As we eye the opportunities and upheaval posed by rapidly evolving technology and societal shifts, it may be today’s young people (known by demographers as Generation Z) that are poised to make the most significant disruptions. Architecture firms could prove to be in a prime position to attract today’s youth, since the profession offers ample opportunity for unique expression while also advocating for the creation of a better world through concrete actions and increasing technology use.
Gen Z, with their technical savvy and tendency toward collaboration and individual expression, may be the best fit yet for the profession. However, there is a lot to be considered to attract, retain, and harness those traits.
To date, there has been notable study on the ways that millennials (born 1981–1996) have changed the workforce, and office culture in particular. For example, millennial influence can be seen in the emergence and growth of flexible and collaborative work environments, telecommuting, and workplace benefits aimed at better work-life balance (i.e., things like paternity leave and flexible work hours). In some ways, the collaborative nature of architectural practice has made architecture firms better prepared for millennial influence in terms of workplace engagement. However, like many other professions, architecture firms are still working to create a culture that embraces the benefits demanded by the large cohort of millennials.
But as large a cohort as millennials have been, the oldest of the generation are nearing 40. As we envision the practice of the future, it is now to the subsequent generation—Gen Z— that we must look. The Pew Research Center defines Generation Z as those born from 1997 to 2012—spanning today’s elementary school and college students, the oldest of whom are just starting to enter the workplace. This is the largest generation to date (estimated in the U.S. at 86 million, as compared to the 72 million millennials). This cohort already holds tremendous purchasing power, something unheard of in prior generations. Current estimates value their current consumer spending influence at $40 billion.
Profile of a Generation
Gen Z is a cohort with glimmers of the past. Socially, its members are in sync with their millennial predecessors. According to 2018 surveys by the Pew Research Center, 62 percent of Gen Zers believe increasing amounts of racial and ethnic diversity are good for society, equivalent to the 61 percent reported by millennials, and significantly higher than reported by earlier generations. They also share millennial views that the government should do more to solve problems, that the Earth is getting warmer due to human activity, and that same-sex marriage benefits our society.
In approach, it mirrors Generation X (born 1965–1980), the one that makes up the largest proportion of Gen Z’s parents. They are similar in their pragmatism and work ethic. According to the University of Michigan’s annual Monitoring the Future survey, high school seniors in 2017 were more willing to work overtime than their millennial peers, at levels that are on par with Americans in Generation X.
In circumstance, it also shares much in common with the Silent Generation, those born from 1928 to 1945, who emerged after World War II and the Great Depression during a time of economic disaster and recovery. Likewise, Gen Z came of age during a time of economic and social turmoil, following the Great Recession and 9/11. Their society is one plagued by global conflicts and wars, climate disruption, and school safety threats. It has led to a cautious generation, but one born at a time of opportunity.
Along with these commonalities, Gen Z has an identity of its own, bringing new energy and skills, as well as new challenges, to the workplace. Having never known a world without mobile devices, it is a group used to having information available all the time, and as a result they are both highly sophisticated online but also wary of the content they find there. They are constantly connected, but less so in person. They are realistic, yet still hopeful of a better future. They are economically cautious, yet highly entrepreneurial. And they are risk-averse—an attitude borne from a deep trust of adults coupled with economic insecurity.
Implications on Workplace Benefits
Given some of the unique demographic attributes of Gen Z, their arrival into the workforce will create significant disruption. For human resource managers, this cohort poses a number of new disruptions with regard to health challenges, benefits, and compensation.
Gen Z has a health crisis: A third of high school students get six or fewer hours of sleep a night, significantly lower than the recommended nine hours. Sleep deprivation leads to lower cognitive skills and negative health outcomes. Sleep quality is also lessening—attributed in large part to the increasing use of mobile devices whose screens emit blue light, which disrupts sleep patterns. Our incoming class of adults face an exhaustion level not seen before.
Additionally, over 30 percent of America’s teens are currently obese or overweight, contributing to stress and negative health incomes. They will enter adulthood with the highest rate of obesity of any generation to date.
Depression, anxiety, and other mental health disorders have created a new health crisis in today’s youth. According to a 2016 study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics, 19 percent of adolescent girls and 6 percent of adolescent boys had a major depressive episode during their teens—a significant increase from 2005 to 2014. And one in eight college freshmen in 2016 felt depressed frequently, according to an annual study by UCLA.