University of Phoenix Career Coach Jamie Johnson, MS, NCC, CCC, has seen it all when it comes to generational characteristics. She began her career by counseling Gen X, whose trademark independence endeared them to Johnson’s heart.
By 2005, she was coaching millennials who took an opposite approach to that of Gen X. “Suddenly, it was, ‘Show me this. Show me that. How do I do this?’” Johnson recalls. “It was what we call reaction formation in psychology: You go from one extreme to the other.”
So, where does that leave Gen Z? Major events like 9/11 and the Great Recession of 2008 are textbook knowledge for this generation rather than lived experiences. Digital life is a way of life (Gen Z reportedly comprises 60% of TikTok’s more than one billion users), and so is mental illness. They have the lowest levels of emotional and social well-being of all generations, according to McKinsey & Company.
One experience that has directly impacted Gen Z is the COVID-19 pandemic. For many Gen Zers, it meant canceled or newly remote jobs and isolating virtual classrooms.
“Life changed, and they don’t see life as what we’ve known in our traditional world,” Johnson says. “Remote became a new norm.”
In a nod to their resilience, however, Gen Z has embraced the possibility of virtual life for both better and worse. On the one hand, they’re more likely to demand a flexible approach to work-life balance. (And a four-day workweek!)
On the other hand, they avoid confrontation at all costs. “One thing about this group, they don’t like to make waves,” Johnson says. If a conversation or an encounter gets uncomfortable, Gen Z is liable to just opt out the way one restaurant worker did when Johnson pointed out a problem with her order. Rather than assist Johnson, the worker simply closed the drive-thru window in her face.
If you’ve had a customer-service representative hang up on you, a co-worker avoid your phone call or an acquaintance ghost you, you know what Johnson is talking about.
Perhaps this penchant for disengagement explains why Gen Z is also facing something of an existential crisis. “I’m dealing with a lot of Gen Z who don’t know who they are or what they want to do. … They want to know, though, and they want the money. They want that instant gratification like what a video game or technology can give them, but they don’t understand what it means workwise yet,” Johnson says.