Millions of baby boomers are expected to leave the Australian workforce in coming years and, in order to plug the gap they leave behind, employers will need to better engage with the digital-savvy, socially-aware Gen Z.
The share of workers aged 55 and over has risen from 9 per cent in 1991 to 19 per cent in 2021 according to data from the Centre of Excellence in Population Ageing Research (CEPAR). Their retirement will mark the biggest loss of knowledge and skills the Australian labour market has ever seen.
But while that represents a significant economic challenge, there’s some good news. Members of Gen Z – those born between 1997 and 2008 – are emerging from the classroom to begin their working lives.
“Gen Z have grown up seeing unprecedented cultural, social, economic, technological, and political change. Their expectations are going to be different,” says Ashley Fell, social researcher and Director of Advisory at research-based advisory firm McCrindle.
“They’re digital, globally minded, social in their interactions, prioritise sustainability, are mobile in their careers, formally educated and visual in the way they engage in the world around them.”
Employers need to offer personalised career experiences which recognise the purpose-driven nature of Gen Z, according to Deloitte’s ‘Welcome to Gen Z’ report, while social and digital media will need to be at the forefront of the conversation.
“It’s never been a question of whether or not we engage our members through digital channels, it’s always been a question of how we best do it,” says Daryna Kostashchuk, Co-Chair of Westpac’s Youth Network – a network for the bank’s employees aged under 35.
“We’ve already started to see the need to integrate the digital into our everyday with the pandemic. It accelerated the adoption of new online tools and introduced us to new ways of working.”
The Youth Network ran its first hybrid Summit in 2022, and Kostashchuk says providing a virtual option meant that more young employees participated than ever before.
“It was a mammoth task doing this for such a complex conference, but doing so meant we were catering to the digital fluency of our younger employees.”
That does not necessarily mean Gen Z doesn’t value face-to-face communication.
“It has to be a mix: providing people with the option and the tools to participate and learn the way that works best for them. That’s why the event was hybrid,” Kostashchuk says.
McCrindle’s Fell says that the pandemic has created a paradox for Gen Z: they are looking for strong human connections but appreciate hybrid options too.
“So much of their world is online, and this is the first generation that has truly learnt the hard way just how much of their life is recorded on social media. This has a huge impact on how they interact with colleagues and how they want to be perceived.”
Still, Gen Z’s tech-savvy has its benefits.
“You’ve got a generation that has access to everything, and a generation that knows exactly how to get that information online. They’re turning to TikTok not just for entertainment, but to upskill themselves, or find tips on their careers or health.”
For employers, what is being communicated to Gen Z is just as important as the method of delivery.
Data from McCrindle shows that 45 per cent of students aspire to work in an organisation that aligns with their values, and 61 per cent fear being stuck in a job that they don’t enjoy or find fulfilment in.
“Connecting Gen Z employees with your organisation’s purpose is about humanising the statistics hidden in formalised annual reports and turning more towards storytelling,” says Fell.
“Gen Z is good at deciphering authenticity. Not only does an organisation need to connect with Gen Z through effective, less curated comms, but visions and value statements need to be embedded into the culture of an organisation; lived and modelled by leaders and management.”
“That also means a leadership shift away from a hierarchical leadership model – the command-and-control leadership style no longer works for Gen Z.”
What does seem to work is intergenerational learning. The Deloitte report urges companies to leverage the expertise of Gen X, Gen Y, and baby boomers to help mentor Gen Z. But as the first generation of digital natives, organisations are urged to recognise that young adults have knowledge to share, too.
“The entry of a new generation tends to spark comparisons and conversations around a lack of understanding. But it’s really about learning from each other. We’ve got to make sure we’re speaking the same language,” says Kostashchuk.
Westpac’s Youth Network runs the intergenerational mentoring program Curious and Wise, which pairs under 35s at the bank with seasoned workplace veterans. The program reflects an increasing recognition that different generations can learn from each other.
“Participating in the program allowed my mentoring partner and I to discover that, despite our generational gap, we have more common ground,” says Matthew Chan, a Westpac employee and Gen Z participant of the program.
“We found the best thing to bridge the gap between us was to focus on common outcomes such as success or achievement, and discuss our different ideas on how to get there, leaving preconceptions at the door.”
With the potential for artificial intelligence to turbo-charge the pace of technological change in the workplace in coming years, Fell says it’s vital that organisations keep their young employees engaged on a human level.
“The digital native is used to working alongside machines. The need for empathy, two-way learning, collaboration and more humanised skills will be more important than ever before.”