The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that the country’s total employment will grow by 11.5 million jobs over in the next seven years, at which point, the vast majority of Generation Z will be employed—the youngest members of Z just entering the workforce in 2026. As offices and worksites are already steadily filling with the next generation, employers are going to progressively feel the influence of this next generation of workers. And, with the oldest of Z currently, at age 24, we’re already getting early indicators what the next several years will bring us professionally—and, boy, it’s going to be a change.
For more than a year, I worked with 1,090 Generation Z researchers, entry-level employees, interns and college students on a study about their generation, gaining an intimate understanding of what makes them tick, and seeing up close how they work. Even as a generationally adjacent Millennial, I noticed a few stark contrasts of how Z operates compared to my similarly aged peers. They set the bar high for themselves—and even higher for their employers—which may also be setting themselves up to feel like failures by their own standards.
When asked to rank the importance of success, our Z ethnography respondents ranked success a 4.8 out of 5 in importance on average. CEB Iconoculture’s Values and Lifestyle Survey revealed similar results, with Gen Z valuing “Ambition” far more highly than the general population does, including Millennials. Their drive is made all the more complicated with the additional stress of visibility. These digital natives feel their successes and failures are highly visible to their peers, and so they strive to maintain a certain personal brand. A co-worker anecdotally told me of a Generation Z employee who, when his alma mater was touring the agency, asked his superior for a different project to work on because he had an image to maintain with his former peers. Generation Z is acutely aware of how others see them, and, borrowing a page from influencers, that leveraging that persona can mean financial gains.
Managers shouldn’t assume Gen Z workers have the same idea of an appropriate or normal professional climb. They can motivate Gen Z by communicating expectations of the realistic path of growth, while also finding ways for them to feel like they’re winning now (preferably, visibly/publically), resetting their idea of success to levels more realistic at their entry stages.
Unlike Millennials, Z sees their identity as an asset to be monetized; perhaps that shouldn’t be a surprise for a generation that we have taught aggressively to not only speak to their academic achievements but to sell their unique identity on college applications. With YouTube lifestyle stars and Instagram influencers a part of their daily diet, Z sees building a sellable personal brand as synonymous with success—a process both empowering and daunting. Alice Rich, a career coach in Boston we spoke to for our research said, “The job process is becoming more individualized (e.g., what qualities, passions make you stand out?), but colleges aren’t adequately preparing students.” When Rich asked a Z college student to describe himself, he became very anxious, saying, “Oh my God, I’m having an identity crisis.”
Companies need to be aware of the immense—and, at times, far too heavy—expectations Z puts on their identity as their key to accomplishment. Let them know how their position at your company is building their personal profile while reminding Z employees that any failures or hiccups are not a severe blow to who they are, it’s just part of the learning process.
Department structure and titles are just not how Z is structured. Gen Z embraces multifaceted identities, and see being responsive to changing yourself based on the audience and environment as a savvy, empathetic thing to do. As a result, they resist rigidity and adopting labels that they feel hem them in. Kayla L., a 20-year-old college student we spoke to from Orange County said, “It’s dangerous to be labeled…I either have to follow all these rules, this is what I have to identify with…it causes too many problems.” Gen Z has high expectations of the freedom to shift, which can at times run at odds with the clearly delineated roles, consistency, and accountability that are essential to an efficient workplace.
To maximize their desire to not be limited with labels, managers should consider how to give Z the chance to contribute in a cross-disciplinary way. In doing so, employers prevent frustration and let them access the many facets and assets of their identity. By knowing how they see the world, companies can appropriately prepare and help their Z workers be happy and productive. As the generational balance shifts in the workplace now and in the coming years, one thing is clear: working with this generation won’t be business as usual.
Jess Watts is Associate Strategic Planning Director at RPA, an advertising agency in Santa Monica. She co-authored “Identity Shifters: A Gen Z Exploration,” a report that reflects the thoughts of more than 1,090 Gen Z researchers and research participants, yielding insight into virtually every aspect of their lives.