Bridging The Age Gap in The Workforce
Companies are facing the continuing challenge of integrating a multi-generational workforce and learning how to create a work environment that appeals to the youngest workers: Generation Z. Gen Z, who were born between 1996 and 2012, are the next wave of employees who will help our businesses thrive. These younger workers may be vastly different from the generations already in a company’s workforce and adapting business and culture to successfully incorporate them into our companies is critical to success.
Currently, workplaces generally have employees that span four generations: Baby Boomers, Generation X, Millennials, and Generation Z. Developing policies and creating meaningful connections between people born from 1946-2012 is complicated because of the tremendous differences in life experiences that shape how to communicate, what benefits are of greatest value, and perspectives about how and when work is performed.
Right now, Millennials comprise the largest segment of the United States workforce. When adding Gen Z, these two generations make up nearly half of all workers. While it seems that Millennials and Gen Z are so similar that not much would need to change, that is not an accurate assumption. A lot of world changes have happened between the two generations and those have influenced the outlook and perspective between them. Depending on what strategies employers have already implemented, companies may need to further adapt to attract and retain Gen Z workers.
Building A Workforce with Gen Z In Mind
Learning the characteristics of the Gen Z workforce and creating policies and opportunities that they will embrace will not only help companies build a successful and sustainable workforce for the future but will also be the foundation for connecting the four generations in the workforce. A 2020 Gallup survey of Millennial and Gen Z workers about what they expect from their workplaces revealed that the top four things that they want are:
- An employer that cares about their physical and mental well-being
- Ethical leadership
- Transparent leadership
- A company that supports a diverse and inclusive workplace
The rise of importance on employers’ help in their employees’ well-being may be a result of the Gallup poll being taken during the height of the COVID-19 global pandemic. The pandemic transformed the workforce, and Gen Z was young and impressionable when it started. Most Gen Z’ers experienced the pandemic as high school or college students, with only a small number living through it in the initial stages of their careers.
As a result, the pandemic had an immediate, profound influence on Gen Z, and whether it is a result of the pandemic or the soaring cost of higher education, Gen Z is making different career choices than before the pandemic. Four-year college enrollment has dropped 7% compared to 2019, and two-year programs dropped more than 8%. This means that Gen Z is the first generation in several decades that is reconsidering their work lives. For companies seeking to fill skilled labor positions, such as those in the printing industry, this is great news and means that printers may have a better chance with recruiting Gen Z than before the pandemic.
More than just a salary
To stay competitive for Gen Z workers, companies are expanding benefits, which will also help earlier generations reach personal and professional goals. The old saying “A rising tide lifts all boats” applies here. Rethinking company policies related to well-being will help make Gen Z employees feel seen and will also be appreciated by other generations of workers. Older generations already in the workforce may especially appreciate their newest team members for catalyzing these changes, which will help build a bridge between them.
For instance, the pandemic shifted how and where work was performed and opened possibilities that were not considered before then, when working remotely was often nothing more than a fantasy. Gen Z, however, sees this as the norm now, and working from home corresponds with their lifestyle preferences. Data indicates that Gen Z’s personal lives are more focused on home, nature, and hobbies than earlier generations. It is no surprise that Gen Z is a driving force for remote work arrangements. Although many employees in printing operations must remain working in a company facility, those that have the choice to work from home are grateful for the option.
The most unique and defining characteristic of Gen Z is that it is the only generation that has interacted with technology from infancy. Computers and smartphone applications have always been the primary source for information and communication for Gen Z, so adapting communication and providing information digitally is critical to bridging the gap with this next generation.
For instance, rather than exclusively using email to let employees know about something, also use a messaging app such as Slack or Teams for quick updates. For longer communications, send a text that links to a posting on the company intranet. Messaging apps facilitate spontaneous written and video communications, and these are great platforms for building relationships between coworkers.
Training opportunities are another way to bring employees together. Gen Z wants careers, not just jobs. Witnessing earlier generations work in the gig economy without having the time or resources to grow their careers has pushed Gen Z toward wanting to learn skills that they can grow over time. As a result, companies competing for Gen Z workers are adding training and career-enhancing opportunities to their benefits.
Digital platforms that provide flexible online learning are a natural fit for Gen Z, and will help all team members enhance their skills, which has a positive effect on morale, career, productivity, and quality of work.
Another highly appreciated benefit that cuts across all generations is flexibility with time. While that can be quite limited in a production facility, reconsider start and end times for the workday, shift schedules, job sharing, part-time work, and any other aspects of the workday that might be changed to accommodate lifestyles.
Over the generations, the workforce has gradually rejected the idea that employees must fully conform their lives around their employer’s workday schedule. Instead, there is a desire for employers to try to meet their employees’ needs to make their personal lives more manageable and enjoyable.
Gen Z is also interested in learning from others, so another way to build a bridge in a multi-generational workforce is to create a mentoring program. Mentoring is an outstanding method to connect senior and junior team members and create an inclusive work environment.
Rather than leaving mentoring to chance, create a structured two-way mentoring program that allows both junior and senior employees to share skills and information with each other. While a senior employee may help a junior employee “learn the ropes” at the company, the junior employee may be able to help their mentor with cultural issues and decode generational differences.
Creating benefits that appeal to junior workers will also be better for senior workers. For instance, Gen Z has heightened focus on Paid Time Off because they have watched gig workers who seem to always be “on” and work at least portions of every day. This “always on” hustling is not popular with Gen Z, who are looking for a balance in their work and personal lives without a financial penalty.
Companies are responding to the change by offering more favorable PTO, which is a benefit that all generations of team members appreciate. Overall, 45% of hourly workers do not believe that their company encourages them to take advantage of work-life policies, so encouraging employees to get away from work and use their PTO will demonstrate that management is sincere in wanting to help workers find a positive work-life balance.
Beyond the Paycheck
Gen Z is the most financially disadvantaged generation in decades. Employers may be able to create benefits that ease financial burdens in non-wage methods. For example, a survey by Rocket Mortgage showed that 86% of Gen Z would like to own a home. Unfortunately, the average income to housing price ratio is the highest it has been in 70 years, so home ownership is increasingly difficult. Historically, a home cost five times the annual household income, but now it is eight times the annual household income.
Adding a benefit that allows companies to contribute to a down payment for a new home would help Gen Z but will also help others who have been unable to put away sufficient money to buy a home.
Mission and values are another way to bridge the workforce generation gap. As the first true digital native generation, Gen Z is adept at finding out whether a company is being authentic in their stated mission and goals and will hold companies accountable for them. Living up to the common mission and values will connect team members no matter the generational differences.
One of Gen Z’s top-four desired elements for their workplace is diversity and inclusion. Gen Z is the first generation in which white/Caucasian people are not the majority. People of Color are the majority, and for workplaces, bridging the gap with the next generation means diversifying your workforce whenever possible. This does not mean that companies should hire people simply based on their race or gender, but diversification can occur when companies expand where they look for qualified candidates, which means thinking creatively about recruitment techniques.
Providing mental health and wellness benefits will also bridge the generation gap. Gen Z has, unfortunately, experienced a greater degree of diagnosed mental-health disorders and substance-use disorders. It is unclear whether the higher incidence of these disorders is due to improved diagnosis, or whether the disorders are occurring more frequently with this generation.
Despite the prevalence, Gen Z is not seeking treatment as readily as prior generations from healthcare providers but are, instead, trying to manage their treatment by using information from social media platforms such as TikTok and Reddit. Employer-provided mental health benefits will help Gen Z but will also help all employees access needed care.
Connecting with our newest workers and creating a harmonious multi-generational workforce may be at its most challenging point in the past several decades. Employers can bridge the generation gap by emphasizing employee wellness and lifestyle, which will appeal to not only our newest workers, but also to the people who are part of our teams right now. Designing flexible work schedules when possible, demonstrating an authentic interest in diversity and inclusion, and showing that your company offers a career through mentoring and training will create a work environment that will be embraced by everyone. ●
Adriane Harrison is Vice President, Human Relations Consulting at PRINTING United Alliance. Adriane assists members with a wide variety of HR matters involving statutes, regulations, policies, procedures, culture, and staffing, as well as the gamut of day-to-day HR issues. In addition, she supports professional development by conducting webinars, participating in panel discussions, and speaking at industry events on human resources issues. Currently, Adriane is the Chairperson of the Graphic Communications Workforce Coalition, a member of the Women in Print Alliance, and a founder of the Women’s Print Mentoring Network.
Adriane received a journalism degree from the University of Illinois and a law degree from DePaul University in Chicago. As an attorney, Adriane practiced in both the public and private sectors. Her work was in the areas of Constitutional, commercial, securities, and criminal law. Adriane and her family live in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.