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The COVID-19 pandemic has sparked the sharpest change to the way we conceptualize the workforce and the workplace in a generation — possibly ever. As businesses discard orthodoxies and respond to shifting realities posed by the pandemic, the newest entrants to the workforce are well positioned to leave their mark. Combined with other demographic shifts and increased attention to pressing issues like climate change, we may ultimately look back at this time as a watershed moment that Generation Z workers helped drive.
“As businesses discard orthodoxies and respond to shifting realities posed by the pandemic, the newest entrants to the workforce are well positioned to leave their mark.”
Generation Z generally refers to the successor generation to millennials. While anyone born between 1981 and 1996 is a millennial, anyone born from 1997 onward is part of this new generation. As a group, Gen Zers face disproportionate anxiety and economic hardship within this pandemic. But crises and opportunities are often more aligned than we realize, and it’s worth looking at the role this cohort of students and young professionals can play in shaping the future of work. The financial crisis of 2008 can be of help in understanding this.
Ten years ago, North America began seeing the impacts of a post-recession economy following sustained declines in economic activity and irreversible hits to manufacturing. Over the course of the decade, retirement age increased, and millennials, who at the time were the most ethnically diverse generation Canada had ever seen, inherited a better labour environment than their parents had. The participation of women in the labour force grew and the level of education increased. There was hope.
Millennials helped shape that post-recession economy. Their entrepreneurial spirit led to the influx of start-ups in American cities like Palo Alto, Calif., and New York, as well as closer to home in Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto. This influx changed the business landscape and resulted in some aspects of start-up culture — such as remote work, unlimited vacation days, and more casual dressing — trickling into the corporate world.
For many workers on Toronto’s Bay Street, and in centres of industry across the country, the concept of a true 9-5 work day dissipated. Desk phones started to become obsolete and the notion of having a corner office was no longer something to aspire to. Mobile technology enabled these changes that added to efficiency, but made checking out at the end of the day far more difficult.
While millennials were not the predominant managers of this shift, they were more adept at it than their older colleagues. As the recent graduating classes of Gen Zers begin to infiltrate the corporate world, they too stand to benefit from their adaptability, digital literacy and comfort with the evolving corporate culture that millennial entrepreneurs helped create.
For the first time in history, we see a generation that entered the workforce with none of the technological supports we use today (including the internet, modern computers or cell phones) working alongside the first fully digital generation. Older generations have had to teach themselves and each other how to incorporate these new technologies into their day-to-day lives, especially during this pandemic. Gen Zers, on the other hand, have never known a life without these technologies.
The norms Gen Zers were raised with have become the only road forward since the pandemic forced organizations to shift to work-from-home arrangements. Boomers and Gen Xers, who may not be as technologically advanced, have been forced to adapt to this new era of remote working. This embracing of technology, which in some cases may have caused tension among the generations, may ultimately level the playing field between digital and non-digital natives.
Even before the pandemic, more companies were looking at ways to incorporate flexible workdays and remote work into their regular environment. But COVID-19 accelerated this thinking and showed employers and larger companies that there may be lasting potential for employees to work from home more often.
Gone are the days when fancy and expensive offices were the norm. Such offices are being replaced by a new way of working that emphasizes flexible arrangements and results in lower operation costs. This will permit companies to focus on investing in the best new technologies, and will open up a new pool of recruits able to benefit from the added flexibility.
Despite this influence and these overwhelming trends in their favour, millennials who entered the workforce at the height of the 2008 recession and Gen Zers entering the workplace now have experienced a common financial and social insecurity. According to a 2019 report conducted by the American Psychological Association, young adults new to the workforce tend to have the highest average stress levels of any generation. Some of these people, especially those who live alone or are new to a city, have come to depend on the human interaction that comes from working in an office space.
This period of rapid change has not been easy, but for some there is an unprecedented opportunity to not only thrive in this environment but to help shape the years ahead. Employers are increasingly required to pay attention to the values of Gen Z and how they may inform their employment decisions.
According to Forbes, Gen Z consumers and recruits look for companies that support green policies and human rights. A decade ago, millennials were starting to think the same way, but companies were not aligning their corporate social responsibility objectives with their business objectives in the same way. That was okay, then.
That institutional reluctance appears to be giving way. Bay Street is embracing anti-plastic movements and climate change summits, and is dedicating resources to green initiatives. According to research from the Canadian Centre for the Purpose of the Corporation, 78 per cent of Canadians think Canadian businesses should do more for the betterment of society. The landscape of corporate Canada is changing: companies are facing intense pressure to improve not only share value performance, but social performance as well.
Just as previous watershed moments impacted other generations, this pandemic will undoubtably be a defining event for Gen Z. While it will shape the way generations across the board work, it will have the most lasting impact on the future of the workforce for this group.
When people look to the future of the workplace, they look to automation, market trends and public policy. In addition to all of this, they should be looking out for Gen Z.