When Gen Z Grows Up

What you need to know about working with the next generation of leaders

Time to read: 7 min

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Born in 1995-2010, Generation Z will be 30-45 years old and very influential in the business world by 2040. Gen Z’s defining characteristics stem from their identity as “digital natives,” meaning they hardly remember a life before the internet. The greatest implication of living a life on the web is how hyper-connectedness improves the ability to see into each others’ lives and create diverse communities. According to a Tallo survey [1] of over 5,000 participants, 69% of Gen Z would “absolutely” be more likely to apply for a job that had recruiters and materials that reflected an ethnically and racially diverse workplace. An additional 21% said they would “probably” be more likely to apply. Leaders in 2040 wil demand inclusion.


The traits that characterize each generation are not just trends or random occurences. Instead, each generation is a product of their experience; their norms shape a lens for understanding the world around. The most easily influenced period of one's life, give or take, is from age 5 to 20. Therefore, Gen X might have been shaped by the tail end of the Cold War. Milennials might have been influenced by the rise of video games, computers, and the events of 9/11. Gen Z is still at an easily influenced age today. You might ask, "What are some norms that are influencing Gen Z as we speak that could possibly define them as a generation?"

The first one would be the United States presidency. Take an older member of Gen Z for example. She would be roughly 20 years old. For 8 years of her life, Barack Obama was the President. For the next 4 years, Kamala Harris will be the Vice President. Therefore by the time she turns 24, there was a person of color in the White House. If it is ingrained in this generation's mind that diversity in the most powerful office in the nation is normal, how normal will it seem to have diversity in the most powerful office in your company?

The second example would be women in education. According to Pew Research [2], there are currently more women than men in college. Furthermore, women have just recently closed the gap in the college-educated workforce [3]. More women with college educations will necessarily drive more women into executive offices. Another supporting argument is purely from this author's experience and has no research data to back it up. Let's just say that if women do most or all of the work in group projects while they're in college now, in 20 years they are probably going to be the ones doing all the work from a corner office with a view.

Seeing and Hearing Others

At the heart of social media and networking in general is the desire to share yourself, learn about others, and ultimately give everyone a voice. Gen Z knows this and they’ve earned the title “Cummunaholics.” The ability to contribute to and learn from the world wide web is not hindered by socioeconomic status, geographic location, ethnic background, or the like. Taking advantage of this open source of seemingly infinite knowledge, Gen Z has seen and heard stories, lifestyles, and hardships from people of many different backgrounds. They have grown up in a world where “seeing things from a different perspective” is a reality.

Including this Diverse Workforce

The next 20 years will be imperative when it comes to bridging the gap between Gen Z and the rest of the workforce. Not only does Gen Z carry an inclusive attitude, but it will be the most racially and ethnically diverse generation the US has seen. Companies will have to learn how to cooperate with this generation or face the consequences of “Cancel Culture.” No list of “Top Ten Ways to Make Your Workplace More Inclusive” will cut it. Checking boxes off a to do list can be immediately identified and snuffed out as insincere.

Enter stereotype threat. Everyone knows what a stereotype is; it is an assumption made about a person based on a demographic (age, gender, race, etc.). Stereotype threat is more so the effects of a stereotype on a person. When a group’s performance, character, or identity can be defined by a widely accepted stereotype, a member of that group will feel the pressure not to conform to that stereotype—whether it’s consciously or unconsciously. This could be a white person feeling the pressure to prove herself as an athlete; a black person to show she is just as smart as a white person; or an elderly person proving she is just as relevant as a Millennial. People under this stereotype are on high alert looking for indications of whether or not they fit in. This is where business executives can step up. Taking intentional steps to identify and eliminate these threats no matter how small will not go unnoticed and will ultimately foster an inclusive culture.

Below is a discussion with the leading expert on stereotype threat, Dr. Claude M. Steele [A].

Dr. Claude M. Steele discusses the main insights of his research on stereotype threat.


Dr. Megan Gerhardt from Miami University began the Gentelligence movement in 2017. The goal of this movement is to recognize that generational bias is one of the last acceptable biases and that it needs to end. She is releasing a book titled Gentelligence: The Revolutionary Approach to Leading an Intergenerational Workforce [B] on June 8th, 2021. Below is an in-depth interview with Dr. Gerhardt on her research.

An in-depth interview with Megan Gerhardt, PhD., expert on intergenerational diversity. Below is a brief synopsis of key insights from this interview.

“New Collar” Career Paths

Each generation has one or more shared, influential experiences that occur from about 5-20 years old; after all, this age range is when our character is shaped the most. That experience for Gen Z will be the COVID-19 pandemic. They have experienced online learning and to a certain degree had to learn how to teach themselves. The economy dipped, and their parents’ jobs were at risk. A lot of older Gen Z students questioned if college was a smart financial investment. Google rolled out their new Career Certification; this training is meant to replace traditional training at a university. Gen Z knows that top tech companies aren’t necessarily looking for college degrees. They want employees who excel at what they do. Consequently, essential trades such as welding and plumbing are becoming a higher demand. Most of the employees in this industry are on the verge of retirement, and many young people are looking to take advantage of that.

Working with Generation Z

As Gen Z moves into the corporate world, we’re not going to see as much of a struggle for power as much as we are a struggle for knowledge. Traditionally, knowledge and wisdom were held most prominently by older generations. These generations have been in the field of work for the better part of their lives. In a premodern setting, this sets up a clear hierarchy. Moving forward in the next 20 years, we are going to see that ideology flipped on its head. Our youngest generation is fluent in computer skills and how they work. The infinite knowledge of the world wide web has always been at their fingertips. Even new computer skills are easily understood because the learning curve is significantly lower. So what will come of this struggle for knowledge?

The key here is that it is not a competition. Companies that want to rise above the rest will have to learn how to create synergy between multiple generations. This is accomplished when younger generations respect the long-term experience of their elders and older generations respect the innovative ideas of these new-comers. The biggest obstacles to accomplishing this goal fall under intergenerational stereotypes and biases. We fail to understand each others’ influential experiences, and we fail to remember that we’re all on the same team with fairly similar motives.


  • Seeing and hearing others' stories on a global scale is an everyday reality for Generation Z. This norm paired with current attitudes primes this generation to take on diversity and inclusion from a whole new perspective.
  • Stereotype threat is the pressure added to someone who could possibly be described by a negative stereotype. This perceived threat, concious or unconcious, significantly hinders one's performance. Intentionally removing stereotype threat cues is a tangible, important, and noticeable first step to foster inclusion.
  • Generational bias is perhaps one of the last acceptable biases of our time. As the age of the workforce increases with medical advnaces, we will only see an increase in generational diversity in the next 20 years. The main roadblocks to intergenerational synergy center around a lack of understanding of each others' circumstances and upbringing. At the end of the day, everyone in the office is on the same team and probably have very similar goals, even when it doesn't feel like it.

Further Reading