An illustration, stylized like a cartoon, showing a busy building in city, stylized to show that it is full of people working in offices, from home, in a laboratory setting, and outside as well. May of the figures wear University of Richmond sweatshirts, or have UR decor in their spaces.
Illustrations by Kathleen Fu

A field guide to Gen-Z in the workplace

March 5, 2023


Spider experts talk candidly about what you need to know to hire and retain today's college graduates.
By Matthew Dewald

Back in early December, just as the 2022 holiday season was ramping up, The Washington Post published one of those tech-in-the-workplace stories about how the old folks just don’t get today’s up-and-comers. “Gen Z came to ‘slay,’” the headline read. “Their bosses don’t know what that means.” It was accompanied by a clickbaity “Cringe Quiz” called “Are You Fluent in Gen Z Slang?” (Dear reader: I was.)

The trope of experienced workers not knowing what to make of a new generation goes back a long way. In 1990, Time magazine warned Baby Boomers that Gen Xers “have the power to wreak havoc.” In 1951, the same magazine coined the term “Silent Generation” for the younger generation and asked what the silence meant, what it hid, and whether “youth’s elders [are] merely hard of hearing.” One can almost see Marie Curie sizing up lab assistants or Johannes Gutenberg eyeing print shop apprentices and muttering, “Kids these days.”

In light of this tradition — but, we hope, with a markedly different spirit — we offer guidance on today’s young workers. Our mentors are Spiders with expertise in recruiting and retaining new graduates beginning their careers. They run search firms, lead the HR functions of large companies, recruit college students, and prepare them to be recruited. They’re strong advocates for the value that young workers offer their employers and have a few words of gentle guidance for employers about them — and for the graduates themselves, too.

Who are we talking about?

Generational divisions are always fuzzy. The Pew Research Center, which often dissects data from its surveys generationally, defines Gen Z as anyone born from 1997 forward. The oldest of them turn 26 this year, so most of them started graduating college with the class of 2019.

No generational cohort is a monolith. For Gen Z, the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic are immense, according to Allen. He notes that today’s Gen Z graduates, unlike their slightly older peers, experienced the height of the pandemic during their college years. “Within the newest graduates, maybe we should really be talking about a post-COVID generation,” he says.

Consider the scale of upheaval they experienced as teenagers and young 20-somethings. Without warning, their classes began meeting remotely. When they resumed in person, everyone was separated by distance and face coverings. In an environment of fluctuating case counts, expectations relaxed about attendance, participation, deadlines, and such. As school got hard, having fun got even harder. They didn’t get together with peers to play intramurals, run student organizations, or dance at parties.
Resilience became the word on every educator’s lips. Parents and institutions did as much as they could, but there was only so much they could do.

Yet, like the Welsh nation defying English dominance, Gen Zers can proudly proclaim, “We’re still here.” They have developed enduring inner strength and resourcefulness, qualities they bring to the job market. And they’ve given serious thought to what matters most and what doesn’t seem so important anymore.

An illustration, depicting a busy city building in a cartoonish style. The building shows people working in offices, from home, in laboratory settings, and outdoors. Many of the figures wear University of Richmond sweatshirts.
They're authentic, they're introspective, they're emotionally mature.
Marissa Klein Kay, '99

What’s great about them?

“Where do we start?” was the collective sense of our experts. “The generation that I am seeing now, I’m super-impressed with,” says Kay. “They’re authentic, they’re introspective, they’re emotionally mature. I feel like they have more of an emotional understanding of the world that’s ahead of them.”

According to the panel, here are the generation’s main strengths from an employment perspective:

1.) Superb tech skills.

“It’s impossible not to acknowledge their tech savviness,” says Aprahamian. “Ask younger people to do [unfamiliar] things, and they can figure it out.” He offered the example of a Gen Z employee who learned to write Excel macros on the fly by watching YouTube tutorials. “They’re resourceful and adept.”

Adds Montoute-Lewis, “They are keeping up with the pace of change.”

Keeping up also presages future adaptability. “Their mindset makes them better prepared to learn new technology than other generations,” says Ong.

2.) Entrepreneurial mindset.

“More students are coming into the university with side gigs, and they’re more comfortable with risk-taking,” says Dwight Smith. Aprahamian adds, “They don’t mind betting on themselves” in everything from jumping on new opportunities to where they live and how they work.

The panel generally sees an inherent self-reliance and self-assurance nurtured by the culture they grew up in. “They believe they can do anything, anywhere, anytime because the world is at their fingertips, and it’s on 24 hours a day,” Montoute-Lewis says. “There’s an entrepreneurial spirit.”

This disposition shows up in how Kyle describes his approach to his internship at Amazon: “You have a baseline level of, ‘OK, here are your job responsibilities,’ but if you see something [else] that needs to be done, you should take care of it because you understand that it’s beneficial in the long run.”

3.) Comfort with being change agents.

All of us, of every generation, went through the pandemic, says Kay. “It’s a unifier, so now if a Gen Z person says they want quality of life, the interviewer or manager will hear the request in a more receptive way because we all experienced it.”

As a result, they’re asking for and accelerating positive changes to workplace culture, says Montoute-Lewis. “What they’re asking for will benefit all of us.”

She points to the post-pandemic persistence of flexible work arrangements. “My younger employees are saying, ‘This is absolutely what I expect,’ and because of that I can work remotely, too. That’s not something I was personally fighting for. I was taught coming up to assimilate. They are pushing organizations to adapt to their needs.”


What’s important to them?

As companies evaluate Gen Z prospects, they should know that Gen Z prospects are evaluating them, too. Some of their criteria are evergreen. The security of having a full-time offer out of college was one of the biggest factors that led Kyle to his post-graduation position with Amazon.

But they want other things if they can get them, and they bring these expectations to their job searches. Employers are wise to listen. Given the current candidate-driven job market, “this generation is in a position to push its interests,” Dwight Smith says.

These interests include a preference for hybrid work environments and ample opportunity to develop new, transferable skills. “I’m really surprised at how aggressively Gen Z is seeking out training opportunities,” Aprahamian says.

They make values-driven career decisions. “They’re not just hungry to get a job,” Kay says. “They’re hungry for a job that will fill their bucket, and I respect it.” Aprahamian sees the passion, too. “Gen Z uniquely brings a broader expectation of their employers” in areas such as sustainability and diversity, equity, and inclusion, he says. Montoute-Lewis describes it as an alignment between personal and professional senses of purpose. They “need to believe in the values of the company,” she says.

It’s not an all-or-nothing proposition, notes Kyle. “I would definitely prefer to work for a company that is in line with my personal values,” he says. “The flip side of that is that a paycheck and job security are super attractive.”

The trade-offs are something that Kay counsels job candidates about. “You have to put everything into your decision-making and decide what is most important to you,” she says. “No matter what happens, with every generation reality will hit.”

They’re also highly motivated by a sense of purpose, Allen says. It’s not enough for a supervisor to ask them to do a task. “They want to know what the value of their work is. What is the point? They want to know and connect with the bigger picture.”

An illustration depicting small people on top of and surrounded by giant computers and other office technology, as well as word bubbles depicting the heart, and winking emoji, as well as text message bubbles.
They're hungry for a job that will fill their bucket.
Marissa Klein Kay, '99

What are the biggest challenges?

Most of the panelists zeroed in on communication skills as the area of career preparedness in which Gen Z has the most room to grow.

Ong chalks it up, in part, to the pandemic. “Most of them lost anywhere from one to two years of what we would think of as a normal college career,” he says. That included the cancellation of many corporate internships in summer 2020. Aprahamian sees technology playing a role as people increasingly text and IM. “That outreach, that ability to make small chat and converse — I’m a little nervous about some of the communication skills.”

Mental health concerns were at the forefront of many minds during interviews. Gen Z is driving a national conversation about anxiety, burnout, and balance — concerns they are bringing with them to the workplace.

Some experts expressed, with a request for anonymity, a sensitivity to accountability. One told a story about a Gen Z employee missing a task, yet still being disturbed when a supervisor called attention to it. “I’m observing a little bit of softness,” the person said.

Gen Z’s comfort with job mobility will likely challenge employers, but they bear some blame for Gen Z’s attitudes, acknowledges Montoute-Lewis. “They’re much more skeptical [that companies value them], and rightly so if you imagine what they’ve seen,” she says, noting that the job market often rewards moving from job to job. Kyle says many of his friends already think so. “If you’re job-hopping, your salary’s going up,” he says. “Then your old company might want you back, and they’ll give you more money than you would have gotten if you’d just stayed there.”

More broadly, there’s a question of whether Gen Z’s expectations of the employment landscape are too idealistic and, if so, how they will cope with compromise and disappointment.

“They’re coming in hot, right?” Kay says. “They want what they want. But if an industry or company doesn’t offer what you want, it would be very unrealistic to interview and expect treatment that they do not provide.”

“We spend a lot of time preparing students for what to expect and how to succeed,” Stevenson says. “That includes conversations about being realistic.”

Lastly, several people pointed out that Gen Z’s experience is shaped by growing up during a period when the economic scales have generally tipped in favor of job seekers. “They’ve never seen sustained, bad unemployment figures,” Aprahamian says. If the economy shifts, so will job-seekers’ calculations.

What can employers do?

1.) Focus on competencies, not just credentials.

The companies recruiting out of colleges and universities most successfully are increasingly focused on the skills applicants have developed, not their majors, Ong says. “You’re seeing a lot of firms realize that the quantitative skills, the problem-solving skills, the communication skills can exist in a lot of different majors and a wider group of candidates. You can teach somebody how to do financial modeling, for example, but it’s harder to teach flexibility of thought or work ethic.”

2.) Offer training and clear career 
development pathways.

“We want our organization to be a destination for talent because people understand that we’re going to invest in them,” Montoute-Lewis says. “It’s important that we are helping grow their skills and capabilities and creating pathways for them so that they know we’re going to help them reach their potential.”

3.) Be ready to talk about values.

Aprahamian says that organizations historically didn’t worry about candidates asking questions about their values or sustainability or DEI plans. But now, he says, “these questions are coming.” Organizations need to be ready for them.

4.) Don’t try too hard.

Attempts to relate to the newest generation can backfire badly, warns Kyle. “When you use Slack, sometimes you react with an emoji, but the older generation won’t always grasp the concept,” he says. “We might interpret the emoji differently. Sometimes I’ll see companies put emojis in job listings or descriptions, and it makes me laugh.”

5.) Always connect.

Remember that people are people. “This isn’t super-insightful from a business context,” Aprahamian says, “but I think young people are still the funniest people in the world in every generation. When I get the chance to have lunch with five or six of them and watch their banter and humor, that’s one of my favorite things.”

“It’s not easy out there,” Kay says. “You have to be more human than ever.”