individualistic styles of Gen Z workers in an authentic way, and not as special company initiatives.
But beyond these generalizations, the reports also make it clear that the Gen Z wave will present some unique challenges for employers.
The idea of a “social contract” is an emerging ideology that is distinctly different from the traditional employment scenario where the employer holds all of the cards. A social contract between an employee and the company suggests an explicit agreement between the two parties that emphasizes reciprocity, mutual trust, fairness, shared values and expectations.
It’s more than a catchphrase.
The idea that work is meant to be a two-way, mutually beneficial arrangement means that employers must be keenly attuned to employee perspectives. And when a new generation arrives that is markedly different from any before — entrepreneurially minded, individualistic self-learners with a high degree of tech savvy and an expectation of meaningful work engagement — employers must pay attention to their expectations if they hope to attract and retain a high level of talent.
“What has worked for recruiting talent for the past 10 years is no longer working now,” says Jennifer Prevoznik, the global head of Intern and Early Talent Acquisition at SAP, a Germany-based multinational software corporation with 93,000 employees in more than 180 countries. “The tech industry is super competitive, so if we’re not being intentional and deliberate with how we message, how we brand, how we talk about our opportunities to this generation, we’re no longer relevant to them.”
Prevoznik oversees hiring of more than 7,000 individuals annually from universities and academies for internships and entry level roles. SAP has five generations in its workforce at present, each one with somewhat distinct expectations of recruitment and reward.
With unemployment low and many more options available to students, companies have to be prepared to sell themselves to students, Prevoznik says. And authenticity is very important part of that equation for these digital natives, who thoroughly research a potential employer via Glassdoor or social media.
For SAP, this has meant no longer participating in the venerable tradition of the career fair, where a company sets up a booth, stocks it with brochures and giveaways, and has a couple of knowledgeable recruiters on hand.
“Today, we’re engaging with the students directly,” says Prevoznik. “We’ll speak at their clubs, we’ll work with the professor on an innovation challenge or sponsor a hack-a-thon. We like to build a more holistic relationship with the students, their professors and the school, as opposed to only coming in once a year for the career fair and then leaving. We’d rather have ongoing relationships with the students.”
DELOITTE, ONE OF NOTRE DAME'S top recruiters, recently released a Future of Work report, “Generation Z Enters the Workforce,” that especially examines how technology advances have impacted the entry-level jobs, and the resulting implications for workplace culture.
The report points out that the story of Gen Z at work is really the story of two converging trends — a generation entering the workforce that has a high level of technological skills at a time when automation is expected to disrupt the nature of work on a continual basis and in ways that are hard to anticipate.
“The things that we formally hired an entry level person to do — run macros on Excel, crunch numbers, look at data and do routine, repetitive work — is being done more efficiently and accurately by technology,” says Kelly Monahan, the lead researcher for the Deloitte Insights report.
The challenge back to employers is to find better ways to employ the skill sets that Gen Z brings with it.
Deloitte, for example, realized that some of its best and brightest new employees were spending about 30 percent of their time on tasks that could be automated. So using a growth mindset model, the company developed training that encourages first-year managers to coach and spend more time learning.
“We’ve seen these managers actually change their titles from project controllers to project engagers,” says Monahan. “We’ve been able to redeploy this highly skilled talent toward engaging with our clients and stakeholders, and becoming more strategic as opposed to reacting to budget constraints or concerns.”
But while Gen Zers have a high comfort level with tech, there appears to be a downside that has implications for the workplace.
“We think it’s an unintended consequence of all the time on their phones,” says Monahan. “They’re very comfortable with digital communication — e-mails, text messaging, so forth — but when it actually comes to dealing with senior leaders or working in a group, they score much less comfortable or confident than we’ve seen in previous generations.”
Monahan cited a recent Pew research study supporting the observation that Gen Z members in general show deficiency in their ability to communicate and form strong interpersonal relationships. Therefore, it’s important for their first jobs to involve engaging in dialogue, attending meetings and other experiences that build communication skills and develop the ability to navigate complex relationships.
Gen Z at ND
Companies are recruiting students earlier and earlier, according to the Notre Dame Center for Career Development.
“There’s certainly been a huge uptick, especially in the financial services,” says Bridget Kibbe, director of Undergraduate Career Services. “Even when students are entering their third semester, they’re already being recruited for summer internships after their junior years.”
This trend produces a challenge for the career counselors of balancing the needs of young, developing individuals who are still discerning their interests and talents, with the practical realities of lining up good internships and jobs.
The Career Services has started working with the students earlier to help them understand the broad array of career options, and to emphasize overall skill sets that can be developed in numerous ways.
“We don’t know what new jobs will be available even two, three or five years down the road,” says LoriAnn Edinborough, director of employer engagement at the ND Career Center. “So students need to focus on the skills and competencies to adjust to various roles. Employers say they are seeking inquisitive students who want to keep learning. That’s what is going to help them be nimble.”
ANOTHER GEN Z PARADOX that employers have to negotiate: They are entrepreneurially minded, yet value stability much more than the preceding generation. They aren’t expected to job hop, as the millennials seemingly did (although some companies including Deloitte refute that characterization). But they want to engage meaningfully in work that has meaning for them and offers different experiences, even at the entry level.
That seems especially problematic for big, traditionally hierarchical corporations, where pace of organizational change can be glacial. But companies are finding some interesting ways to encourage young employees to grow and develop within the organization.
Rotational programs, long part of executive development, are now being used more broadly. In some sense, they are a constructive and strategic way to job hop. An employee might rotate into different positions centered on a common interest, such as a product or industry, to develop fuller perspectives and varied skills. Or a company might rotate the individual to a subsidiary or even a partner organization.
“We have so many rotational programs, which is great because if you get bored, you can hop around,” says SAP’s Prevoznik. “There’s a big culture of learning more, doing fellowships, doing sabbaticals, putting in a year on one team and then joining another.
“The nice thing about rotations is that they provide consistency. Especially for Gen Z, who saw their parents losing jobs during the recent recession,” she adds. “This gives them stability of seeing the same name on their paychecks, but they don’t get bored and they can feel like they’re working for many different companies over the course of five years.”
Another innovation is reverse mentorship, which also addresses the reality of five generations occupying the same workplace, in addition to providing opportunities for cross-learning. While senior employees can mentor new ones in areas of institutional knowledge and what Deloitte calls “tacit knowledge,” or specific information about clients, companies also are setting up programs where teaching and learning are two-way streets.
“We’re seeing more and more from a cross-generational perspective that our advanced senior employees need a tech native to mentor them, to talk to them about, ‘OK, how do I actually use SLACK? What is OneDrive?’” says SAP’s Prevoznik.
She observed that reverse mentoring often happens quite naturally, due in some part to another quality of Gen Z: They’re not impressed by titles. “A lot of our younger talent will be very bold and reach out to our most senior level executives because they want to learn from them. And what we’ve realized is that our senior leaders really want to learn from the younger talent,” she adds.
If the baby boomer in you is bristling at the thought of youngsters coming into the workplace and greeting the big boss by her first name while simultaneously updating their Instagram feeds, well, it’s understandable. But the reaction also misses the larger perspective of work that is the reality for employers.
And the risk of not grasping this reality and changing the workplace to accommodate Gen Z?
“I think quite simply they’re not going to join your company or they’re going to leave,” says Prevoznik. “And they’re going to be very vocal about why they left and let all of their friends know.
“So the risks are high, but the reward is huge. It really benefits all generations.”
WHILE THERE ARE STILL PLENTY of unknowns this early in Gen Z’s timeline, one thing’s for certain: Because of their demographic heft, they are already marketplace influencers and their impact will only continue to grow. And the assumptions and inclinations, wants and needs that animate how Gen Zers go about their days are already shaping the higher education landscape and the workaday world.
Management professor Jessica McManus Warnell says there’s an important way the Notre Dame students passing through her business classes haven’t changed all that much through the years. She views this generational constant as a sign of hope: Her students still want to engage in big picture questions about the role of business in society. They continue to recognize the potential of business to impact the world. And they embrace the mindset that they should “Ask More of Business.”
In short, McManus Warnell says, “They want to do work that matters.”
By Carol Elliott and Melissa Jackson
Photography by Barbara Johnston