Image credit: Claire Scully

Gen Z is growing up: In 2024, the generation born between 1996 to 2010 is expected to overtake Baby Boomers in the full-time workforce, according to a recent analysis by Glassdoor.

They are bringing to the office a different set of values, behaviors, and expectations than prior generations, according to research by Roberta Katz, a former senior research scholar at Stanford’s Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (CASBS). Katz collaborated with a team of researchers to conduct a large, multi-year study to find out what matters to Gen Z and why – findings that culminated in a book and website.

Stanford Report sat down with Katz to talk about this research and what to expect from Gen Z in the workplace.


1. Gen Z expects change

The world Gen Zers came of age in was fundamentally different from that of their parents and even millennials, people who were born in the early 1980s to 1996.

The world of Gen Z has been defined by technological changes happening at rapid speeds that also reshaped social experiences. Disruption and impermanence have always been part of the world Gen Z experienced – for them, it’s a norm, not an exception.

“There is an expectation of constant change,” said Katz.

Growing up amid uncertainty has given Gen Z a unique set of characteristics, including being flexible and resilient. It has opened them up to new ways of thinking about the future and doing things – and questioning the ways things are done, which leads to the next trait Gen Zers will bring with them to work.


2. Gen Z is pragmatic

Gen Z has a strong sense of self-agency.

Gen Z lives in a world that has always been one search engine result away. If they want to know more about something, they readily seek the answer out for themselves (even if it’s not always the correct one).

They question everything and everyone – from their peers, parents, or people at work. “They don’t necessarily see elders as experts,” Katz said. “They want to understand why something is done in a certain way. They’re very pragmatic.”

They are also not afraid to challenge why things are done the way they are.

“When an older person says to them, ‘This is how you should do it,’ they want to check that out for themselves. It doesn’t mean they’re always right; it’s a different way of understanding,” Katz explained.


3. Gen Z wants to make a difference

Gen Zers not only expect change – they demand it.

They are inheriting a set of complex problems – from climate change to inequality to racial injustice, to name but a few – and want to fix it. They want to work for a place that they believe is doing good in the world.

Some Gen Zers will hold their employers accountable on the causes and issues that matter to them.

Katz warns that for some employers, it can be challenging – if not untenable – to take a position on politically charged or sensitive topics. “It is impossible for most institutions that represent lots of people and lots of identities to satisfy everybody,” Katz said.


4. Gen Z values collaboration and teamwork

For some Gen Zers, the digital world helped shape their identity: Through social media and in online groups, they found subcultures to connect and interact with.

They grew up with wikis – websites collaboratively built and edited by its users – and fandoms – enthusiastic and energetic communities centered around a shared, common interest. For example, K-pop sensation BTS has its Army, Beyonce has her Beyhive, and Taylor Swift has her Swifties.

“They’re in a posse – even with their headphones on,” Katz said.

To get things done, they value collaboration.

“There is a hope that everybody who is contributing is in it for the good of the whole,” Katz describes. “They want to have a team spirit.”


5. Gen Z wants leaders who guide by consensus

Gen Z is also less hierarchical than previous generations.

“They don’t believe in hierarchy for hierarchy’s sake,” Katz said. “They do believe in hierarchy where it is useful.”

Instead, Gen Zers prefer leadership that is dependent on expertise that is task or time specific. That could mean they favor management where team members take turns leading the group (known as a “rotating leadership” model). Another style they may prefer is “collaborative leadership,” in which people from across the organization participate in decision-making and problem-solving.

Transparency is also important.

Gen Zers value consensus and they look for leaders who are in service of the group (also called “service leadership”).


6. Gen Z cares about mental health and work-life balance

Gen Z grew up in a period that saw the blurring of the 9-to-5 work schedule and the rise of flexible work models – a mode of working that led to older generations feeling a pressure to always be “on.”

“Work and home life are all so integrated that if you don’t pay attention, you could be working all the time,” said Katz. “I think Gen Z is sensitive to that.”

Having a work-life balance and maintaining mental and physical health is also important to Gen Z.

“They’re placing a value on the human experience and recognizing that life is more than work,” Katz said.


7. Gen Z thinks differently about loyalty

Because Gen Z grew up amid so much change, Gen Z has a different perspective on loyalty.

But as Katz pointed out, “they also grew up with workplaces not being very loyal to their employees.”

Gen Zers were raised in the shadows of the global financial crisis of 2008, an event that has had long-lasting impacts on employment and the nature of work. “It used to be that people went to work for big companies thinking they’d be there for their entire career and that the company would watch out for them: providing health insurance, and so on,” Katz said.

But after the 2008 recession, and even more recently following the COVID-19 pandemic, companies have cut back labor costs and implemented other cost-saving measures, like reducing perks and benefits. Meanwhile, mass layoffs have also been rampant.

“There’s a reason that employees don’t feel the same degree of loyalty, too,” Katz said.

Meanwhile, the gig economy has also been present throughout Gen Zers’ lives, as has the rise of contract work. They are entrepreneurial, which is part of their pragmatic tendencies.


8. Gen Z looks for trust and authenticity

Gen Z also values authenticity.

“Authenticity is about trust,” Katz said. “Words and actions need to match.”

Honesty and openness are important.

For Katz, it’s all about mutually respectful communication. “My bottom line always to employers is stay open to hearing about different ways to get things done, because Gen Z has one foot in the future.”

Katz is associate vice president for strategic planning, emerita, and is currently involved in a strategic role with the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability and the Stanford Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence. She also serves as vice chair of the board of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (CASBS).

Katz studied Gen Z as part of a multi-year CASBS research project with Sarah Ogilvie, a linguist at the University of Oxford and formerly at Stanford; Jane Shaw, a historian who is the principal of Harris Manchester College at Oxford and was previously dean for religious life at Stanford; and Linda Woodhead, a sociologist at King’s College London. The research was funded by the Knight Foundation.

From 2004 to 2017, Katz served under Stanford University Presidents John Hennessy and Marc Tessier-Lavigne as associate vice president for strategic planning, and in 2017 as interim chief of staff.