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Kia Parker hovers over her laptop at a table outside Florida Gulf Coast University’s food court, studying between classes. It’s her sophomore year of college, where she’s majoring in biomedical engineering and minoring in music.

A vegetarian, Parker wants to work in genetic engineering and focus on conservation genetics to make GMOs and support plant diversity. Best-case scenario, she said, she’ll travel to third-world countries to help add bioengineering solutions to existing agricultural methods so communities can expand their economies.

“I want to make a difference,” she says. “It’s just an innate part of me.”

Worst-case scenario: She’ll sacrifice most of her free time to make a living.

“I don’t want to work. No one wants to work. I want to make money so I can do things I want to do,” she says. “I shouldn’t have to work every day until I’m 60 and finally have time to do what I want to do.”

To even enter the working world, Gen Zers—those born between 1997 and 2012—such as Parker must be put on employers’ payrolls, but studies show hiring managers aren’t exactly rushing them into office.

Three in 10 hiring managers said they avoid hiring Gen Z candidates, according to a January study from Resume Builder. Of those, 60% said it’s because those in the age bracket exhibit entitlement, and 26% said they are difficult to manage.

Research suggests a growing concern for the newest generation of workers, with 74% of managers saying Gen Z is more difficult to work with than other generations, an April 2023 Resume Builder study revealed. Respondents cited a lack of technological skills, effort and motivation as the main reasons. The friction is so strong that 12% of surveyed business leaders said they fired Gen Z employees less than a week after their start dates, claiming “being too easily offended” as the top factor.

However, avoidance and termination aren’t sustainable actions for growing companies.

“Employers are going to run out of Gen X and millennials before they run out of Gen Z. Businesses are going to have to learn to accommodate Gen Z,” says Michael Andoscia, a Southwest Florida-based sociologist and former educator of 30 years, most recently at North Fort Myers High School.

To do that, employers must understand the unique dilemmas this digitally native generation faces. We consulted educators and human-behavior experts for insight into Gen Z’s psyche, and companies with high employee satisfaction rates to see how they handle the newest wave of workers.

What They’re Up Against

If every generation has a defining war, Gen Z’s might be with the World Wide Web. Unparalleled access to the internet has led to some serious issues for young adults in this age group, says Marek Moldawsky, a licensed school psychologist at Southwest Psychological Services.

“They’re under constant bombardment from the time they pick that phone up, and it has a horrendous effect. One of the major ones would be anxiety,” Moldawsky says. When he started seeing patients 30 years ago, Moldawsky had one with social anxiety disorder. Now, “generalized anxiety and depression are the majority of my cases.”

Meagan Baskin, associate professor of management and director of the Southwest Florida Leadership Institute at FGCU, sees it in today’s college students. “They have so much more anxiety about good grades, getting into college or getting jobs,” she says. “I don’t know if it’s parents or school pressure or what.”

Andoscia says scholastic pressure starts early: “They’ve never known what it was like to not be inundated with high-stakes standardized testing. Gen Z would have entered kindergarten around 2000, which is exactly when they started to implement the FCAT. They’ve just been inundated with a level of stress that we weren’t in school,” he says. (According to the Florida Department of Education’s website, the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test was launched in 1998 in Florida to increase student achievement.)

Baskin’s parenting theory isn’t far off either, Moldawsky suggested. “The generation that raised Gen Z was very concerned about self-esteem, so these children were never able to challenge themselves,” he says.

The adverse effects can be long-lasting.“In the long run, people don’t feel good about themselves. They feel hollow and empty because they never challenged the limits of their existence,” Moldawsky says. “We can’t hide the real world forever. So, when Gen Z gets into the real world and starts working and they have to overcome deadlines and obstacles, they freak out.”

By the time Gen Z adults enter professional employment, their temperaments may be seriously strained.

“When they walk into a workplace, there’s not a lot of hope for them to achieve what previous generations have achieved,” Moldawsky says. “They’re carried under $34 trillion debts, rising insurance and real estate costs, inflation and a drop in wages. They’re faced with a huge economic crisis and a bleak future, and we haven’t provided them with the skills to deal with it.”

Students such as Parker partly choose their career fields to survive the climbing living costs.

“It worries me a lot. It’s one of the main reasons I chose bioengineering as a field: because I know once I start applying for jobs in a field that’s very high up and six-figures at entry level, I won’t have as much of a struggle making ends meet,” she says.

So when Gen Zers finally enter the office, they bring in major mental baggage.

“By the time these kids enter the workforce, it’s as if they’ve already done 15 to 25 years of work,” Andoscia says. “They’re almost coming in with the same emotional capital as someone who’s 45.”

Dealing With Discourse

Gen Z’s powerful internal dilemmas may get lost in translation during communication.

“In a workplace, it’s very difficult for Gen Zers to say [they’re] suffering from anxiety without being looked upon as deficient,” Moldawsky says, adding, “there’s been a loss of social skills because of tech. They don’t know how to interact in person or read social cues.”

Pair that with a completely different working world than they may have experienced as a student during COVID-19, and Gen Zers may have even more trouble adjusting to expectations that other generations knew to be normal.

“Because of COVID and the stress and trauma of everything going on in the world, we started holding students less accountable. We became far more compassionate and flexible, which is a positive thing, but I think there’s a dark side to that, and now that’s what they expect,” Baskin says. “I don’t think that’s entitlement; I just think that’s the work environment they’re used to.”

Any pushback may come from Gen Z viewing business relationships as more “transactional,” as Andoscia puts it, with what he calls the philosophy of “I am going to work, and you are going to pay me. You are paying me less than the value of what I do for you because that’s how you make a profit, and I’m not going to dedicate my entire life to you making a profit.”

Finding Common Ground

Gen Z is the fastest-growing generation of employees at DeAngelis Diamond, a 2023 and 2024 Gulfshore Business Best Places to Work employer. In 2020, the generation comprised 9% of the company’s workforce. Today, it makes up 23% of the business’ 225 team members.

Brett Diamond, CAO and principal of DeAngelis Diamond, says it’s been a “learning curve.” Some approaches it has taken to attract and retain Gen Zers are the obvious hybrid work positions and flexible opportunities. What’s bolder is an emphasis on soft-skill leadership training, which could be a trend for businesses going forward.

“Companies are coming to the realization of, ‘How do we not just train Gen Z for their career and experience in what they’re doing in their job, but as humans with communication skills?’” Diamond says. “There’s a difference between face-to-face communication with a baby boomer or older millennial compared to Gen Z, and I think it’s come on the responsibility of their company to help train them on how they can excel in their communications.”

DeAngelis Diamond launched DD Academy in 2014 to help employees develop their leadership, personal and career goals. “It wasn’t just a Gen Z thing,” Diamond says, but an opportunity to improve work culture and communication overall.

He added that the company also aims to keep Gen Zers around long term. A 2023 ResumeLab report shows that 83% of Gen Z workers identify as “job hoppers” who use the strategy to increase their skills and opportunities.

“We’re trying to figure out how to keep them here. We’d love to have them retire with us, so we talk about their career paths more often and set those goals with them,” Diamond says.

HBK CPAs & Consultants, another 2023 and 2024 Best Places to Work employer, has found Gen Z is more “demanding when it comes to transparency” in finding purpose and meaning in work. Therefore, the company practices open communication.

“I’ve found you have to show them the ‘why.’ It’s not just ‘You show up to work, you go home, this is your career, this is your life, this is how it’s going to continue to be,’” says Michael DeLuca, Florida principal-in-charge at HBK.

DeLuca said the effort pays off when it comes to working efficiently. “If I can effectively lead a team of four to eight individuals but those four to eight individuals are now leading their teams, I’m building a team of leaders where it’s not high demands on all one person.”

Baskin said older generations and higher education have an essential role in teaching Gen Z how to be workforce-ready.

“I think some realistic expectations are lost sometimes on students, and we have to do better at holding them accountable and giving them realistic expectations,” she says.

Quinton Desamours, a junior at FGCU, sat at a table feet away from Parker on the same sunny day. He’s studying entrepreneurship, where he’s learned about a skill called “permanent data,” or a way of always working on oneself.

“The world is changing so fast, but if you’re always learning and evolving, you’ll always be ready for the next thing,” he says, adding that he’s not too concerned about age gaps when it’s his time to enter the working world. “People are people. Even if we have our generational differences, we can find something to relate on.”

Copyright 2024 Gulfshore Life Media, LLC All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without prior written consent.

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