Fusion 2015: Don’t Sleep on Generation Zs

Fusion 2015: Don’t Sleep on Generation Zs

Every successful businessman or woman has to get their Zs, and that’s about to take on a while new meaning. We already know about the impact the millennial generation is having on society and the workplace. While their impact will be felt for decades to come, there is another group that’s coming of age in Generation Z, whose oldest members were born in 1995.

“Gen Z has an incredible voice, and they know how to form community, and they will crucify you on the altar of social media if you’re not doing right by them.” — Futurist and author Tom Koulopoulos

Officially classified as the generation born between 1995 and 2012, their future impact on the concept of “live, work, play” is something the business community must think about as companies form their business development plans, according to futurist Tom Koulopoulos, chairman of the Delphi Group, a Boston-based think tank, and co-author of “The Gen Z Effect: The Six Forces Shaping the World of Business.”

Koulopoulos offered some insights into the Gen Z effect during the 2015 Fusion CEO-CIO Symposium produced by WTN Media. In this Take Five interview, he noted that while millennials have been baked in technology, Gen Z is basically marinated in it.

IB: How is Gen Z different than the millennials?

Koulopoulos: The millennials were kind of the beta test for technology. A lot of what the millennials went through was not native from birth; they sort of adopted it. They adopted the technology quickly, but they weren’t born into it. Gen Z was born into technology. They’ve had it since birth. They’ve literally come out of the womb with a smartphone or a mobile device, so for them the separation between technology and the rest of the world is not a distinct separation. It’s not a hard line, so they expect objects to be intelligent. They expect everything to have some kind of connectivity. That wires them from birth with a very high bar in terms of what technology can accomplish.

They also have an expectation that technology is just there, that it’s reliable. It’s not going away, which in some cases can be a little risky because they have never lived in a world without a major technology catastrophe. When we grew up, we had blackouts. These kids don’t know what a blackout is. They don’t know what it is for their phones to go down.

And the last thing is that they are constantly, incessantly connected to each other, and it’s 24/7. They just don’t know how to be alone. It’s not that they don’t want to be alone, it’s that they don’t know how to be alone. That combination of growing up with technology from the outset, this hyper-connectedness, and this expectation that technology is going to be there and be reliable really separates them from any prior generation.

IB: How does that dictate how businesses should approach them in terms of serving them as consumers and then really respecting their needs as employees?

Koulopoulos: From a consumer standpoint, businesses have to acknowledge three things: One, Gen Z has an incredible voice, and they know how to form community, and they will crucify you on the altar of social media if you’re not doing right by them. So you have to allow them to enter into a conversation with you.

Two, you’ve got to be transparent in that conversation. You have to put your organization, your process, and your product out in the open, and let them see it for what it is. They don’t expect you to be perfect in terms of social responsibility, but they want you to balance the scales. They want you to have a carbon offset. If you’re doing something that’s not the best thing for the world, what are you doing to make up for that? That transparency is huge.

And third, you’ve got to personalize. Everything has to be about them, and that sounds very entitled, but it’s not an entitlement mentality. They expect technology to understand them, to get them. I spend all this time on my computer, why doesn’t it know what my behaviors are? So if you can’t get my behavior, if you can’t market it to me in a way that acknowledges and respects my behavior, something is wrong with you. You shouldn’t be trying to sell me boat parts if I don’t own a boat. Then something’s wrong with your algorithm. They expect your algorithm to understand and to get their behaviors.

IB: Is that part of the explanation of why younger people are more willing to sacrifice some their privacy?

Koulopoulos: For Gen Z, the notion of privacy almost doesn’t exist. In fact, they see a whole value proposition in not being private because they are so connected, they are out there on social media, and they share the most intimate aspects of their lives. They have this expectation that there is a much lower threshold in terms of what I’m not willing to share. Now they still have some element of privacy. I’m not saying that’s going away entirely, but it’s much different than it was for the millennials and certainly for the baby boomers like myself.

The other thing is they want to collaborate and have transparent relationships because they get more value out of that because that collaboration leads to other ideas, other innovations perhaps, and another community that they otherwise wouldn’t have. So they have a different view of privacy.

IB: Many are in college now and others have just entered the workforce. We don’t really know how to appeal to them from a workforce standpoint yet, do we?

Koulopoulos: As employees, they have this incredible desire to contribute and to find purpose and meaning in their work, so you have to allow them to do that. You have to give them the ability to align their greater purpose in life with their work and the meaning that they find and the purpose that they find in their work. The other thing is that work-life balance is very different for them. They don’t see it as a scale, where work is on one side of the scale and the rest of their life is on the other side. They have to integrate both.

So there is an expectation that you will give them that integration and they will be available 24/7. They expect you to understand and respect that this means you have to give them flexibility to choose when and how they work. So if you reach an agreement with a `Gen Z’ around that, you have an enormously productive individual. If you don’t, if your expectation is to confine them to work within certain hours, or within a certain geography, you’re going to get much less out of them because the reality is their creative cycle, the way they are accustomed to work, is not confined to a certain time during the day.

IB: Hence trends like remote working and here in Madison, one of the things companies do is give eight hours paid time off to serve a nonprofit or a worthy cause their employees believe in.

Koulopoulos: Exactly, so you have to give them some flexibility to work, whether that’s work-at-home, virtual work, things like that. We saw the backlash with Yahoo on this, and so clearly, we’re not all there yet. There has to be more flexibility in terms of how they work, the hours, and the location.

Number two, you’ve got to give them, and support them in pursuing their purpose, their meaning. So whether it’s philanthropic or whether, frankly, it’s a hobby they are interested in, if they feel it’s meaningful to their life, you have to support that in some way.

Thirdly, you’ve got to constantly be giving them the opportunity to educate themselves because they see education as a life-long process. They want you to support them in that. That might be supporting education as part of their employment. That might be supporting education as a part of their education elsewhere. It might mean being more in touch with some of the current events going on in the world to help them understand those current events, but they expect that ongoing education process to be part of their lives.