Gen Z – We don’t have a generation problem, we have a transformation problem.

It's a nice narrative for some companies, executives, recruiters and consultants to shimmy along: Gen Z and their heavy-handed approach to work.

What if there are no generational differences at all? And much more exciting: What happens when employers and managers look at the unifying elements of all employees and promote them within the management system and the organization?

If you ask Germany’s employers, young people are lazy. In a survey conducted by the German Chamber of Industry and Commerce (DIHK), they criticize Generation Z. That is, those born between 1995 and 2012, which is about 13 million young people across Germany. Every year, the DIHK publishes a training survey in which employers are asked about the behavior of young employees. The result of the 2022 edition: 63 percent of all young people lack motivation, willingness to perform and the ability to work under pressure.

Generation Z are “the most disloyal jobbers of all time,” according to a recent headline in Der Spiegel.

Dissatisfaction with employers is higher than ever among Gen Z. No wonder: needs such as job choice, working time flexibility and the like of this generation are allegedly currently given too little consideration.

“If you don’t think about benefits like home office, workation or sabbatical, you won’t even reach a part of this generation as an employer,” a labor market expert quoted.

Many employers and companies now believe that this is precisely where they need to start in order to attract and retain this (and other) generations of employees. But in doing so, they are, at best, preying on symptoms and generously starting to pave over them instead of getting to the bottom of the actual problems.

Back to the generational question. What if, sociologically speaking, these generational differences don’t even exist?
What if employee retention can be done differently?

Who is Gen Z?

Gen Z, also known as “digital natives,” currently forms the youngest generation and generally comprises people born between the mid-1990s and the mid-2010s.

Gen Z is characterized by a high affinity for technology and growing up in a highly connected world. They have grown up with smartphones and social media and use them daily to stay in touch with friends and family, search for and consume information, and present themselves.

Unlike Millennials, who are often described as optimistic and team-oriented, Gen Z’ers are considered more pragmatic and individualistic. They are also more focused on social issues such as equality, climate change and political injustice.

In terms of their career choices, they prefer flexible working conditions, such as home office options and work-life balance. They are also very demanding when it comes to the quality of products and services and prefer sustainable and ethical brands.

Overall, Gen Z is a diverse and influential generation that will shape the world through their technological skills and commitment to social justice.

(Sources for the statements mentioned: PwC, Agentur “Junges Herz”).

Contexts for Gen Z

Formative phenomena for Gen Z are environmental disasters, digitalization, globalization and terrorism.

Gen Z is often described in the job context as follows: 

  • Diversity and equality are a matter of course for them
  • they value a work-life balance
  • they are considered the best-connected generation

However, these generational attributions should be taken with a grain of salt:

  • They are very inconsistent and very general.
  • The 15-year division: in part, the formative events are missing.
  • Different attitudes toward topics is not always a generational issue. The zeitgeist changes and so do attitudes (“period effect”). So someone who is 50 years old thinks about many things differently than someone who is 20 years old. And it’s also the case that everyone in society thinks differently now than they did 40 years ago, for example. If you had asked 40 years ago whether homosexuals should be allowed to marry, hardly anyone would have said yes. Now almost everyone actually says yes.
  • There’s the age effect: a 20-year-old has no problem partying until 6 in the morning, but a 60-year-old does.

Fact about “The Generations”

There are no generations in the Federal Republic that differ from one another in their attitudes. This is the conclusion reached by Marburg sociologist Professor Dr. Martin Schröder in a recent study in which he evaluated over 500,000 individual data from more than 70,000 survey participants.

So where does it come from that we divide society into generations?

Karl Mannheim, sociologist, wrote the book “The Problem of Generations” in 1928 and this is still considered the cornerstone of generational research. In this book he distinguishes between the concepts of generation.

The idea of a generation is that people are shaped throughout their lives by the experiences they had during their youth (between 15 and 25). Old people can also remember this time particularly well (reminiscence effect).

In other words, the common thread of a generation is a formative event in its youth, on the basis of which lifelong values and attitudes have developed. Historically, generations were first discussed as a concept in the 19th century in connection with the advent of the Industrial Revolution and the emergence of mass societies. Thus, the event of World War II or the cultural phenomenon such as the hippie movement were considered to be formative experiences for a generation.

Based on this, a 15-year division was established. This division has thus historically emerged and been maintained (even if the formative events were absent or could no longer be divided into the 15-year rhythm).

Important: The division of generations into 15-year cycles is a convention, not a hard and fast rule.

In summary

The generational concept thus refers to the distinction and description of different generations within a society, including their shared characteristics, values, and behaviors.

There are criticisms of this concept:

  • According to many sociologists, the common division into generations is no longer tenable.
  • It is not a suitable approach to explaining the lack of motivated workers.

The real problem for companies

Why the generation concept is not the real problem of a lack of employee recruitment and retention: We can observe a growing desire for a better work-life balance in every generation.

Gen Z is now demanding this more strongly because: they can afford it, as they are fewer in number than the boomers. In 1964, 1.4 million children were born in Germany; in 2006, just half that number.

Boomers, on the other hand, are used to adapting to the demands of the company within their work environment – the competition was all too present, the next best person was just waiting to take their place. That’s not to say they always thought this labor exploitation was great. They are socialized differently.

Once the boomers retire, there will be a shortage of about 7 million workers (around 2035).

Many companies are therefore thinking about how they can get Gen Z excited about themselves and their company, and in the process are falling prey to a fatal observation error: namely, that one must focus on the differences between the generations instead of the similarities.

The result is a benefit arms race: another fruit basket in the corner, a sports program there, home office? Sure, and you can choose your monitors!

Now that’s not wrong, but sometimes there’s also an interchangeability, because fruit baskets can also be offered by others. If you take a closer look, you’ll discover the following: The supposed (and in comparison rather small) work preferences pale in contrast to the overarching commonalities.

The similarities of the generations

The key question employers need to ask themselves is: What constitutes good work and how can we implement the framework conditions for “good work” in our company.

Let’s not talk about fruit baskets, but about real work!

What all people want, after all, is to get into the effectiveness of being able to create a “footprint” together with others, to make a contribution instead of pursuing meaningless employment.

Purpose is of course defined very individually for a person, but in principle a meaningful activity is the one that enables the development of the individual potential (approximately) and that allows me to participate in the success of the company.

Possible reasons for dealing with “escape mechanisms” could be:

  • Over-control: Too much bureaucracy and redundancies lead to pointless (duplication of) work.
  • Lack of a clear system of goals and strategies: If a company’s goals and strategies are not clearly defined, this can lead to employees performing tasks that do not contribute to achieving the company’s goals.
  • Lack of communication: Poor communication between different departments or between employees and managers can lead to tasks being performed twice or ineffectively.
  • Half-hearted implementation of self-organization in teams: If the aforementioned trust in the self-organization capabilities of employees and across organizational units is not really lived, the opposite of the actually intended self-efficacy of employees occurs.
  • Outdated processes and systems: When processes and systems are outdated or not functioning properly, this can lead to employees investing time and energy in meaningless activities to fix problems.
  • Lack of motivation and commitment: If employees feel that their work has no purpose or is not valued, this can lead to a lack of motivation and commitment, which in turn can have a negative impact on work performance (negative feedback loop).

To avoid pointless work, companies should define clear goals and strategies, improve communication, implement effective processes and systems, and motivate and engage employees.

All in all, there is no blueprint, every company is different – organizational development requires an in-depth analysis of the current state.

Only then can targeted measures be taken that are tailored to the individual needs and goals of the organization. Successful organizational development therefore requires intensive cooperation between all those involved.

This is not just about developing new structures or processes, but also about rethinking leadership culture and employee involvement. After all, it is ultimately the corporate culture that determines the success of an organization.

In this purpose, every organizational development should be seen as an opportunity – both for the company itself and for its employees. After all, continuous improvement not only optimizes the working environment, but also creates new perspectives. In this way, not only GEN Z employees are attracted and retained, but also employees of all “generations”.

Angelika Ballosch ist Marketing-, und systemische Organisationsberaterin. Ihre Expertise erstreckt sich von der Entwicklung strategischer Marketing- und Kampagnenkonzepte bis hin zum kollaborativen Aufbau von Organisationsstrukturen, dem Abbau von Silos, der Gestaltung eines optimalen Funnels, Veränderungsinitiativen und der Umsetzung von Marketingmaßnahmen. Mit einer systemtheoretischen Herangehensweise werden Werte und Strukturen in der Kultur identifiziert und Symptome von echten Problemen unterschieden, um die Herausforderungen in der Wertschöpfung anzugehen.”

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