Rachel Jones

As we eye the opportunities and upheaval posed by rapidly evolving technology and societal shifts, it may be today’s young people (known by demographers as Generation Z) that are poised to make the most significant disruptions. Architecture firms could prove to be in a prime position to attract today’s youth, since the profession offers ample opportunity for unique expression while also advocating for the creation of a better world through concrete actions and increasing technology use.

Gen Z, with their technical savvy and tendency toward collaboration and individual expression, may be the best fit yet for the profession. However, there is a lot to be considered to attract, retain, and harness those traits.

To date, there has been notable study on the ways that millennials (born 1981–1996) have changed the workforce, and office culture in particular. For example, millennial influence can be seen in the emergence and growth of flexible and collaborative work environments, telecommuting, and workplace benefits aimed at better work-life balance (i.e., things like paternity leave and flexible work hours). In some ways, the collaborative nature of architectural practice has made architecture firms better prepared for millennial influence in terms of workplace engagement. However, like many other professions, architecture firms are still working to create a culture that embraces the benefits demanded by the large cohort of millennials.

But as large a cohort as millennials have been, the oldest of the generation are nearing 40. As we envision the practice of the future, it is now to the subsequent generation—Gen Z— that we must look. The Pew Research Center defines Generation Z as those born from 1997 to 2012—spanning today’s elementary school and college students, the oldest of whom are just starting to enter the workplace. This is the largest generation to date (estimated in the U.S. at 86 million, as compared to the 72 million millennials). This cohort already holds tremendous purchasing power, something unheard of in prior generations. Current estimates value their current consumer spending influence at $40 billion.

Profile of a Generation

Gen Z is a cohort with glimmers of the past. Socially, its members are in sync with their millennial predecessors. According to 2018 surveys by the Pew Research Center, 62 percent of Gen Zers believe increasing amounts of racial and ethnic diversity are good for society, equivalent to the 61 percent reported by millennials, and significantly higher than reported by earlier generations. They also share millennial views that the government should do more to solve problems, that the Earth is getting warmer due to human activity, and that same-sex marriage benefits our society.

In approach, it mirrors Generation X (born 1965–1980), the one that makes up the largest proportion of Gen Z’s parents. They are similar in their pragmatism and work ethic. According to the University of Michigan’s annual Monitoring the Future survey, high school seniors in 2017 were more willing to work overtime than their millennial peers, at levels that are on par with Americans in Generation X.

In circumstance, it also shares much in common with the Silent Generation, those born from 1928 to 1945, who emerged after World War II and the Great Depression during a time of economic disaster and recovery. Likewise, Gen Z came of age during a time of economic and social turmoil, following the Great Recession and 9/11. Their society is one plagued by global conflicts and wars, climate disruption, and school safety threats. It has led to a cautious generation, but one born at a time of opportunity.

Along with these commonalities, Gen Z has an identity of its own, bringing new energy and skills, as well as new challenges, to the workplace. Having never known a world without mobile devices, it is a group used to having information available all the time, and as a result they are both highly sophisticated online but also wary of the content they find there. They are constantly connected, but less so in person. They are realistic, yet still hopeful of a better future. They are economically cautious, yet highly entrepreneurial. And they are risk-averse—an attitude borne from a deep trust of adults coupled with economic insecurity.

Implications on Workplace Benefits

Given some of the unique demographic attributes of Gen Z, their arrival into the workforce will create significant disruption. For human resource managers, this cohort poses a number of new disruptions with regard to health challenges, benefits, and compensation.

Gen Z has a health crisis: A third of high school students get six or fewer hours of sleep a night, significantly lower than the recommended nine hours. Sleep deprivation leads to lower cognitive skills and negative health outcomes. Sleep quality is also lessening—attributed in large part to the increasing use of mobile devices whose screens emit blue light, which disrupts sleep patterns. Our incoming class of adults face an exhaustion level not seen before.

Additionally, over 30 percent of America’s teens are currently obese or overweight, contributing to stress and negative health incomes. They will enter adulthood with the highest rate of obesity of any generation to date.

Depression, anxiety, and other mental health disorders have created a new health crisis in today’s youth. According to a 2016 study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics, 19 percent of adolescent girls and 6 percent of adolescent boys had a major depressive episode during their teens—a significant increase from 2005 to 2014. And one in eight college freshmen in 2016 felt depressed frequently, according to an annual study by UCLA.

In order to accommodate this new workforce, well-being benefits packages will become even more critical. Gen Zers enjoy competition, so step challenges and other “games” that are part of today’s wellness programs should continue. However, wellness programs will need to focus more heavily on access to healthy foods and improving sleep. This may mean the elimination of vending machines in favor of easy and affordable access to healthy food, water, and snacks. It may also mean instituting “nap times.” While most companies today would scoff at allowing naps in the office, there is ample evidence of the cognitive benefits of 20-minute naps. For workers with a lifetime of sleep deprivation, sleep pods and daily nap breaks may be one of the best ways a firm can improve the performance of its employees.

Impact on Workplace Culture

Gen Z is the most diverse generation in our history—48 percent are not white, compared with 39 percent of millennials and 30 percent of Generation Xers. As such, they will look for a culture that embraces diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Gen Zers are also very brand savvy, feeding into their individualistic entrepreneurial attitude. According to one survey, 72 percent of high school students want to run their own business. Some children and teens are already using YouTube as a platform for creating a brand and reaping financial reward. In this ethos of sharing, they also disclose salary information as well as other aspects of the organizations they engage with. It is a cohort that expects transparency and authenticity—and will reward it with their time, money, and loyalty.

It is also a generation that craves financial security. According to an annual survey by UCLA, 82 percent of current college freshmen think being well-off financially is important, higher than any class going back to the start of the survey in 1966. Many are eschewing more elite schools in favor of more affordable college to reduce the student debt plaguing millennials today.

Therefore, firms will need to consider these trends of diversity, transparency, and financial security to attract and retain staff. Firms that embrace transparent and inclusive policies, such as salary and wage transparency, will be rewarded.

Professional Training and Development

Gen Z will bring tremendous technological savvy and skill to the workplace. They fluidly consume and research information online, and despite some perceptions, do not blindly trust online content. According to a study by Common Sense Media, only a quarter of children think that news posted online by news organizations and people they are close to is very accurate, and even fewer (only 7 percent) think news from people they don’t know is very accurate. These online skills will be ones that workplaces should embrace and nurture, rather than try to stymie. Technology is rapidly changing. Your Gen Z employees may help you stay competitive as this change occurs.

In contrast, Gen Z will, in general, bring less experience with interpersonal skills. In a 2016 national survey, 92 percent of teens were concerned about the gap in their interpersonal skills, something deemed highly important in most professions, but especially for architecture firms where the relationships with colleagues and clients often define a firm. Firms should be prepared to have to build these skills.

Unlike their millennial predecessors, Gen Z does not necessarily expect to jump from workplace to workplace. Furthermore, a large portion of Gen Z is used to having supportive adults engaged in their development. Firms can look to link Gen Z employees up with leaders from prior generations to share institutional knowledge. Similarly, this cohort can develop teaching and communication skills by helping less-technologically savvy colleagues become more adept.

Harnessing Passion

One of the most exciting aspects of this generation is its passion for social change and its natural inclination to take action. Their natural pragmatism, combined with global connections and the power of social media, have shaped a generation that is using its collective talents to improve society. They are responsible for organizing the 2018 March for Our Lives, invigorating a nationwide movement protesting gun violence in schools. They are also leading the way in prompting climate action: 1.6 million students in 300 cities around the world marched out of school for climate action in March 2019 and a group of teens has sued the U.S. government for failing to protect them from climate change.

Generation Z will become the largest portion of our workforce in the next two decades. Between social activism, technological savvy, and creative entrepreneurial energy, there is great potential for Gen Z to provide an exciting new workforce for architecture firms. They are coming. Are you prepared?