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Will interpersonal skills go the way of VCRs and cursive writing in a post-Millennial workforce?

Generation Z and the Workforce

3.28.2018
I graduated from high school in central Massachusetts, in the spring of 1994. Seinfeld was the top-rated “broadcast” TV show (and if you had a VCR you could record it), MC Hammer parachute pants were the hottest fashion trend, and we could barely keep pace with the latest advances in fax technology – approaching three pages per minute!

Suffice to say a lot has changed since then (and thankfully so, re: the parachute pants). This year, most, if not all, high school graduates will have been born in the 21st century. They have only known a world of internet and wireless connectivity, and have grown up with a fluency in technology that dwarfs their predecessors.

As the new Generation Z (defined as those born from the mid-1990s to the early 2000s) enters the workforce, their capabilities, perspectives, and skillsets correspondingly differ from generations before.

A recent report from Deloitte, predicting and analyzing Generation Z’s impact on the workforce, began by looking back at the impact of Generation Y (perhaps you have heard the term “Millennials”), who were “projected to introduce new forms of communication and prioritize the social responsibility of their employers, while demonstrating less loyalty to the organizations they serve.”

And yes, true to stereotype and relative to their predecessors, Millennials have tended to “understand the online space in a deeper, more intuitive way,” and have a predisposition as “naturals in the art of branding, [with] their posts, their shares, even their photos of Sunday brunch (that somehow get 1000 likes) as great examples of effective content creation and personal branding.” (Source: https://bit.ly/2IVk2Y8)

However, where loyalty is concerned, Deloitte also found that “the shifting behavioral patterns of the Millennial generation are [likely] attributed to their higher levels of college debt and delayed family planning as well as an economic recession,” and that “the shifting expectations of the Millennials are likely an adaptive response to a changing economic environment.”

That’s to say that not only is a generation’s formative cultural and technological experience important in predicting their impact on the workforce, but that the broader economic and market conditions that they face, are important as well.

So what effect will Generation Z have on the workforce? “Much of the dialogue [focuses] on the impact that omnipresent personal technology has had on this…always-connected generation,” and “while these digital natives may bring an unprecedented level of technology skills to the workforce, there are some apprehensions about their ability to communicate [in-person] and form strong interpersonal relationships.” (Source: https://bit.ly/2DZ0myI)

Even the most banal, routine conversation has a different level of interpersonal complexity, and attendant norms, when conducted in-person or via phone rather than via text/messaging. Where predecessor generations naturally developed these interpersonal skills by necessity, Generation Z came of age entirely in the electronic communications era.

In terms of workforce and business implications, Deloitte notes that “skillfully communicating and interacting with others not only contributes to successful relationship building, it also drives the accumulation of tacit knowledge.” Tacit knowledge--defined as “specific information about process or customers (along with other subtleties such as culture), usually passed down within organizations through decades of in-person collaboration and communication”--is “difficult to transfer digitally, as it is rooted in context, observation, and socialization.”

We touched on this in an earlier blog post from a different angle – how telecommuting/remote office arrangements were diminishing the effectiveness of the “apprenticeship” system in the legal industry. And in fact, Deloitte substantiates that “early research on tacit knowledge specifies that ‘by watching the master and emulating his efforts in the presence of his example, the apprentice unconsciously picks up the rules of the art.” And accordingly, that “the communication skills gap of many Generation Z professionals could potentially hinder the passing on of tacit knowledge, impacting the organization as older generations retire from the workforce.” (Source: https://bit.ly/2DZ0myI

How consequential and accurate these concerns and predications are, remains to be seen. Forty years ago, when our firm’s “database” consisted of handwritten notes in stacks of binders, penmanship was a critical professional skill. And while interpersonal communication seems to have more staying power as a success factor than cursive writing, the skillsets necessary for the workforce of tomorrow can quickly evolve from those essential today.   


About the author: William Lepiesza has managed executive searches for clients ranging from telecommunications startups to Fortune 500 energy corporations, including biopharmaceutical companies, international law firms and major not-for-profit organizations. Contact him at WLepiesza@thealexandergroup.com.

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