Stop thinking of people in terms of generations, and start thinking about them as individuals.

My generation does not define me any more than my gender, race, nationality, or sexual orientation—and neither does yours. Generation Z has only been in the workforce for a few years, and we’ve already slapped them with a plethora of stereotypes. Some are positive (“they’re social justice and climate change warriors”), and some are negative (“they don’t know how to talk to people because they never look up from their phones”). But none of the stereotypes are true about all 72 million members of Generation Z.

Who we are as individuals might be influenced by when and how we grow up, but there’s more to all of us than one simple demographic. Just consider the stereotypes about your own generation.

Don’t tell me that because I was born within certain years, I conform to a specific profile. Just because I’m a Boomer woman doesn’t mean I’m a Luddite or that I can’t be flexible. It doesn’t mean I spend my days in the kitchen with my hair in a bun, wearing sensible shoes and baking cookies for my grandchildren. My kids would laugh at the thought. I only baked cookies for them once or twice when they were growing up, but we made the mistake of letting several batches cool on the counter, and the dog ate them. (Really.)

Now that my Gen Z grandchildren are the ones getting put into stereotypical boxes, I wanted to better understand what they’re up against. So, I dug into the research about their young cohort, hoping to better understand the meaningful generational differences as well as the unhelpful stereotypes.

Here’s what I learned about Generation Z in the workplace and in society.

Getting to Know Generation Z

No one likes to be stereotyped, not in life or in sales. But that’s exactly what we do to members of every generation. Generation Z wants to opt out of that mindset and the stereotypical boxes that come with it.

Thomas Koulopoulos and Dan Keldsen, authors of The Gen Z Effect, say there are generational chasms we’ve been taught to expect and accept, but that “Gen Z is not a birthright; it’s a conscious choice to adopt new behaviors.”

So, what is the Gen Z Effect? Koulopoulos and Keldsen say it’s “what happens when the simplicity and affordability of technology unites generations more than it divides them.”

Koulopoulos elaborates in his post, “Gen Z: Design technology platforms for humans — of all ages.” He writes:

“The Gen Z Effect is what happens when we get rid of the generational divides that stands between different age groups; and for CIOs what that means is that the technology platforms that we’re using create a means of collaborating across all ages. So we don’t have to define generations by the technology that they use; we define them by their behaviors and now we’re all using the same technologies anyway. So from a CIO standpoint, part of what you strive to do is to make sure that platform is common, understandable and usable across all generations, all age groups, within your organization, within your customer base, within your partner base as well.”

In other words, the Gen Z Effect is what happens when we stop thinking everyone born within a 20-year period is the same—which is ludicrous. Individuals, not generational differences, change the world. That’s always been true, and always will be.

Generation Z in the Workplace

If you want to get inside the minds of Generation Z, stop thinking in stale stereotypes. Think new. Think innovation. Think change. Because that’s what they’re thinking about.

(Image attribution: Callum Shaw)

Koulopoulis, who is chairman at Delphi Group, was recently asked: “How would you advise CIOs to take advantage of the unique mindset Gen Z-ers bring to the workplace?” He replied:

“One of the simplest things for CIOs to do is to approach Gen Z with an open mindset — and not to think of Gen Z in terms of a set of strange and abhorrent behaviors but just listen and observe how they experience technology. One way I’ve seen companies do that — Cisco does this by the way — is reverse mentoring; actually bring on board new hires and use them as a sounding board for new ideas, new systems, use them as surrogates for your customers.”

Like every generation before them, Generation Z has unique value to offer employers, but they’d appreciate it if you leave the stereotypes at the door.

From the Mouth of a 16-Year-Old

When Josh Miller first wrote about Gen Z, he was 16 years old. Today, at age 18, he is the director of Gen Z studies at XYZ University, a generations research and management consulting firm. His original article—“A 16-Year-Old Explains 10 Things You Need to Know About Generation Z”—is a brilliant primer on the world in which Gen Z has grown up and how it has shaped their perspective. He writes:

In thinking about the generations, a key thing to understand is that these groups are typically categorized by events rather than arbitrary dates. Generation Z’s birth years are generally recognized as 1996 to 2009. The start year was chosen so that the cohort would include only those who do not remember the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The belief is that if you were born in 1996 or later, you simply cannot process what the world was like before those attacks. For Generation Z, the War on Terror has always been the norm.”

Of course, technology has also been the norm for them. We often think of Gen Z as tech wizards. They were almost born with a cell phone in their hands. So, I was surprised by several points in XYZ University’s recent study. Contrary to popular stereotypes about young people, Gen Z is very focused on financial stability, and they prefer face-to-face communication in many situations.

Well, that was a shock to me. This technology generation prefers face-to-face communication, really? Sure, that might mean FaceTime for them (especially during the pandemic), but it’s a lesson to all of us on how to communicate with Generation Z in the workplace. Turns out, they like to talk, not just text. Who knew?

My interpretation: Gen Z’s technology acumen is a given. That’s why we ask kids for tech support. My grandchildren are 13 and 16 years old, and I marvel at their ease with technology. When I’m stumped with a tech issue and ask for help, I typically hear: “Oh, that’s easy.”

We could put this generation in a technology box and expect nothing more, but we’d overlook what really matters to Generation Z. (Read Miller’s article for 10 important insights on his generation.).

Matthew May’s article for American Express’s OPEN Forum—entitled “The Gen Z Effect: 6 Forces Shaping the Future of Small Business”—is a great introduction to the valuable lessons that Koulopoulos and Keldsenshare in their book, including this excellent advice:

It’s time to rethink generational labels entirely. What traditionally defines generations is mostly a set of unexamined and lazy stereotypes of each ‘unique’ generation. We’re living in a post-generational world that’s being held back by these stereotypes. That’s one of the cornerstones of The Gen Z Effect … Ultimately the idea of a generational gap holds us back from connecting and collaborating across ages, personally, professionally and as a society.”

What This Means for Sales

Generational differences can be a competitive advantage in sales. Rather than complaining about the younger generations—who, in turn, complain about us—maybe it’s time we stopped thinking about age and just started listening to each other. Then we could open up a real dialogue, learn from one another, and understand how to interact with Gen Z in the workplace. Undoubtedly, this understanding will also help us in our homelife to relate to our Gen Z kids and grandchildren.

Seasoned salespeople can help their younger counterparts remember to strike a balance between technology and human connections. We can follow the advice of Tom Koulopoulis and adopt “reverse mentoring; actually bring on board new hires and use them as a sounding board for new ideas, new systems, use them as surrogates for your customers.”

What an exciting idea! However, it requires a mindset shift from putting Generation Z in a technology box to keeping an open mind, learning from them and embracing their ideas.

Instead of letting our generational differences be a source of animosity, why not turn those differences into competitive advantages for your sales team?

Referrals are timeless and span generations. Invite Joanne to speak at your virtual SKO. Her presentation, “Referrals Are Retro,” will help your sales team learn what it takes to fill their pipelines with hot referral leads.

(Featured image attribution: bruce mars)

Talk to Joanne about how to improve your team’s referral selling skills. Choose a date and time to schedule a complimentary 30-minute call.

(This post was originally published on April 28, 2015 and updated September 22, 2020.)