For all its selfies and hashtags, Generation Z is already having an impact on business and the economy
What the young want
Grown-ups: What is to become of you? You’re lost without your mobiles! Can you even hold an intelligent conversation?
Ann-Kathrin Volkmann has been posing for hours. She’s photographed herself eating strawberry flan, baking waffles and pouting. She has released balloons and jumped in the air with outstretched arms. “Live every day like it’s your last one,” was her caption for that picture. Hard work and greeting card mottoes. On Instagram it looks like a picture of happiness, spontaneously captured. #jump #havefun #sunshine.
Life from the selfie perspective. Volkmann wanted her photos to show how she sees her generation.
Lisa Gessner has made a film for her school art lesson. It shows her lying on the grass listening to music. She’s oblivious to everything going on around her, but she doesn’t care. She’s in her own world. Snapchat, Instagram, music – all she needs is a smartphone, headphones and the internet.
Both girls are 17. Next year they will take their final exams at the Carl-Humann grammar school in Essen, and leave. They belong to a generation that could handle smartphones and tablets by the time they started school. They are referred to as post-millennials or the selfie generation, but mainly as Generation Z – the one after generations X and Y. To them it is normal to watch TV series on Netflix, to stream music and to have politics explained to them by YouTubers and to get problems solved by Googling.
Fewer than 9 million people were born in Germany around the turn of the millennium. They range in age from 15 to 24, and they are the future. Which is why business is very interested in what to expect of them.
More than half of Germans alive today grew up with road atlases, vinyl records, telephone kiosks and the cold war. About 47 million of them are aged 40 or older. They may have mobile phones and use apps, but although they sometimes go on the internet, Generation Z lives on it.
Gessner and Volkmann are among a group of students at their school trying to answer a question in their art class: who are we?
When sociologists describe a generation, they lump together millions of people born within a period of 15 years and assign certain characteristics to them. As they all grew up at the same time and experienced the same developments in society, the assumption is that they have been shaped in similar ways. But people are all different and lives are also affected by social factors, so such descriptions can only be approximate, reflecting trends. This is particularly the case when the cohort is still young, being pupils, students and people just starting work. Nobody really knows how they will live, think and work in the future. Klaus Hurrelmann is a sociologist who has spent decades researching young people. He says, “We will have to wait and see how Generation Z develops. But there are a few things that we already know.”
Germany’s children of the millennium have grown up in an era of relative prosperity with Barack Obama, Angela Merkel, Miley Cyrus and Justin Bieber. In 2001, when terrorists attacked the World Trade Center in New York, Gessner and Volkmann had only just been born. When the great financial and economic crisis blew up in 2007 they were still at primary school. They have only been aware of a few global crises.
But they do notice that many things once apparently indestructible are now threatening to fall apart: Europe, democracies and stable power structures around the world. They are growing up to debates about driverless cars and artificial intelligence, in an age of seismic upheavals and great anxieties.
A poster designed by the students hangs in the art room in Essen. It depicts a young person’s bedroom with a Levi’s T-shirt, an Adidas hoodie and Nike trainers in the wardrobe. The occupant is sitting on a sofa taking a selfie. The poster is entitled “Hotel Mum,” because mother is doing the laundry in the next room.
It says a lot.
Generation Z is not rebellious. Why should it be? Everything is permitted: men can love men, women can love women, hair can be blue or green, and nobody turns a hair at rings or wooden wedges in someone’s nose. Least of all the parents. They are now also forever young, tattooed and wear slim-fit jeans. So why not swap make-up tips with your mum and wear what everybody else is wearing?
“I tell my mum everything about my life. We have a very close relationship.” (Maja Klöß, 17)
A very close relationship with family and parents is typical of those born around the turn of the millennium. They like being indulged, most of them want to raise their children the same way they were brought up by their parents and they want to get married. In a world where everything is changing rapidly, they want security.
“Perhaps it looks as if we are lazy, because we want to keep all our options open. But we often don’t know what we want to do because there are so many possibilities.” (Julia Schulz, 17)
They know the best preparation for an uncertain future is education. That is why nearly 50% of each year group now stays on at school to sit their Abitur leaving certificate and qualify for higher education. And that is why so many of them continue their studies. In the last academic year there were 512,000 new students in higher education in Germany, 150,000 more than 10 years ago. In schools, many pupils select their subjects with a view to getting the best grade average and students choose their courses at university with the aim of finding a job. The most popular courses are business administration, mechanical engineering and law.
These young people are ambitious and pragmatic but also uncertain. Nearly one in three take a break from their studies after a few terms; many take a gap year abroad after school before deciding what to do. They can because they are young. Leaving school at 17 or 18, they have soon visited more countries than their grandparents have in their whole lives. It is a global generation that knows only a world without borders. The middle-class German millennials can speak English, don’t think twice about travelling and are connected to people from every continent via social media.
It is said that most young people in Germany look to the future with greater optimism than the generations before them. But the big difference with earlier generations is that Generation Z is growing up at a time when firms are running out of young workers. This generation can afford to be choosy.
“I would like to do something that I see as meaningful. For me, that is more important than earning a lot of money.” (Lara Sechtin, 17)
“I want to find a happy medium. To have enough money, because that is what I am used to now at home, but I also want to be able to enjoy my job and to have time for the family, because I want to have children.” (Laura Wiechert, 17)
“Many wonder what jobs there will actually still be. What jobs will not be soon taken over by robots? Where will people still be needed for a long time to come?” (Lara Sechtin, 17)
They want a secure, meaningful job that leaves enough free time for life outside work. The pupils in Essen confirm what studies about Gen Z suggest: that work and free time should be separate, family and children come before career – and no overtime, thank you! The millennium generation does not want to be the burn-out generation.
They know that what they are asking for won’t go down well with every employer. But they also know they are few and they are the future.
Young people: 😏
2. What it means for jobs
Business: Right you are! It’s all yours! Anything else you want?
Steffi Burkhart, 32, travels 120 days a year, giving lectures in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. She is to be found in savings banks, in blue-chip businesses on the Dax stock index, in roofing federations, sometimes even on television. Burkhart calls herself an “expert and mouthpiece for Generation Y” but she also knows about Generation Z. She is inundated with enquiries. And she’s not the only one making a living explaining young people to business enterprises; a number of agencies and consultants specialise in it.
And it’s all because of a manpower shortage. According to the Institute for Labour Research, nearly 1.2 million positions in Germany were vacant in the first quarter of 2018, about 50% more than five years ago. For a long time the main reason why jobs remained vacant was that applicants were insufficiently qualified, but now there are simply not enough people in search of work. Small and medium-sized enterprises are the main sufferers, because they are often not so well known.
Not enough personnel means less turnover. That is why firms make an effort to attract young people. Of course that works a lot better when the firms know their “mindsets” and what impact they want to have as “change agents”. German consultants like using English terms. Burkhart is no exception.
Sitting on her sofa in her Cologne flat she sometimes sounds as she does at the podium during her talks. Her smart sporty style hint at her background as a high-performing athlete. Now she makes a living as a voice of youth and what she calls a “human capital evangelist”.
“I don’t distinguish between Generation Y and Z,” she says, “but between digital natives 1.0 and 2.0.” Both enjoy command over the most important tool of our time, the internet. “The digital natives 2.0 live even more intensively in the social networks and communicate differently.” They send WhatsApp and voice messages instead of phoning, they want “likes” and “followers” on Instagram instead of masses of friends on Facebook. It’s difficult to attract their attention outside these channels.
That is why firms have to do more to actually find these people and make clear what their business has to offer. “They all say we offer home office, a family-friendly atmosphere and foreign postings, but that is no longer enough,” says Burkhart. Rather like saying: “We are the major manufacturer of nuts and bolts in Bavaria.”
Nowadays it is the firms that have to apply to the applicants. And they have to go out of their way to hold on to the good ones.
“The young generation no longer identifies so rapidly with a firm and they change jobs more often,” says Burkhart. That is why firms must become ‘caring companies’ that not only look after their staff but also their whole social environment in order to bond with them. For example, when they want a person to move to another town for a job, they should also find a job for the employee’s partner.
Her lecture starts to verge on the apocalyptic. Burkhart estimates that there could be a shortage in Germany of about 8 million young workers by 2030. That is when she feels the global “war for talents” will start in earnest, but a lot of German firms are not prepared for it.
How firms react
“It’s true that for Generation Z other things are more important than a career. Family, friends and leisure have greater priority.” (Oliver Simon, director of HR at Ernst & Young)
“For the first time I am being asked about part-time positions during consultancy job interviews.” (Jens Plinke, head of employer branding, Deloitte Germany)
“They have high expectations: plenty of money, plenty of free time, a lot of additional benefits and 30 days’ holiday a year.” (Henning Müller-Ritzrow, managing director, Müllerritzrow Ltd.)
Henning Müller-Ritzrow, the owner of the eponymous advertising agency in Offenbach am Main, now sends employees on a five-day break once they have completed their probationary period – to Paris, London, Barcelona, Oslo or Moscow, wherever they want to go. He foots the bill. And he’s happy to pay, because in just over a year he has gained six new workers because of this perk. “In our sector we have a big problem finding new workers and there are more interesting locations than here in Offenbach,” he says. Without his scheme, he would probably not have found his six new workers but could well have spent €20,000 (£18,000) in headhunter fees.
Companies go to considerable lengths to attract young people. Daimler lets trainees work with Snapchat and tablets, at Deloitte everyone is given a laptop and a smartphone. As a result, there are now the first part-time management consultants and the informal German du form of address at work is practically standard, along with features such as home working.
Generation Z is only reinforcing a change in the world of work that started some time before Zs came of age. To attract promising talents to the company, Lufthansa has been running its ProTeam trainee programme for 20 years. They get to work on innovative ideas for 18 months, take part in social projects in emerging countries, spend a week at a retreat or fly to Silicon Valley. Ideally the participants then stick with the company and assume leading positions in its digitisation.
Julia Wenzel, 29, completed the trainee programme 18 months ago. She says: “I think for our generation it is important that your employer is aware of you and you can make a contribution.” Maximilian Zaenker, 28, finished the training a year ago. “Being visible and having opportunities to design and develop are very important for me,” he says. Both still work for the company, though Wenzel has reduced her hours to 80%.
Doing something meaningful, working flexibly and taking responsibility for projects were things that Generation Y wanted, too. Being the boss was not a priority. That has left companies facing challenges for some time. And the challenges will increase with Generation Z because it considers free time even more important and because it wants to work with modern technologies.
Anna-Maria Karl, head of Global Talent Resourcing at Daimler, says: “This generation is characterised by internationality, multilingualism, commitment, openness and sensitivity to different opinions, ambition and digital skills.” She sees this as an advantage and an opportunity, because these young people may accelerate the pace of digital change in business.
They can do more than take photos of what they are eating. And they want less stress and more life. Seen in that light, Volkmann, Gessner and all the others are exactly the right ones for the future.
The other generations in Germany
(according to the sociologist Klaus Hurrelmann)
The post-war generation (born between 1925 and 1940) was confronted with a country demoralised and in ruins. That welded the young together. They became a pragmatic and sceptical generation who only did what was necessary and primarily wanted to survive.
Thanks to its parents’ successful reconstruction efforts, the 1968 generation (1940-55) grew up in a less stressful economic environment with a functioning democracy. Some of these young people were very critical of their parents’ authoritarian attitudes and Nazi past.
The baby boomers (1955-70) are numerically the strongest generation in Germany and are dominant in society, the economy and in politics. They tend to be the children of optimistic parents, are ambitious to get on in their professions and are politically active.
Generation X (1970-99) also grew up in a secure environment, although economic crises were already looming. Owing to the previous high birth rate, many found they were denied access to professional positions of great responsibility.
Generation Y (1985-99) is often stereotyped. They experienced political tension, terrorist attacks and global wars, are seen as the first generation of “digital natives” and know how unpredictable the future is. Their basic attitude is a search for meaning that has earned them the label “Generation Why”. Their marked self-reference and the permanent weighing of alternatives are seen as characteristic.