Move over millennials: Here comes Gen Z

The latest group to enter the workforce, Generation Z, has its own characteristics that insurance professionals need to understand to make good hires. (Photo: Shutterstock)

If you’re a human resources professional, you’ve likely spent the last year combing through waves of data about Generation Z.

You probably know the facts: Gen Z includes an eye-popping 72.8 million people born between 1995 and 2010, and the generation’s first college-educated members hit the workforce last spring.

Those college graduates will find entry-level opportunities in traditional insurance roles such as credit analyst, underwriter and claims adjuster. And we’ll gladly welcome them aboard.

But attracting Gen Z is just one part of the challenge. The harder part is convincing them to stay. To do so, you must be prepared to answer their questions, such as How are you going to train me? How will you create a high-tech and high-touch work environment? How will you help me become a leader? What career path can you offer me? You can find answers by looking beyond the “generation” label and developing a workplace that teaches each employee how to work with others from different cultures, experiences and backgrounds.

Related: 4 ways the insurance industry can win the war for talent

What Gen Z is seeking

When I first began researching Gen Z a few years ago, I uncovered many comparisons to millennials. Yet I take everything I read with a healthy skepticism. That’s because many of the people who research millennials or Gen Z are from older generations, and they see things from their perspective. So, when they look at millennials or Gen Z, they may focus too much on youth or a lack of work experience and miss the bigger picture.

When I look at generations, I see combinations of habits shaped by the world around a particular group of people. For example, I’m a member of Generation X (people born between 1964 and 1979). My parents were Baby Boomers (born between 1946 and 1963). I grew up in the 1980s, a time in which pensions were disappearing and when people started to realize you couldn’t work for one company forever. It shaped my views on work and life.

Millennials grew up in a time of prosperity, which filled them with optimism and allowed them the freedom to seek a higher sense of purpose, a collaborative environment and a desire to pursue self-development. Gen Z has grown up during the Great Recession, which means they saw their parents’ income fall by as much as 45% during their childhood.

Related: Tips for identifying and hiring top insurance professionals

Because of these influences, Gen Z has taken a millennials’ sense of optimism and combined it with realism. Gen Z seeks new challenges, but they’re more likely to seek the security of multiple roles with the same organization. Gen Z tends to be more independent, with 71% believing “If you want it done right, you have to do it yourself.” And although millennials were early adapters to social media and shared everything, Gen Z are digital natives who know the risks of over-sharing and are more selective in what they reveal about themselves.

But here’s the key similarity — and this is true for all generations. We want a workplace to conform to our needs. For Gen Z, that means finding a work environment that stresses personal interaction and digital access. They’ll seek a longer tenure with one company to reap the rewards of their investment, and they’ll want to advance quickly and efficiently through multiple roles. They’ll be willing to start at the bottom, and they’ll want a clear career path aimed at personal and professional growth. They’ll want to work independently and receive frequent feedback. They’ll want to work hard and get rewarded for their performance.

Related: Talent search: Recruiting innovative insurance professionals

Man's hand holding sign that reads we are hiring

Doing things the same old way won’t help you find the best fit when it comes to Gen Z. (Photo: Shutterstock)

What we can offer

If your company doesn’t sound like it matches this description, then it’s time to change. That change can be scary, especially in the historically risk-adverse world of insurance. As an industry, we tend to attract people who are deep thinkers, are conservative and move cautiously. We like to analyze. But you can’t analyze your way into the future. You must design your way into the future.  You must engage with people.

Start by redesigning your business workflows, beginning with recruitment. If you’re trying to recruit an underwriter, using a job description or title that hasn’t changed since 1981 will be as helpful as trying to put an 8-Track into an iPhone X. The way we wrote that description 35 years ago won’t attract anybody today.

What Gen Z — and all generations — want to know beyond the job description is that they’re welcome and have a place where they can contribute in ways that are recognized as valuable to themselves and others. That starts during the interviewing process. The two biggest interviewing mistakes I see are companies that need employees so badly that they oversell, overpromise and under-deliver, or companies that automate so much of the selection process that they fail to make a personal connection.

Related: Keys to finding & keeping the right employees 

Undervaluing the importance of the impression you give in the selection process groups you with every other company in the marketplace. Focusing more on that connection experience — even a little bit — can make a huge difference in both the quality of the candidates you attract and in how quickly new hires learn to be productive.

I prefer to think of interviewing as “client engagement.”So, if I’m interviewing eight people for one open job position, I make it a priority to leave all eight interviewees with a good impression. That personal touch flips the script on today’s overly automated hiring processes.

Once you hire Gen Z, know you’re hiring a potential leader. Research indicates 72% of Gen Z high schoolers want to start a business. They are natural problem solvers, and they’ll look to you to learn how to lead. Help them accelerate their time to productivity by focusing on these five areas:

1. Work allocation and prioritization – Generation Z wants to grow, and helping them learn to prioritize their tasks and time is absolutely critical for growth. I like to ask my team members to tell me two things they love to do, and then tell me one thing they’d rather not do. This generally helps me assign about 80% of the work that must be done, and more importantly, gives employees a voice so they feel more ownership. I have found that if about 30% of employees’ work involves tasks they truly want to do, they will do the other 70% happily. Once the work is allocated, Gen Z will want to do it all, do it all well, and do it fast. So helping them prioritize will reduce the risk of burnout.

2. Frequent performance feedback – Gen Z will expect this. I stress being direct with respect — setting clear expectations with employees and giving honest feedback in frequent, small chunks. And do so in-person. Despite being digital natives, much of Gen Z prefers face-to-face communication.

3. Purposeful education – Gen Z will challenge us to move beyond the traditional education options — such as certifications and continuing education credits — that stress knowledge retention instead of critical thinking. On-the-job education that helps employees learn and grow can be much more valuable. We emphasize continuous learning as a process, moving from knowledge to skills to mastery.

4. Valuable mentorship – When I entered the workforce, all the power was with the Baby Boomers. I had to learn to work with them — how to fit in, how to be heard, how to be confident in my own ideas. Today, Gen Z will need to work with multiple generations. That makes mentorship even more important. In the same way that generations are shaped by the world around them, employees are shaped by their environment. It’s up to leaders to provide mentorship and develop an environment that allows them to be comfortable and confident in tackling tomorrow’s problems head-on.

5. Active listening – Remember the first time you went to your boss with a great idea? Did you get shot down? Did you understand why? Often, it’s because your idea had already been tried. But if your boss didn’t tell you that, you were left to wonder — was it me? This is why active listening is so important with Gen Z and all employees. Listen to their ideas with attention and an open mind, and if you believe the idea won’t work, give context so employees know why.

Related: Education and the looming talent gap

Group of young professionals

It’s important for Gen Z employees to understand what’s required of them in the workplace. (Photo: iStock)

What we need from Gen Z

Although we can reshape our work environment to engage Gen Z, they also must be active participants. My three best pieces of advice to Gen Z:

1. Don’t wait to be told what to do. You’ll never get ahead by waiting. Find ways to proactively help your team, your boss, and your company get better results. And remember, sometimes that takes extra work that isn’t fun.

2. Make a deeper connection. Of the most meaningful business activities, 90% are conducted in person and on the phone, not by email or text. That’s why interpersonal communication remains vital.

3. Talent gets you the job, but results get you paid. The workplace is about outcomes, and the better results you produce, the faster you’ll accelerate your career path.

Related: Attract talent to your insurance agency with core values

There’s an old saying in the corporate world: “It isn’t personal; it’s business.” Today, that line is woefully outdated, because everything is personal. We must make our work environment comfortable for all generations and to adjust to their needs, so everyone feels welcome to contribute.

Gen Z gives our industry the unique opportunity to reshape our current roles and build a culture focused on engagement. But don’t do it just to appeal to Gen Z. Do it because it will help people from all generations work together and deliver true transformational change.

Related: Millennials want job stability, Gen Z wants passion

Dr. Kirk D. Fleming, MBA, is assistant vice president of Global Talent Development for ReSource Pro. Kirk can be reached at