Religion & Liberty Online

Gen Z at Work: Its Superpower Isn’t What You Think

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Spoiler alert: It’s not TikTok.

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My professional career was born into a world of remote work. In the summer of 2021, I kicked off my first “real” internship at a media company in Washington D.C.—and never once stepped foot in the office. There was no water cooler, office banter, or real “face time” with coworkers. In fact, my first corporate interactions, for better or worse, were all through the unforgiving, unfulfilling medium of Zoom. I’ve been blessed with perhaps better communication skills and more training than many within my generation, however, and I’d like to believe that my ability to network and navigate office settings has caught up to that of the average 21-year-old pursuing a career.

Yet there are still those moments when I wonder: How much “growth” did I miss out on from that year of remote work? How many opportunities did COVID-19 rob me of? And, more broadly, how much did the pandemic further my generation’s already mixed approach to being in the workforce in the first place—a workforce we’re projected to be a third of in less than two years?

Much has been made of the problems Generation Z (born 1997–2012) is bringing into the workplace. Demanding and uncommitted, the narrative goes. We lack soft skills, which leads into many other negative stereotypes: emotionally unprofessional, addicted to the softest support for our own mental health, and lacking the tools necessary to handle a degree of inevitable workplace conflict. We have trouble staying at jobs, too, due to difficulties in both finding places that reflect our values and feeling valued ourselves.

So are there any positives to the post-COVID generation, the fastest-growing group in America’s workforce?

Spoiler alert: It’s not in the area you’re probably thinking of. One of the prevalent assumptions about my generation is that we’re technologically savvy in a way that older generations aren’t, particularly when it comes to social media. It’s true that in certain fields—social media coordination and many marketing jobs to name two—Gen Z’s relative immersion in technology may give us not only a degree of familiarity with the tools of the trade but the ability to quickly adapt to new systems as they emerge. Particularly in industries where artificial intelligence and machine learning are becoming part of normal practice, this will be a positive.

There’s just one problem: a lot of industries just aren’t like that. Many industries simply don’t exist on the cutting edge of technology and won’t be using AI for years, if not decades. Far from overhauling in favor of shiny new innovations, many industries are still using old technology with no intentions of changing, and it’s here that Gen Z’s technological advantage may well end. Instagram? We can figure that out. Scanners and printers? Not so much.

Recent research indicates that Gen Z faces the same technological barriers that many other generations do. It seems counterintuitive: Shouldn’t young, technologically literate people be able to figure these things out? Well, the skills that allow my generation to reach millions on TikTok and Snapchat aren’t the same skills that prepare us for workplace functionality. Or, in one researcher’s words, “neither watching TikTok videos nor playing Minecraft fulfills the technology brief.”

That’s a massive problem, not only for Gen Zers seeking to enter the workforce but also for the companies hiring them. Technological savvy isn’t the silver bullet that can make up for a lack of soft skills. This was only aggravated by a global pandemic that paradoxically forced us all online but didn’t increase our knowledge of the older tech we need to navigate the workplace. It’s not even the case that we can make up for that skills disparity with above-average motivation—research also indicates that Gen Z is at least perceived as highly unmotivated, with 27% of employers saying they’ve had to fire a Gen Z employee within the first month.

So, are there any positives to my strange, mental-health-focused generation? There’s one big one—and it’s one that really doesn’t feel like a positive: we’re aware that we have knowledge gaps. A 2021 survey noted that an overwhelming majority of Gen Z workers are seeking supervisors and managers who can provide them with advice and mentorship in the workplace. While it may seem like we’re asking for a beyond-the-paygrade task, it’s actually a positive sign in a strange sense: we’re realizing just how much we don’t know and reaching out for help in the best way we know how.

At a more philosophical level, it could be a sign that the post-COVID workforce has the right situational mindset: identify what we don’t know and learn it in the best way we can to have a less stressful work experience all around. We’ve all heard the term “impostor syndrome.” Well, given Gen Z’s general overconfidence, birthed from those limited technological skills and the perennial chase of social media clout, it’s not hard to see how it came about—but some research is indicating that it isn’t as bad among Generation Z as it was among previous generations. This is a positive trend, and if coupled with growth in actual workplace skills, it’s a sign of how America’s youngest workers may actually make it in the modern economy. If, as one small business owner argues, Gen Z’s biggest handicap is lack of experience, that’s not a world-ending problem, now is it? It’s almost like that’s been the most pressing issue with every new employee ever.

So what’s the future of Gen Z and work? It’s probably going to be a messy one, particularly in navigating interpersonal workplace dynamics and boundaries. It’s also likely to look very different from the corporate world that Gen X and even Millennials grew up in—remote work isn’t going anywhere post-pandemic. Yet the biggest positive of Gen Z in the workplace is this: with quality guidance, open lines of communication, and the ability to explain why a company’s mission is worth being enthusiastic about, employers can nurture a growing and enthusiastic workforce that’s ready to take on new technological challenges, engage with issues of cultural/political significance, and leverage the power of confidence, earned or otherwise, to spread awareness of mission-driven organizations. It has nothing to do with the ability to go viral on TikTok—it has to do with harnessing the power of this strange group of underprepared, yet confident people that are passionate about creating change but have no real idea of how to do so. Many within that group are truly ready to learn the tools of success.

At least that’s a better-case scenario.

Isaac Willour

Isaac Willour is a journalist currently reporting on American politics and higher education. His work has been published in a plethora of outlets, including the Christian Post, The Dispatch, the Wall Street Journal, and National Review, as well as interviews for New York Times Opinion and the American Enterprise Institute. He studies political science at Grove City College. He can be found on Twitter @IsaacWillour.