Five Ways the Pandemic Changed Team Members From Generation Z

By: Tim Elmore

I distinctly remember interviewing for a full-time job with John C. Maxwell in 1982. John was not famous yet, except in certain circles, but he already displayed lots of agency. His personality filled the room. I was graduating college that year, and he expressed an interest in my skills. When I look back at that exchange, which later turned into a job offer, I recall how naïve I was. I had some job experience during college, but I would describe my mindset this way:

  • Idealistic 
  • Nervous
  • Hungry to learn
  • Willing to take whatever salary he offered 

I was not alone. This kind of perspective has filled recent graduates for decades. The seasoned veterans were the employers, and they held most of the “cards in their hands.” Except for a rare few job seekers, the market belonged to the employer, not the employee. 

Further, prior to COVID-19, young people would enter their careers with a more idealistic mindset. By this, I mean they were extremely altruistic, purpose-driven, and desiring to make a difference, to quote a cliché. Today, things are different on the other side of a pandemic. It’s not that they no longer want to change the world, it’s just that they’ve become much more pragmatic. Society has shifted, and so has the marketplace.

As young adults enter the job market, it’s helpful for employers to know, as a whole, they’re more cynical. They’re less trusting. They’re more pragmatic. They feel more empowered. Generation Z led the way on the “Great Resignation.” They perceive that the job market, often managed by baby boomers and Gen X, hasn’t worked out too well. Right or wrong, they see disparities in compensation and in opportunity. They enter job interviews with a louder voice than past generations. It’s already become a game changer.

Five Ways the Pandemic Changed Young Team Members

I have listed five data points for leaders to consider as they interact with job candidates. Hold on to your hats, as their requests may surprise you:

  • They are asking for more money.

Today’s recent graduates know they are in demand. They see all the “help wanted” signs in retail windows. They’re aware of rising salaries, and they don’t want to wait to pay their dues. It’s a buyer’s market for employees. In a survey of 196 employers during February and March, 16 percent told the National Association of Colleges and Employers they would double new-graduate hires from last year.

And candidates are getting more. Journalist Lindsay Ellis writes, “Among those who have accepted jobs, 53% said their starting salary was greater than they expected, while 41% said it was what they anticipated, according to a survey of more than 1,000 college seniors from TimelyMD, a telehealth company providing medical treatment and counseling to students.” HR managers should prepare for audacious requests from young job seekers. Based on a volatile economy, candidates are often risk-averse and seek financial security above all else. Prepare to discuss bigger numbers. 

  • They are asking for more clarity and specifics.

I keep hearing stories of young adults who’ve been offered a job but are waiting on details from the potential employer before they accept. According to The Wall Street Journal, “Because new graduates can afford to be choosy, some are taking their time to lock in a new job, recruiters say. About half of new grads who hadn’t decided on a job had gotten at least one offer without accepting, according to a March survey of more than 2,500 soon-to-be graduates by Chicago recruiting firm LaSalle Network.”

It used to be those details could be ironed out later, once managers knew who they’d just hired. There was a wait and see mindset. Today, multiple job offers seem to empower these free agents to negotiate specifics earlier, even before they sign a contract. We’d best get ready to offer details.

  • They are asking for equity.

One of the reasons for the surge in turnover is that staff members perceive a lack of equity on their work teams. Whether we agree or not, they observe that opportunities exist for some but not for others. Job seekers look for equity and inclusion along with salary and clarity. A case in point is Austin Bowles, a senior at Coastal Carolina University. He saw “tons” of listings for his preferred first job, and he weeded out postings that were unclear about what the job actually entailed and what the cultural values were. This is more common today. Vague, general ads will be passed up by young job seekers who can hold out for a detailed promise of equity and inclusion at their first job.

A vivid example is KPMG, which often gets questions about the company’s work on social issues. James Powell, who manages the hiring of college grads, says he receives many inquiries from candidates about company culture, and some sought details about an organization for LGBTQ employees he lists on his LinkedIn profile. They’re getting very specific with their inquisition. Once again, be prepared. 

  • They are asking for flexibility.

Most managers already know this, but in a world that went virtual for the better part of a year (and for some, almost two years), people are expecting more flexibility on when and where they get their work done. This applies to young job candidates as well. Consider their life for the past two years. In college, they got professors to delay deadlines on assignments and even exams. Everyone working from home on a screen had to give grace to each other, both teachers and learners.

This is translating into Gen Z’s expectations at work. 68 percent of seniors surveyed by TimelyMD cited the importance of flexible work hours. My advice? We may need to focus on outcomes more than inputs. If our goal really is results, does it make a difference where or when they achieve them? Rather than clocking in at a certain time, is it possible for us to measure and celebrate what they produce? This may be a key step. 

  • They are asking to be face-to-face. 

Finally, these young adults from Generation Z long to be in-person with others. Yale University graduate Eugene Thomas said, “I don’t even think I entertained the option of remote work. Remote school felt like I was swimming in molasses or something—like I was just trying to push through. I felt a lack of motivation.”

At the same time, most young job seekers want to control this option. 60 percent of 571 respondents to a 2022 survey of seniors from recruiting-software firm iCIMS said they wanted a hybrid arrangement. This seems to be the way of the future, if at all possible, for our work environments. Members of Gen Z recognize they need to be face-to-face with people for their mental health, and they’re very aware of the importance of tending to their anxiety levels. 

I want to encourage you as a leader: Let’s connect with this new generation as if they are humans first, not merely workers. If we do, and we demonstrate we understand their needs, we’ll have the favor we need to find and secure the best talent in this generation. 

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Five Ways the Pandemic Changed Team Members From Generation Z