In the United States, Generation Z constitutes nearly a quarter of the population. At 26 years old, the oldest of the generation are already in the health care workforce, and the rest are not far behind. And though every generation has commonalities, their differences are many—and significant. “One generation of the health care workforce is radically different than another generation,” says David Stillman. “If organizations expect new generations to act like previous generations and have the same expectations, it’s going to backfire.”
David Stillman and his son, Jonah, are experts in guiding business leaders on how to navigate generational gaps in the workplace. They’ve authored several books on the topic, and conducted original research and numerous surveys to fully understand what makes each generation tick. And Jonah isn’t just an expert on Gen Z—he’s also a member. “Each generation lived through certain events and conditions during their formative years that shaped the way they look at the world,” Jonah says. “And my generation is approaching life very differently than the generations that came before.”
“As we look at this next generation of health care professionals, it’s important to understand how they look at the world and what pulled them in,” David adds. “We’re not looking at which generation is right or wrong, better or worse. It’s about understanding the differences, especially how it plays out in bringing in the next generation of health care employees.”
The Stillmans provide insight into what moves Generation Z and how best to recruit and assimilate this incoming population into the workforce.
What defines Generation Z?
David: Gen Z’s formative years, between the ages of 12 and 20 and now even beyond, have been surrounded by a lot of instability and unrest with the economy—the 2008 recession was hovering. It was a much scarier time than the previous generation. It was not about “the world is your oyster,” because at home Gen X parents were feeling the pain. The median net worth of Gen X parents fell by 45% during the 2008 recession. Gen Z only saw this economic struggle continue with the pandemic—39% of Gen Zers in our recent study said the pandemic has directly impacted their ability to earn. The economic impact felt by my generation has put Gen Z into what we call “survival mode.”
91% of Gen Z respondents said that technological sophistication would influence their desire to work at a company.
Jonah: What survival mode looks like for Gen Z is that, from a young age, we became extremely career focused and had a very realistic outlook on what our lives were going to look like—how much money do we need to make to survive and thrive?
All the generations before Gen Z generally followed a traditional career path: high school, college, job. With the survival mentality, Gen Z is highly aware of alternative career paths beyond the traditional model. We have also found that for those who go to college, 67% have a predetermined career in mind. That means health care organizations need to get on their radar much, much earlier.
How does that background affect the Gen Z workforce?
David: Compare them to the millennials. I have yet to find, in the 26 years I’ve been studying this, a generation that is so good at collaborating, building teams and working to each other’s strengths. However, being in survival mode with a keen focus on the economy, Gen Z has moved aside collaboration for competitiveness. For years and years, it was the baby boom generation—80 million strong, clawing their way to the top—that was the most competitive. But now, we find that Gen Z is the most competitive generation.
This plays out well in health care because it can be a competitive field and presents a lot of opportunities for wins. With Gen Z, the time to tap into this competitive drive is now—not only around understanding how they want to compete to get ahead within the workplace, but also that they want to be working for a winning organization.
71% of Gen Z embraced the phrase, “If you want it done right, you have to do it yourself.”
If your hospital is “winning”—and I know children’s hospitals across the country are doing such incredible things, from research to innovation and more—make sure you brag about it. That should be front and center on your website and in a job interview, so candidates know that aside from the competitive landscape they’ll be working within, they’re also going to work with a winning company.
What are the unique traits of Gen Z?
To successfully tap into their mindset, it’s crucial to first understand what the Stillmans say are the three unique traits of this generation.
Jonah: All other generations—millennials, Gen Xers, baby boomers—are digital pioneers. They’ve been pioneering technology their whole lives and careers. They’ve been pushing the needle, seeing how important it is and constantly innovating with technology. But Gen Z is not a digital pioneer generation—we are truly digital natives.
The difference between a digital pioneer and a digital native is that it’s always been there for us. We’re native to a world with this technology. My generation just expects technology to be there, whether it be in the workplace or in our personal life.
In our most recent survey looking at what Gen Z cares about in their job, they talked about the importance of technology—91% of Gen Z respondents said that technological sophistication would influence their desire to work at a company. This means that it’s not enough just to have technology anymore—Gen Z is choosing jobs based on whether the tech is smart, innovative and driving change. The importance of technology cannot be overstated.
David: This is a generation intent to do things themselves. In our most recent survey, 71% of Gen Z embraced the phrase, “If you want it done right, you have to do it yourself.” If Gen Z wants to learn to play guitar, speak a foreign language or fix something, they watch YouTube and learn.
This is of particular interest for those involved with training and development. It used to be that training and development operated under this notion of what we call “just in case.” That is, you’d go into a classroom, and everyone would learn everything involved with a topic just in case they needed to know it.
That makes no sense to a generation that’s been able to DIY learn everything at their own pace. “Just in case” has given way to “just in time.” The attitude of this generation is, “Put me in my job, and if I get stuck, show me where I need to go to learn the information, and then I’ll get back to my job.”
David: Unlike previous generations, who spent their formative years struggling to fit in, our research on Gen Z showed no notion or effort to fit in at all—it was always about standing out. It’s the first time we’ve ever seen this during the formative years, and part of it is because of this generation’s ability to hyper-customize everything—their personal brands, the music selections, their shopping options, their medical care.
A perfect example of this is that Gen Z wants to write their own job descriptions—we know 57% of Gen Z want this. And it’s working out for a lot of companies. Usually, you’ll have 10 bullet points you’re looking for in a candidate and if somebody hits seven or eight of them, you’ll put them in the “maybe” pile. But what if you open it up and ask, “How do you see yourself performing this job and what would you bring to the job?” Suddenly they may add seven to 10 bullets that you didn’t even think about and now that job becomes a lot more robust. That’s what customization means for this generation in writing one’s own job description.
This also applies to career paths. Sixty-two percent want their career path customized, rather than seeking one traditional way up, such as from lawyer to partner. We call this “Rubik's cubicle”—career paths go in a host of different directions, provided it can be customized to what they’re looking for.
Jonah: When it comes to hyper customization, I often worry that people will label Gen Z “entitled”—it can sound like you have a generation who’s asking for a lot. While it may come across that way initially, it’s important to understand that if you put yourself in the shoes of a Gen Z, it’s the only world we’ve known where almost all things have been customized. It’s important to understand this is how we approach so much of our lives.