Talkin’ bout Z generation

Offers advice to Generation Z, now aged 21 or younger they are the latest group to hit the workforce

My niece and nephew’s school recently asked me to give a careers advice talk. It gave me a flashback to being a teenager and the squirming awfulness of the, “so what are yooooou going to be?” question, knowing you’d been snared in an adult conversational trap — from which the only escape was getting old.

Shrugging was ‘not good enough’ a response, guaranteed to elicit don’t-embarrass-me glares from mum. But whatever job you actually understood and picked — pilot, architect, vet, doctor, dentist, newsreader, artist, musician, astronaut — someone grey sucked their teeth and told you it was VERY HARD TO GET INTO. A phrase I swear on all my back copies of Vanity Fair never to use.

As part of my work over the last few weeks, I’ve been researching the so-called “Generation Z”. Now aged 21 or younger they are the latest group to hit our workforce. They’ve been formed by the crashing waves of the recession, streaming videos of terrorist atrocities and the kind of porn that didn’t feature in mags left behind on park benches. So they are more likely to work hard, drink and smoke little, eat healthily, watch rather than read, save their money and worry a lot.

“Gen Z: Exemplified beautifully by my nephew who celebrated turning 18, not by getting off his head on ketamine in a field, but by ordering himself a MyWaitrose card for the free coffee.”

Understandably they are very worried about finding jobs and hugely pressured into getting the best results they can. Something those of us with relatives going through GCSEs and A-levels now can see first hand. So what might we be saying?

Author Margaret Heffernan made a bold call: forget what you have been trained on in school. Rampant individualism and a belief in right and wrong answers won’t help in our complicated and fluid world of work. Playing well with others matters more than grades: no one wants to hire the selfish, gobby, know-it-all who has a first in Physics and the charm of a Bunsen burner doused in ethanol.

Second, keep up your maths. All this talk about a ‘gig economy’ may not sound too important. But those currently in school are going to be part of the first generation where, from a young age, people will have to manage their own accounts, benefits, pensions and tax. Get used to running a decent spreadsheet now or plan to pay for a lot of help.

Third, people only seem to talk about work experience in terms of CV currency these days. Which is surely drivel: I learnt more about work from a stint in a local pharmacy, dealing with shoplifters and addicts hunting methadone, than at university. Work experience reveals where you do and don’t thrive, how to work hard, and how to cope with mad bosses and customers that hate you. No one chooses a pampered, neurotic wheatgrass enthusiast over a proven grafter.

Finally, there is still much in the world to fix, so find what you’re interested in and start pursuing.

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