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Generation Z: getting ready for the future of work

If you’re part of Generation Z, you were born into the digital era between 1995 and 2009, you won’t remember a world without internet, and you probably got your first smartphone in high school – maybe even primary school. Because of that, you’re pretty fantastic with all things tech, and the digital connectivity you’ve grown up with has meant your online self is just as much of a representation of you as your physical self.

As you work hard on your studies with big dreams for your future, do you ever stop to wonder what you (and your fellow Gen Zs) will be like when you step into the professional workforce for the first time?

Much has been written about the way much-maligned millennials – or Generation Y – have altered the workplace. But how will your perpetual connectivity and advanced skill with technology change the workforce? More importantly, how can you prepare for its evolving demands?

Associate Professor Jo Coldwell-Neilson from Deakin University’s Faculty of Science, Engineering and Built Environment, believes many of the changes you and the rest of your Gen Z cohort will bring to the workplace will be hugely positive. However, there will also be opportunities for you to improve your skills in certain areas as a professional.

‘The workplace will end up being more collaborative and more communicative across the digital channels, and Generation Z will need to prove adept at meeting the communication norms of other generations – not just their own,’ she explains.

What you need to know about your generation

Aged between 10 and 24, you’re part of the largest generation yet – around 20% of Australia’s population is a member of Generation Z and there are almost two billion globally.

You are the first fully global generation, shaped by world events like the global financial crisis and September 11. You’re also our most well-educated generation, with a whopping 50% predicted to obtain a university degree.

Generation Z as a whole is influenced by a much wider network of peers than previous generations, which promotes diversity and tolerance but can increase the risk of bullying and social pressure.

Of course, the common thread that binds your own lived experiences with the rest of Generation Z is your connectivity and digital dependence. You’re the generation of smartphones and social media, but Assoc. Prof. Coldwell-Neilson explains how this can become a double-edged sword.

‘Generation Z uses technology all the time, almost to the point that they seem to have lost the ability to communicate face-to-face very well because they do it through technology,’ she says.

So how does all this translate in the workplace?

Well, your cohort are community-oriented, entrepreneurial, open-minded and industrious. As workers of the future, you’re worried about climate change, tolerant of diversity and more likely to save not spend.

You’re probably aware nothing is certain and careers are fluid – indeed, you’re predicted to have 17 jobs and five careers in your lifetime. And you know automation is likely to disrupt at least some of these.

Since the older cohort of Gen Z is just starting to graduate university, your workplace behaviour – as a general statement – remains largely unknown. But Assoc. Prof. Coldwell-Neilson says early signs show you’re highly adaptable people.

‘Generation Z is particularly resilient, and they’re concerned about the world in general and their futures,’ she says. ‘They are expecting to have lots of different jobs and they certainly seem to move around a lot as far as employment is concerned.’

Assoc. Prof. Coldwell-Neilson says even though you might feel at home communicating and collaborating across digital channels, generally, you’re independent workers rather than team-players.

You’ll also likely seek more certainty than your millennial counterparts, perhaps because you’ve grown up in a world that is so much more uncertain. ‘Generation Z seek stability and security in the workplace, and they’re looking for financial rewards and career advancement,’ Assoc. Prof. Coldwell-Neilson says.

'The workplace will end up being more collaborative and more communicative across the digital channels.'

Assoc. Prof. Jo Coldwell-Neilson,
Faculty of Science, Engineering and Built Environment, Deakin University


Unsurprisingly, she says your generation are leading changes in the way digital technologies are used in the workplace. Social media, wearables, virtual and augmented reality, and robotics are set to become a lot more influential, and Generation Z will favour platforms like MOOCs – massive online open courses – to facilitate learning.

‘The positive aspects of this are improved productivity, reach and time savings,’ Assoc. Prof. Coldwell-Neilson says. ‘The negatives are that these technologies are extremely distracting.

Because of your connectivity, you’re more likely to be drawn into checking Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, for example, as regularly at work as you do in the rest of your daily lives.

‘Once you’re distracted, it can take 20 minutes or more to get back into what you were doing before the distraction,’ Assoc. Prof. Coldwell-Neilson explains.

As with all generational change in the workplace, she says it will be accompanied by some friction. ‘There will be quite a bit of discomfort on both sides as the changes in the workplace catch up with the changes that Generation Z are driving,’ Assoc. Prof. Coldwell-Neilson says.

Getting ready for the future of work                         

Assoc. Prof. Coldwell-Neilson says the key to success as you prepare to enter the workplace is understanding and harnessing digital literacy.

‘Sometimes people think they are digitally literate because they can use their smartphone, emails, Instagram, Facebook and download music,’ she says.

‘But there are a lot more skills associated with digital literacy, such as information and media literacy, understanding copyright, and understanding security and privacy that are important to master,’ she says.

It’s also crucial to understand that not everyone is as comfortable working across digital channels as you will be, and older workers may prefer face-to-face interactions.

‘Generation Z is accepting of the digital world, but they mustn’t let the digital world rule them,’ Assoc. Prof. Coldwell-Neilson says. ‘It’s important to learn to put aside the digital world occasionally, especially when it comes to working with other generations.’

Sick of talking about your generation and ready to take the plunge into the world of work? Here’s how to land your dream graduate job.

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Assoc. Prof Jo Coldwell-Neilson
Assoc. Prof Jo Coldwell-Neilson

Associate Dean of Teaching and Learning, Faculty of Science, Engineering and Built Environment, Deakin University

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