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The phigital generation

The group born after 1995 lives in both the physical and the digital worlds. But who are they? And how will their unique characteristics impact the workplace?

By Yan Barcelo

This fall, Mathilde Louis a 19-year-old college student in Montreal, plans to publish the first episodes of her manga-style comic strips online. “My goal is to make people laugh, move them and share life experiences,” she says. But if her series becomes popular, “it can generate revenue,” she says. “Some people make a pretty honest income, up to $2,000 a month.”

And who knows — Louis could strike gold, like Cho Seok, a South Korean artist whose Sound of Heart, which he started in 2006 at age 23 and which is the longest-running webcomic series in Korea, was made into a TV series that was purchased and distributed by Netflix. The series earns him a little more than $1 million a year.

Such stories were practically unheard of for the baby boomers and generation X, but similar ones have started to pop up with the millennials, also known as generation Y. Now, for generation Z, which is just coming into the workplace, this is what the daily world might look like: you’re 18, you’ve developed a talent for drawing, music, gaming or other occupation that can be distributed online and you can show your work to the world and maybe make a pretty penny with it.

A typical gen-Zer, Louis is thoroughly involved in the digital world: instead of drawing on paper, she draws on a tablet linked to specialized software on a computer. She has all the mandatory connections to digital devices — a smartphone, an iPad — and social media (Facebook and YouTube).

Louis exemplifies the most defining feature of generation Z: it doesn’t just use computer devices — it lives with them. That group’s universe is “phigital,” as David Stillman and son, Jonah, characterize it in their book Gen Z @ Work. “My generation has only known a world where for every physical element, there is typically a digital equivalent,” writes Jonah Stillman. “And it’s not an either/or world for us. It’s the magical union of both.”

This union of the digital and the physical is arguably the most transformative force generation Z will bring to the workplace, though it will not be the only one.

It’s a tough world

Most analysts identify 1995 as the dividing line between millennials and generation Z, which means the eldest members are now 22. But that line is fluid; some think it may be earlier. “I prefer to draw it with those who, in their first year of school, had a mobile phone,” says Emilio Imbriglio, president and CEO of Raymond Chabot Grant Thornton (RCGT), in Montreal. “That puts them at about 25 years of age.”

While the possession of a cellphone marks a defining moment for Imbriglio, two world events have had an even greater impact: 9/11 and the war on terrorism, and the 2008 financial crisis followed by the Great Recession. Consider how different those circumstances are from those in which baby boomers and gen-Xers were born. “We saw first-hand the worst recession in decades: parents lost jobs, companies crumbled,” said Jonah Stillman in a phone interview. “We learned early that it’s a tough world out there.”

These characteristics are shaping new — and yet, more traditional — attitudes toward work. “Zers seem to prefer stability, which translates into loyalty,” says Eddy Ng, professor and F. C. Manning Chair in Economics and Business at Dalhousie University in Halifax. “Most of their concerns revolve around finding a job.”

“For the millennials, a job was lucky to have them,” says David Stillman. “Zers are willing to pay dues, to be mentored, and consider that they’re lucky to have a job.”

That doesn’t mean gen-Zers are a meek and pliable lot. They definitely have minds of their own and are ready to carve their own path, even if that path doesn’t lead across corporate offices. During her audit internship at EY, 20-year-old Anna Novakovic thoroughly enjoyed her time at the company and sees it as an invaluable experience. “I would never rule out a future with EY,” she says. “You can gain pretty good tactical skills. But I can see myself expanding into other aspects of the business world.”

In contrast to millennials, who were mostly about collaboration and everyone winning, gen-Zers are comfortable with competition and the idea that life is a fight for survival. “They’re very independent and competitive,” says David Stillman, basing his observation on a survey of 4,000 gen-Zers he and his son conducted. “Their parents taught them there are definite winners and losers in life. Millennials thought that if you work together, everybody can be a winner.”

Other traits that stand out are self-reliance and a capacity for innovation. Practically born with a smartphone and their own Google account, gen-Zers are accustomed to finding things out for themselves. An iconic figure is Julius Yego, a world champion javelin thrower from Kenya, who learned everything from YouTube videos and finally got a coach almost a decade after his first throw. This shows that the possibilities the web puts at their disposal give gen-Zers the means to try things out and see what happens. Louis’ foray into webtoons is symptomatic of that mind-set.

As a consequence, “they are less concerned with formal education,” says Ng. “If they can get a quality job now, they will delay post-secondary education. It’s a reason why we see universities struggling.”

Gen Z: myth vs fact

A common perception about gen-Zers is that they are very entrepreneurial. A 2016 Globe and Mail story, however, couldn’t confirm that claim. “Some marketers suggest that Gen Z has a make-your-own-job approach to work,” wrote Erin Anderssen in “Class of 2016: Life through the eyes of the cool and collected Generation Z,” “but there isn’t much evidence among the students we met. The Class of 2016 talks about earning a stable income and working their way up in a company.”

Another claim about gen-Zers is that they are an ethical cohort, but this can’t be confirmed, either. It is true, however, that they are acutely aware of global warming and environmental distress, and that can take on altruistic forms. Yue Dai, who started McGill University in September, took environmentalism seriously when he attended Collège Jean-de-Brébeuf in Montreal. “A few friends and I tried to launch a company to sell composting devices for the home. Our sales were very low, but we weren’t really trying to make a profit.”

Unlike Dai, for most gen-Zers, having environmental sensitivities is not synonymous with ethics. Their stance is that of a selective consumer. “They look for brands and services that show more environmental concern,” says David Bell, professor of marketing at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. But at the same time, he says, that fits well with gen-Zers’ preoccupation with buying smart and saving money.

One perception that is accurate is that they are much more open to diversity, both racial and sexual. In this sense they are less discriminating, but is that an ethical stance? They have seen a black person become president of the United States and through social media discussions they have become more informed about all kinds of sexual orientation. “There is a reversal of situation,” Louis observes. “Our generation is one of the first to accept sexual differences widely, but sometimes it becomes extreme; we value only marginality. You’re without character if you’re hetero, white and financially comfortable.”

Build your own workspace

Most of the characteristics of gen-Zers make them very attractive to organizations, at least those that are ready to welcome and accommodate them. “For many years, employees had to adapt to the work culture, period,” says Stephen Shea, Canadian managing partner, talent, at EY in Toronto. “But that changed a lot, especially with millennials. Now, organizations have to learn to adapt, because solutions come in many different ways.” Adds Imbriglio: “If we try to ‘break’ them, they’ll go elsewhere.”

RCGT has fully embraced the idea of adapting to the generation. “We invested a lot to make our work spaces more to their [preferences],” says Imbriglio, whose firm employs many gen-Zers. “They chose their own materials, their technologies and their own spaces, which they designed in campus style.”

Both Imbriglio and Shea claim it is well worth the effort. For Shea, gen-Zers embody precious qualities that businesses of the future will need. “They bring more self-reliance, they learn differently and they’re deeply involved in using technology as a tool,” he says. “They have what’s required: they are able to collaborate, they think inclusively, they’re open to innovation and they’re willing to be disciplined in building their career and personal reputation.”

Imbriglio is even more enthusiastic. “They make me feel more alive, and I love their energy,” he says. “They’re very committed workers. They’re multitaskers who bring a fresh global view that embraces teamwork whatever the time, place or means. Their community is different and is defined by their passion, whether it is artificial intelligence, blockchain or anything else, and these communities span the globe.”

The downside

That’s high praise for a promising generation. But gen-Zers are not without shortcomings. There is a disadvantage to their close relationship with technology, especially with the smartphone they carry everywhere, including to bed. One flaw that has often been pointed out is a short attention span. “Ten years ago, I could hold a three-hour-long lecture and students stayed with me,” says Ng. “Today, they yawn after 30 minutes; you know you’ve lost them. You need to be constantly interacting with them.” Dai acknowledges it as well. “Concentrating on a job is increasingly difficult for people of my generation.”

Instead of short attention spans, perhaps it would be more accurate to speak of short interest spans, suggests screenwriter and author Robert McKee. Gen-Zers tend to quickly lose interest in their present situation and drift away through their smartphones into the “likes” and “dislikes” of their Facebook friends.

There is also the heavy psychological impact of the social media sphere, as Louis observes. “People my age often refer to themselves as ‘trash,’ seriously or in jest. I think this reveals an underlying problem with our self-esteem. Most of us feel as though we are not enough; we aren’t beautiful enough, kind enough, productive enough, cool enough. That’s why we have a lot of idols, who seem through social media to lead a perfect life.” It’s probably the reason why “many suffer from depression, anxiety and all sorts of psychological troubles,” adds Louis, who says that she struggles with generalized anxiety.

These are views that Jean Twenge corroborates in an article in The Atlantic titled “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” The professor of psychology at San Diego State University notes that since 2012, when the proportion of smartphone ownership in the US surpassed 50%, there have been unprecedented shifts in adolescent behaviour. “Rates of teen depression and suicide have skyrocketed since 2011,” she writes. “It’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades. Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones.”

Far from bonding participants in a community, the circle of social media “friends” operates as an excluding mechanism, Twenge seems to suggest. All the posts and selfies alert teens to what they are missing out on: parties and invitations, but also the perfect life of their idols, as Louis points out. Add to that the overwhelming impression from negative news and social media, notes Louis, “that our generation will inherit a dysfunctional world,” and you end up with a psychologically explosive cocktail.

Is generation Z self-reliant? The answer is not clear. Yes, gen-Zers can work on their own and learn a lot by themselves. But emotionally, it’s another story. Louis expresses their need very clearly: they seek reassurance. “Members of my generation want to know that they are normal, that all the fears they have are normal. That’s what they constantly seek online. They want to be told that they are loved and needed, that things will be OK.”

A short interest span, anxiety, depression — these are symptoms gen-Zers will inevitably bring with them to the workplace. Fortunately, it doesn’t seem to trouble someone like Imbriglio. Their short interest span has a bright side, he points out: they can multitask and are used to having eight windows of things operating in real time around them. “They deliver very rapidly, even more rapidly [than other generations],” he says. “In fact, I find them more efficient.”

But they do need reassurance, he acknowledges. “They want recognition and confirmation, emotionally and financially, and they need it more quickly and more often,” he says. And their fragile egos don’t handle criticism easily. “They haven’t been criticized often,” he says. “So we need to deliver criticism constructively and positively.”

But generation Z’s positives still outweigh the negatives. “They bring a fresh new and powerful way of approaching issues and resolving them in teams. They are especially effective and instinctive at adopting digital tools and improving efficiencies,” Imbriglio says. Shea concurs: “What we see doesn’t worry us. In fact, I think they will excel.”

This article was originally published in the October 2017 issue of CPA Magazine.