When a new generation enters the workforce, it always brings big changes. As members of Generation Z (anyone born since 1997, according to Pew) begin their careers, employers and talent experts are wondering how it will impact the world of work — especially now that the pandemic has drastically changed the economic landscape.  

To learn more, we spoke with David and Jonah Stillman: a father-son duo who help businesses connect generations in the workplace. Gen Xer David Stillman brings two decades of experience studying generational behavior in professional settings, while Gen Zer Jonah Stillman offers personal, on-the-ground experience. 

In their book “Gen Z @ Work: How the Next Generation is Transforming the Workplace,” the Stillmans turn their attention to the latest generation. By understanding Gen Z traits and what makes them tick — from their digital savvy to competitive spirit — employers can harness the power of Gen Z in the workplace. 

‘Phigital’ pioneers with a unique perspective on technology 

If age is just a number, why are generational distinctions so important? 

“Each generation has its own events and conditions that take place during its formative years,” says David Stillman. These generational influences shape members’ personal and professional lives. Gen Zers grew up in a complex world impacted by the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 and the Great Recession of 2008. According to the Stillmans, this leads them to seek stability in their careers. 

However, one of the defining traits of Gen Z is their relationship to technology. While previous generations had to learn technologies such as the internet, smartphones and social media, Gen Z is the first generation of true digital natives.

“The way we use technology and how it’s been a part of our lives, compared to other generations, is drastically different,” explains Jonah Stillman. “The majority of my generation never remembers a world without the iPhone … and kids born in 2012 don't remember a world without virtual reality, [artificial intelligence] (AI), ‘smart’ data or self-driving cars.”

Older generations were “digital pioneers,” blazing trails to integrate technology into an analog world, but “we've never had to learn to accept technology into our day-to-day roles,” Jonah Stillman says of his Gen Z cohort. “We expect technology to be able to do just about anything.” 

The Stillmans coined the term “phigital” to describe the increasing lack of boundaries between physical and digital worlds. Most Gen Zers don’t even distinguish between these domains, making them the first “phigital pioneers.” 

This profoundly impacts how Gen Z thinks about work; as Jonah Stillman points out, “work is no longer defined by a place,” such as the office. This way of thinking feels especially relevant as companies begin to reevaluate their long-term remote work strategies after the pandemic-related surge in work from home opportunities.

“I've always been able to get as much done on my smartphone from 50,000 feet in the air on an airplane as I [can] sitting at my desk,” he adds. “I've never known a world where we can't work from anywhere. This idea that you have to be in your chair at your desk to be considered working — it's so foreign for Gen Zers.”

These trends are driving a shift toward work-life blending, rather than balance. And this blurring of lines will become even more pronounced as the shift toward a blended or even fully remote work approach continues. 

Competitive spirits driven by FOMO

Gen Z brings shared traits to the workforce beyond technological proficiency. According to the Stillmans, common Gen Z traits also include a competitive spirit and an eagerness to prove themselves. This stems in part from their Gen X parents, who are known for their refusal to sugarcoat things. 

For example, Jonah Stillman played sports growing up, and his father used to tell him that the parents should be the ones getting participation awards for getting their kids to practices and games. This mentality taught the younger Stillman that success comes from hard work, not just from showing up. 

Another factor driving this competitive nature: Gen Zers don’t want to be left behind by their peers. With their successes always on display through social media, FOMO (fear of missing out) looms large for this generation. Like millennials, Gen Zers want opportunities for upward mobility in their careers. 

Related to this is Gen Z’s desire for hyper-customization. Growing up with apps and on-demand media in the palms of their hands, they expect everything to be personalized — whether it’s their Netflix queue or their career path. They are accustomed to endless choices and want to be approached as individuals by recruiters and employers.

Gen Z finds purpose through the side hustle

The typical Gen Z traits are also behind another growing phenomenon: the side hustle. Whether it’s launching their own app, selling a product or doing freelance photography, many Gen Zers refuse to restrict themselves to their day jobs, the Stillmans say. 

Financial stability is part of the allure for this money-conscious generation, explains Jonah Stillman: “We saw our parents struggle [during the Great Recession]... and we watched the downside of not being financially prepared when the economy spirals out of control.”

But the benefits of a side hustle go beyond money. Just as they’re accustomed to infinite choice and personalization through apps and entertainment, side hustles are a way for Gen Z to customize their professional lives. Their day job pays the bills, while their side gig lets them get creative, explore their personal interests — and stand out from the crowd by sharing it on social media. 

Gen Zers see multiple professional options as a way to “survive and thrive,” David Stillman adds, and suggests that by encouraging workers to pursue other passions, companies can promote a culture of open-mindedness. 

“It’s a strategic move for recruitment and retention,” David Stillman advises. However, he adds, employers and employees should discuss side hustles early on to “create a very honest, open relationship.” Not only does this keep everyone on the same page, it also addresses any non-compete issues. 

Use growth opportunities and feedback to entice Gen Z

Understanding Gen Z traits and what makes this generation tick helps employers attract and nurture this new generation of workers. You can boost your appeal among Gen Z job seekers by matching their competitive spirit: In marketing and outreach, showcase accomplishments and awards as well as growth and advancement opportunities that make your company stand apart. 

While even the oldest members of Gen Z are still new to the workforce, there’s no time like the present for companies to take notice.