I was at a conference in Seattle this past week, and one of the last sessions of the day was a presentation about Gen Z. The goal of the session was for speakers from that generation to talk about who they are and what it takes for companies to attract them. For those of you who don’t know, Gen Z is typically defined as people born between 1995 and 2015. As part of the panel, there was a 25-year-old Chief of Staff from a software company, and a 16-year old CEO and Founder of a non-profit organization. (I don’t even remember what I was doing at 16, but I certainly wasn’t founding non-profits!)
Both of these young people were extremely smart, poised, and well-spoken. I did note that the 25-year-old went a bit out of his way to separate himself from the 16-year old – which I completely understand. Despite being young himself, he has many more years of experience than she does and clearly wanted that noted. That aside, both were very passionate and driven as they explained to the audience what their generation is looking for in an employer and a workplace. The audience, myself included, mostly fell into the Gen X category – born 1965-1979.
Why would I be anything but thrilled to see the upcoming generation so confident and driven, intelligent and well-spoken?
As I sat watching them with their microphones on stage, speaking about their accomplishments and about what their generation wants (including being taken seriously, and given hard challenges and increased responsibilities) I caught myself becoming a bit annoyed. As she insisted that what employers and bosses need to do is listen to their Gen Z employees, respect them, let them have a voice, and make sure offices are “Instagram-ready” because they love to post pictures of themselves and their environments on social media, I cringed a bit. Then I caught myself and started to think hard about why I had that kind of reaction. Why would I be anything but thrilled to see the upcoming generation so confident and driven, intelligent and well-spoken? They are hungry and want to have impact – so why was my reaction a negative one?
I think the answer is complicated, and I’m interested to hear how others think about this topic. My reaction is likely a mix of several things: jealousy for not having such confidence at that age, the fact that this generation has access to more information and learning at a much younger age, and the curmudgeonly sense that one needs “experience” before they can really earn their stripes. Let’s unpack some of these a bit, shall we?
Honestly, it does seem like those I’ve encountered who are part of Gen Z (my son included) are way more comfortable in their skin than I remember being. I know there are still insecurities and things that teenagers and young adults struggle with, but overall, there seems to be more acceptance of oneself and of others. Then there is the internet, which is a piece I find particularly interesting. My son is 14, and often he’ll say something, do something, or make something that surprises me, and when I ask where he learned it? More often than not the response is “the internet”. I have no doubt that that 16-year-old on stage began by Googling “how to start a non-profit” and taught herself how to navigate all kinds of situations via info on the web. She’s exceptionally smart and ambitious, yes, but the access to information is definitely having an impact on this generation. It’s amazing that if you have a computer or smartphone, an internet connection and some curiosity, you can learn just about anything.
The last item on my list is the toughest to analyze. When I was younger, I was pretty ambitious and hated it when people older than me indicated I couldn’t do something or didn’t know as much because I lacked experience. “I’m smart”, I always thought. “I can do whatever you can do, and maybe do it better!” And yet here I am, thinking as I watch these kids on stage that there is something they lack – and that something is years of time in the trenches. It’s like the Robin Williams monologue in Good Will Hunting, when he tells Will that while there is no denying he’s a genius, his knowledge is from books, not from experience. You can read and learn, but there is a wisdom that comes when you can look back over many years of time and experiences, see patterns and trends, and use that to guide decisions. And there is no shortcut, no level of intelligence, that can replace that. But is that experience valued the way it once was?
In discussing this with a colleague who also attended the conference, she explained that for her, the tipping point was when the young woman on stage stated on behalf of her generation that “we demand to be respected and taken seriously.” Respect is earned and given, not something that comes by demanding it. Perhaps for some, that’s the realization that comes with experience.
I want to support this younger generation, and help channel their hunger and energy and ambition. I certainly don’t want to speak down to them or blow someone off because they are too young. Years ago the thought of someone younger than 25 being a successful Founder and CEO, perhaps even with a big exit, was hard to imagine. Right now, I can think of several people in this category without much effort. And that is worthy of admiration. Does that mean that experience no longer counts, or isn’t as important as it used to be? I’m honestly not sure. Some days it seems that way. But other days, when I have a conversation with one of my mentees and my experience is what helps them solve an issue, I reconsider.
What do you think the value of experience is in today’s day and age? Are we older and wiser, or just older?