Analysis: the next generation of workers may have awesome digital skills, but what about communicating and working face-to-face and offline?

By Kim Margaret Coogan and Marian Crowley-Henry, Maynooth University

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While management consultancies and practitioner publications have been shining the spotlight on Millennials in the workplace over the past decade, the focus is now firmly shifting to Generation Z. Due to their young age, relatively little has been written about them until recently.

Born after 1995, most are still in ever-prolonged education with the first cohort having just left the nest to enter the world of work. They host an array of matchless qualities having experienced the world and events in a unique way. They are the first truly digital native generation feeling at home in cyberspace, which is in essence, the water they learned to swim in.

They face a future working life of collaboration with artificial and augmented intelligence and the rise of the gig economy. They are social activists fighting for their planet and revelling in the Greta Effect, yet fiercely protected by helicopter guardians. They don't know a pre 9/11 world and are heirs of an Ireland that knows social and moral choice like never before. Media and consultancy companies churn out predictions about the future workforce, but what are Irish Gen Z-ers saying for themselves?

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For a start, they want to work. In a recent survey of over 400 college-aged Irish Gen Z-ers, 80% said they would still want to work that even if they had enough money to live as comfortably as they’d like for the rest of their lives.

When asked what’s important for them at work, results were interesting and somewhat different from past international studies. Irish Gen Z-ers value and desire both intrinsic and extrinsic rewards and they want them pretty much equally. Intrinsic rewards could be interesting work or opportunities for personal growth, while extrinsic rewards could be salary, status or benefits. International studies of other generations revealed value clusters that focused mainly in one domain or the other rather than both equally.

The anchor of the Irish Gen Z’s dream career seems to be "Lifestyle", with an emphasis on work-life balance closely followed by security and stability. This may be evidence of their experience as children of the recession. Gen Z-ers say that they will only feel successful in life if they can "balance their personal, family and career requirements". The second most frequent sentiment was "I dream of a career that will permit me to integrate my personal, family and work needs" while at the same time "having…a sense of security and stability". 

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Into this dream world of fulfilling, materially rewarding and secure work, that allows for personal expression and time with family, Gen Z proudly bring unrivaled digital native skills. But the skill of seamlessly navigating between virtual and real worlds may in fact pose a problem for the future workplace. Despite their unprecedented technological savvy, Gen Z’s digital saturation may be hampering their development of cognitive skills.

Irish Gen Z-ers have expressed apprehensions about their ability to communicate face-to-face and develop functional relationships off-line. What was once the norm for interaction now sparks anxiety. They crave face-to-face communication and assert it’s best for the workplace, but they don’t quite know how to do it. From our research, their employers and educators seem to agree. 

So how might this play out in the work place? Because, realistically, it’s not all about what aspiring workers want, expect and offer, is it? One must take a look at what’s happening in the real world and the actual workplace where actual work happens. Increasingly sophisticated value chains fuelled by emerging technologies are shifting the nature of work, especially entry-level positions, away from routine tasks to highly cognitive functions demanding acute soft and social skills that Gen Z-ers may find difficult to produce.

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Despite acknowledgement of heterogeneity, Irish business leaders and educators have highlighted concerns surrounding Gen Z’s lack of conversational skills, empathy, resilience, independence and other foundational cognitive and social skills. For example, where once break times were energetic social interactions building team unity and sharing tacit knowledge, they’ve now become opportunities to check one’s mobile device. There’s connection with a disconnect somewhere. This can leave new workers feeling disengaged, lonely and a bit unsure of themselves, while organisations lose out on precious citizenship behaviour, the unenforceable discretionary energy that fuels a workplace. 

How might Gen Z grapple with the demands of the contemporary workplace? What the future holds remains an open question as the first batch of workers settle in. What is already becoming clear is that this generation will bring many promising attributes, particularly the highest level of technological skills we’ve ever seen in an entrant workforce. However, a gaping cognitive skills gap is potentially emerging. What’s concerning is that the very skills lacking are the ones in growing demand.

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But every generational shift comes with new challenges and opportunities. Millennials rose to the occasion and, with thoughtful intervention, Gen Z should too. Every generation faces the jolt of change when entering the labour force and it just seems Gen Z will feel it more.

The research above was funded by an Enterprise Ireland Innovation Voucher awarded to Zeminar and Maynooth University School of Business (Principal Investigator: Dr Marian Crowley-Henry, Research Assistant: Ms Kim Coogan, Statistical Analysis: Dr Katarina Domijan). Zeminar's annual Wellbeing and Education event for Gen Z-ers takes place on October 8th, 9th and 10th at the National Sports Campus, Dublin. 

Kim Margaret Coogan is a PhD candidate and Teaching Fellowship recipient at the School of Business at Maynooth University. Dr Marian Crowley-Henry is an Associate Professor in the the School of Business at Maynooth University

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ