November 4, 2022

Kids These Days: Motivating the Gen Z Workforce


No one is oblivious to the revolutionary nature of the last hundred years in every facet of human existence. In only a century, humanity fought two world wars, put man on the moon, underwent a global nuclear face-off, and harnessed the power of the internet. In stark contrast with technology of the early 20th century, we have cars that drive themselves and watches that can monitor our habits.

Gen Z, the generation born between 1997 and 2012, represents the latest generation entering the workforce and graduating college. Gen Z is different from any other generation in history for a number of reasons, not the least of which is this: Gen Z is the first generation in history to grow up entirely part of the digital world. As a member of Gen Z myself, I’ve gotten to see how powerfully technology has both helped and hurt this generation. iPhones have been popular since we were young, and social media has toyed with our self-concept.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the good things and the bad things about this generation, particularly in light of the difficulty many companies have finding quality workers. For many of my disaster restoration clients, we run job ads almost nonstop, just to try and get a few able-bodied people to join their teams. The uniqueness of the environment in which Gen Z has grown up has contributed to a very different workforce, making it very difficult to inspire and motivate young people to work in blue-collar jobs. And often, as hard as it is to get Gen Z workers, it’s even harder to keep them. I don’t have time to go into all of the details regarding why and how this is, but I bet you’ve noticed it too. “Kids these days” don’t want to work. It often seems that my generation is un-motivated.

But here’s the rub: it’s not that Gen Z isn’t motivated; it’s that they’re motivated differently.

In other words, it’s not that Gen Z doesn’t want to work; rather, the problem is that the cacophony of social input has made their motivating factors — and the determination of what is a “worthy” job — very different.

We began to see this shift with the Millennial generation. Millennials buy homes much later in life than Baby Boomers, for instance, and have more careers over their lifetime than their predecessors, often choosing humanitarian jobs over remunerative salaries. Trends like “van life,” which were once relegated to the hippy fringe, now garner huge social media followings.

Sociologist Philip Reiff has noted that whereas older generations found job satisfaction in external results, like the ability to provide for a family, younger workers tend to exhibit an internal orientation — a mindset that finds job satisfaction in the sense of accomplishment or happiness that it brings. Reiff describes this shift in self-concept as a shift from the “economic man” to the “psychological man.” In days gone by, people worked to provide; today’s workers often do so in an effort to express themselves. The economic man was concerned with production; the psychological man is concerned with satisfaction. A fundamental shift has taken place over the last hundred years, and this shift has profound implications for the way in which Gen Z workers are motivated and how companies can cast a vision for developing the Gen Z worker.

Give Me Something to Believe In

My senior year of college, I read a book titled Built to Last by Jim Collins and Jerry I. Porras. As many college students do, I took it only as seriously as I needed to for the class. But as I’ve delved into the real world, I have found the author’s claims to be increasingly relevant, especially given the shift I just outlined. In this book, the authors describe the components of a “visionary company” and outline why visionary companies last and others don’t. The criteria for a visionary company are:

  • Premier institution in the industry
  • Widely admired by knowledgeable businesspeople
  • Made an indelible imprint on the world in which we live
  • Had multiple generations of chief executives
  • Been through multiple product (or service) life cycles
  • Founded before 1950

The authors wanted to discover how these companies survived multiple market changes and continued to make an impact. After surveying thousands of companies, institutions like Disney, Sony, Boeing, Marriott, and Walmart made the list of visionary companies. Some of these went through years-long dry spells. Some of them had rough starts. Many of them didn’t have the most famous or charismatic CEOs. Few of them began with revolutionary ideas. And almost none of them outlined profit as their greatest goal. In the end, they argue, visionary companies are distinct in none of the ways one might imagine.

Visionary companies cast a vision — a purpose — and they sell their souls to it. They enshrine corporate purpose in every vestige of company life and find employees who share that sense of purpose. For instance, Akio Morita, CEO of Sony, said this:

“Sony is a pioneer and never intends to follow others. Through progress, Sony wants to serve the whole world. It shall be always a seeker of the unknown… Sony has a principle of respecting and encouraging one’s ability… and always tries to bring out the best in a person. This is the vital force of Sony.”

In observing many of my peers finding or leaving jobs, I’ve begun to see and individual correlate that has led me to this conclusion: a strong value system is the key determinant in an individual’s work ethic. Another way to say this would be, “People with no strong sense of value are seldom committed to good work.”

Now the funny thing is this: it doesn’t really matter what that value system is. People are motivated by factors as diverse as the people themselves. Some are motivated by money. A lot of people aren’t. Many simply want the chance to express themselves creatively or prove their own abilities to themselves. Jim Collins and Jerry I. Porras explain that none of the visionary companies on their list had the same core values. They often had vastly different missions and objectives. But each visionary company cultivated an undeniable belief in and fidelity to its values, whatever they were.

When it comes specifically to young people, members of Gen Z just need something to believe in — no matter the industry. They want to know that the work they’re doing isn’t just work; it’s about something deeper. Generation Z, perhaps more than any other generation in history, is motivated by a sense of accomplishment and contribution more than production.

To Inspire, or Not to Inspire — That is the Question

If younger people are more motivated by a mission or a sense of satisfaction in the work itself, then what does this mean for a company’s ability to attract and retain motivated employees?

Corporate implications:

Sell the opportunities, not the tasks.

Something I’ve seen many employers do is try to talk up the job itself. Some jobs are inherently sexy, but that’s not true of a lot of jobs. No one looking for entry-level work gets on with a passion for cleaning out air ducts. No one approaches a job listing saying, “I love how this one outlines the opportunity to nail lumber together.”

Young people are looking not for the details of a job, but for how that job will allow them to develop. The opportunity for teamwork, creativity, or helping others are what sell a job, not the tasks within it. So in searching for motivated candidates, sell the opportunities, not the tasks.

Cultivate a culture of trying.

Jesse Crowley, Tier Level’s Quality Assurance Directory, explained Tier Level’s culture to me during my first week on the job. I remember one thing he said more than anything else. He said something like, “We maintain an affinity for initiative.” In other words, we don’t give up without trying. If there is an obstacle, we face it. If there is problem, we fix it. We are less concerned with how to get there as we are addressing it creatively. This has been powerfully formational in my work as a client advisor.

Sometimes, the procedure is the procedure and no one should deviate from it. But often, there isn’t a clear-cut answer. In those moments, activating an employee’s sense of ownership and ability to conquer the problem can be the difference between a satisfied employee and a burnt-out one.

Gen Z hates boxes. No matter the industry, look for ways to activate creativity and encourage creative problem-solving, giving employees a sense of ownership over the roadblocks they face.

Develop a comfort level with failure.

Encouraging creativity will inevitably involve accepting failure from time to time. Our solutions may not always work.

In some arenas, failure isn’t an option. You can’t not get a job done for a client. You can’t fail to complete a project. However, where there is room for creativity, failure can actually prod a team into better solutions. Learn to strategically make room for this and encourage your team to work toward a solution, even if success isn’t guaranteed. Cultivating this aptitude for perseverance will yield dividends in a motivated workforce.

Wrapping Up

The world is changing at time warp speed. Never before has fashion changed, technology advanced, and economic shifts occurred at such a pace. And with the world in flux, it can seem impossible to develop a powerful strategy for attracting and retaining good people. But it can be done.

As you seek to cultivate an inspirational vision and sell your company’s soul to accomplishing it, you will have a rich environment to sell to potential employees. Hardworking Gen Z workers are out there. We just have to present opportunities differently.

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Friday, November 4, 2022


Ben Bender

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