Photo of Jean Twenge's iGen book

Generational differences: Four tips to understand young employees

June 5, 2019 - Wendy Martin

Four generations now occupy the workforce – each with its own set of values, strengths, weaknesses and expectations. To better recruit, retain, develop and understand the newest and youngest generation (born in 1995 and later) the VCU School of Business Tommy Vines Human Resources Lecture Series recently welcomed Dr. Jean Twenge to Snead Hall for a presentation and panel discussion that included Candace Nicolls, senior vice president of People and Workplace at Snag, and Darius Johnson, vice president of Employee Engagement and Development at Dominion Energy.

Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University and authority on generational differences, is author of iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy – And Completely Unprepared for Adulthood. Her book rejects the labels “Gen Z,” opting for the most descriptive “iGen.” Twenge asserts, “They were born after 1995. They grew up with cell phones, had an Instagram page before they started high school, and do not remember a time before the internet. They are iGen.”

To understand what makes iGen unique, Twenge conducted interviews and analyzed data collected across time with a particular focus on data from four broad surveys conducted among 11 million high-school-age teens as far back as the 1960s.

For her VCU presentation, Twenge shared generational findings with particular value to human resources professionals. “Not every generation is alike,” said Lecture Series Founder Tommy Vines. “As an HR professional at IBM working all over the world, I gained a global view of generational changes. [Twenge] had so many important messages for the future workforce in terms of attracting, managing and preparing this newest generation of ‘digital natives.”

Here are just a few of her insights:

Slower speed of development – Protected by their parents, iGen has grown up slowly. Instead of walking to school, they likely were dropped off. As 8th, 10th and 12th graders, they were less likely than previous generations to go out without their parents, date, try alcohol, binge drink, get a driver’s license or earn money from a job.

What it means in the workplace: iGen has less experience with independence and, therefore, more difficulty making decisions on their own. Be prepared to give them structure, clear directions and plenty of mentoring.

Less social interaction and reading – After smart phones gained market saturation in 2012, iGen’s time online more than doubled. This generation spends six to eight hours per day on their phone and engaging with digital media, but very little of that time is spent reading long-form text in the form of books, magazines or newspaper articles (even those available online). Twenge called this generation’s lack of reading one of the biggest generational changes she had ever seen. iGen is continuously digitally engaged with their peers, but that comes at the expense of actual face-to-face interaction. Ironically, talking is one thing they don’t do on their phones!

What it means in the workplace: As a result of their heavy focus on digital engagement, iGen has deficits in their social skills and more anxiety about interacting with others. Texting offers a comfortable platform that lets them think before responding. Be prepared to help them handle social interactions. Role playing can be helpful. Furthermore, understand that this generation is not accustomed to long-form reading. Training materials and other information should be concise and presented in more interactive and visually engaging formats, such as eBooks and videos.

Less optimistic and more risk averse– Among the starkest differences between iGen and previous generations is their mental health and happiness.

Twenge’s research showed that the more time teens spent on screen activities (of any kind), the less happy they were. Hence, iGen shows a marked increase in depression and suicide. In fact, the percentage of iGen 12th graders who said they were “satisfied with their lives as a whole and with themselves” has plummeted after 2012 while the percentage of 8th, 10th and 12th graders who mostly agree or agree that they “often feel left out” or “lonely” has spiked.

iGen regularly viewed their peers’ “highlights reels” on social media, resulting in upward comparison and insecurity. In fact, this generation willingly admits to being insecure. iGen also is more risk averse. Instead of rebelling against their parents’ demands for safety and supervision, iGen has embraced physical and emotional safety in their behaviors and attitudes.

What it means in the workplace: While Millennials entered the workplace confident and maybe even a bit entitled, iGen is more depressed and likely to have an increased need for mental health services. Whereas Millennials required feedback and praise because they felt they deserved it, iGen’ers seek feedback as a form of reassurance. Annual reviews won’t cut it with this generation; they are used to instant feedback.

Growing up, iGen took fewer physical risks and their “play it safe” behaviors mean they are less entrepreneurial and more likely to pursue a steady career and income. Having enjoyed a lot of solitude, a workplace with an open office concept could be too distracting for them.

More realistic and inclusive

iGen’s more pessimistic world view means they are more realistic about their job expectations. Millennials wanted it all: a fulfilling workplace where they could make friends, plenty of vacation and little overtime. iGen is more practical. It’s important for them to be financially well off and they pursue education not to gain an appreciation for ideas but simply to get a better job.

Their online lives have awakened their activism and passion for helping others. They are the most inclusive generation to date, with positive views of same-sex marriage and less tolerance for racism or discrimination.

What it means in the workplace: iGen’s more practical point of view could represent an opportunity for larger corporations able to offer perceived security and a defined work path.

iGen has gained an awareness of income inequality and are motivated to build a secure career. They are close to their parents and want mentors. Benefits like mental health and transgender services will be of increasing importance to this inclusive generation. In part because of their own need to feel emotionally safe, they have little tolerance for inequality. This generation wants greater flexibility, less top-down authority and a more democratic workplace (including 360-degree reviews of their own managers).

About the Tommy Vines Human Resources Lecture Series

Now in its second year, the Tommy Vines Human Resources Lecture Series welcomes leading experts on human resources topics to Richmond to broaden perspectives and stimulate conversation among VCU students and faculty as well as Richmond’s business leaders.

Vines graduated from VCU School of Business in 1979 with a bachelor’s degree Human Resources and has more than 25 years of human resources experience with IBM, Cigna and the University of Michigan. Prior to his retirement, Mr. Vines served as vice president of Leadership at IBM where he directed the company’s global leadership center. Under his leadership, IBM was recognized by Fortune magazine as the top-ranked company for developing global leaders.

Vines created the Human Resources Lecture Series in 2018 as a way to give back to his alma mater and promote the human resources profession.