Focus on Gen Z: Q&A with Generational Expert Kristin Scroggin
We’ve written about generational issues a few times, as they affect the public sector workforce – most recently in an October Route Fifty column focused on Generation Z – the label that’s now being commonly given to individuals born between 1997 and 2012.
It should go without saying that any kind of stereotyping of groups has flaws and that every individual is formed by countless factors – their environment, parents, family history, birth order, etc. Still, we are all shaped, as well, by the era in which we live and the customs, culture and historical events that occur as we grow up. We often hear HR directors talk about the challenges that come with a multi-generational workplace, as well as the struggle to attract young employees into city, county and state jobs – and keep them there.
One of the most acute observers of generational behavior is Kristin Scroggin who we first interviewed two years ago after hearing rave reviews from multiple HR state directors, who had heard her speak at the National Association of State Personnel Executives.
Scroggin started research into generational behavior in 2007, when she was instructor at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, and eager, herself, to understand the Millennials she was teaching. She’s done multiple focus groups, interviews, and surveys since then, and travels the country giving talks to a wide range of public and private sector audiences, while also engaged by states and municipalities for training sessions in which she combines her observations about generational tendencies with advice on communication. She started her company, genWHYcommunication in 2017.
In 2021, our Route Fifty interview with her focused on Managing the Multigenerational Workforce. It also included information on how she subdivides the generations, recognizing that the traditional borders are artificial and that the two halves of each generation may share some qualities with the ones that come before or after.
The following is an edited Q&A that was drawn from our conversation in late summer 2023.
B&G: In a work environment, what makes Gen Zs happiest?
KS: They respond really well to clarity. They need to know the rules and how you’re going to evaluate them.
B&G: Do people in government talk about problems they’re having with Gen Z?
KS: Yes, but I don’t always hear people gripe. A lot of times I hear people say pretty good stuff.
I’ve had people say they really like Gen Zs. They’ve got humor, and they’re kind of well-rounded. They know a little about a lot of stuff. I would say that’s an advantage of social media. You can learn a little bit about a lot of things and that gives you the ability to converse with people who are different than you.
B&G What are the gripes?
KS: I hear frustration about new workers asking for too much money. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but I hear that a lot.
When I give speeches, I try to find out the needs for that industry, but the cool thing is that most people are dealing with the same stuff. I’ll have people say to me, ‘My group is different.’ And I’ll be like ‘I literally heard this 20 minutes ago on a call from a completely different industry.
B&G: When you do focus groups with Gen Zs, what do they complain about?
KS: I hear comments like ‘I’m not appreciated,’ or ‘I’m not challenged.’ They have an unrealistic idea that every day is going to be happy and you’re always going to have new things to do.’
B&G: How well do they communicate their feelings to their bosses?
KS: I hear that their young employees don’t know what they want, or they can’t articulate what they want. I’ve talked a lot about a lack of confrontation ability. If they want a confrontation, they want to have it digitally and their bosses don’t want to have it digitally.
It’s hard for Gen Z workers to just come forward and say I’m unhappy. If they feel they’re forced into a face-to-face confrontation, they may be more likely to quit, and find another job rather than getting into an argument with their bosses.
B&G: Have you pinned down any reasons for unrealistic expectations?
KS: I think social media has given them the idea that there can be this perfect life – that there’s a place where you can work when you want to, and only work in a job where you’re happy and fulfilled all the time. And if you’re not happy you should leave.
Anybody who has been on the planet for a while knows that’s not sustainable. You’re not going to be happy all the time. There’s just cycles of life where things are kind of bad and you just have to push through.
B&G: Do you have advice for employers?
KS: You have to be able to give them a realistic viewpoint of what the job is going to be like and tell them the pros and cons of what’s coming. Standard setting at the beginning is so important.
B&G: Are there any different challenges you see specifically for public sector employers?
KS: A lot of young people think they’ll be empowered to make certain decisions. Then they find out that there are decisions that nobody in their whole department can make. It’s up to the legislature to decide. It’s almost like they need a government 101 – an introduction.
B&G: Any other advice?
KS: They’re not going to answer their phone, and a lot of them don’t even check voicemail. They like instant messaging.
And Generation Z doesn’t feel the pressure to look busy all the time. They’re able to move faster, finish more quickly and have more free time.
They’ve had significantly more short-cuts than any of the rest of us have had through technology. They’ve got all these productivity hacks. They’ve heard these constant messages on social media, to work smarter, not harder. They come into your office, and they can make their computers do all kinds of things that you can’t make yours do.
B&G: How can successful managers best handle that?
KS: Let that person become a teacher. Let that young person teach other employees how to get better. But that’s not the majority of what I see because there’s a tendency for older employees to feel challenged by someone who is younger explaining how to improve.
Note: For the record, the traditional age ranges given for the generations that precede Gen Z are Millennials (1981 to 1996), Gen X (1965-1980), Baby Boomers (1946 to 1964), and the Silent Generation (1928 to 1945). Next up: Generation Alpha (2013 to 2026)