Gen Z on the future of work — the WikiWorkLab

Taking place in July and August 2016, the WikiWorkLab was a work collaboration programme created by Jericho Chambers and the CIPD

As well as providing work experience for young people centred around active outputs (rather than delivering tea and coffee), the ultimate aim of the WikiWorkLab was to enrich the future of work debate with voices representing Gen Z. Working alongside MPs, business leaders and the HR community, 24 individuals (aged 15–21) took part in discussions, book clubs and research trips, and shared their views on how we can shape a better future of work.

Hailing from a range of schools, colleges and universities across London and the UK, the cohort visited organisations as diverse as the House of Commons, CIPD, Network Rail, Tesco, KPMG, Bounceback (a social enterprise working out of Brixton Prison) and School 21 (an innovative free school in Stratford, London). Research trips and discussions with members of the Future of Work community offered participants a chance to examine various different organisational structures and ways of working, and discuss changes to the workplace as we know it.

Expert visiting speakers took the group on a whirlwind tour through leadership, politics, activism and citizenship. Speakers included James Alexander (Zopa); Christine Armstrong, Deborah Doane, Andrew Gunn and Robert Phillips (Jericho Chambers); Sam Bowman (The Adam Smith Institute); Rupert Bruce (Clerkenwell Consultancy); Peter Cheese and Sam Whitaker (CIPD); Paul Epstein QC (Cloisters); Claire Fox (Institute of Ideas); Matthew Gwyther (Management Today); Loughlin Hickey (Blueprint for Better Business); Indy Johar (Impact Hub and Project 00); Dan Kieran (Unbound); Neal Lawson (Compass); Filip Matous (author, How to get your website noticed); Professor Cliff Oswick (Cass Business School); Jules Peck (B Team); Cleo Sheenan (Forward Institute); Stefan Stern (High Pay Centre); Nick Sunderland (Why Projects); Rebecca Trenner (Springwise); Charlotte West (Business in the Community).

Generally speaking: what we learned from Gen Z

Much has been written about the latest generation to enter our workforce. From this experience of working with 24 individuals in this demographic, some characteristics stood out as particularly pronounced.

They’re practical

For Gen Z, the stakes are high. With formative years shaped by recession, terrorism, rising house prices and corporate scandal, Gen Z are likely to be worse off than their parents — and they know it. The spectre of student debt (approximately £44,000 of it, in many cases) hung over many conversations about future career paths. Much as they recognised the importance of work shaped by ideals, pragmatism appeared to be a significant factor when choosing a career.

Work vs ‘jobs’

Part-time jobs — whether in retail, restaurants or hospitality are seen solely as a source of income. Many felt little or no sense of responsibility when working them nor expected responsibility from their employer. In essence, a ‘job’ is something that is done for money, whilst work is what you do (and get paid for) when you are trying to forge a career.

They’re sceptical

They believe companies should have a social purpose, flat management structures that encourage creativity and collaboration. They want mutual responsibility between them and their employer but have a cynical view of major corporations, especially those whose public persona falls below their ideals. While they were surprised and optimistic after their visits to large organisations that were trying to change from within, their cynicism is palpable (during a session with the Forward Institute, large organisations ranked the lowest on their list of trusted institutions which included the government, the army, banks, news media and the police). As one participant said, “[i]t appears to me that the ‘real’ motives of business in today’s society are incompatible with the attitudes of society at large…for the time being things don’t look good.”

‘Generation Snowflake’

They have a sense of entitlement — to an opinion, to information, to the digital world… and even to being late. In one of the discussions, Claire Fox, Director of the Institute of Ideas and author of I Find That Offensive, challenged this generation’s attitude to conflict. This generation doesn’t like being the butt of a joke. Their views — including those concerning the workplace — are informed less by experience and more by what they have been exposed to through the digital channels they obsessively consume. This can lead to knee-jerk responses and black and white answers, hyper-sensitivity and an obstruction when it comes to resilience — a trait many believe is much needed in today’s changeable workplace.

They’re torn

Their goals for the next 5–10 years blend the self-centred and the altruistic. They want travel and to be independent, and they also want to be personally responsible for improving conditions of people across the world. The group were divided between the optimists and the pessimists (a title of debate they chose for their final presentation). While some think automation will free up more thoughtful and interesting work, others see opportunities drying up. Some are heart-broken by Brexit while others see this as the moment to rewrite the rulebook.

Soft skills trump technical expertise

The attributes they believe to be most important to achieving their goals are often ‘softer skills’: communication, open mindedness and emotional intelligence — as opposed to specialist knowledge and/or technical capability.

They’re not learning this in school

These young people do not feel prepared for the world of work. Skills we know to be imperative for the next generation — such as entrepreneurship, resilience, presentation skills, public speaking and even being able to do your own accounts — do not feature on the main curriculum. Many of the WikiWorkLab participants seemed to feel cheated by the “exam-factory” yet — as it’s the only system they’ve ever known — terrified to try another way.

“I learnt in these last two and a bit weeks what school and university hasn’t taught me at all” — Arun (aged 20).

Only time will tell how Gen Z’s arrival into the workplace will shake up the status-quo. Our group of young individuals gave us a glimpse of a generation that is interesting, interested, digitally native, sceptical about big institutions and endowed with a sense of cynicism, pragmatism and entitlement, determined to survive the rat race. The world of work had better watch out.

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