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Gen Z is digital, sustainable and hungry to learn

By JOE BAGULEY, VP and CTO of EMEA for VMware

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Vaccine rollouts offer a much-needed light at the end of the tunnel, but economically, the work is only just beginning. Everyone is looking at how we can stimulate a quick recovery. We certainly need to, given lost output from Covid hovers around US$28 trillion,  and global job losses are predicted to be anywhere between five and 25 million. Young people are particularly affected – more than 6.4 million 15–24-year-olds lost work across the G7 countries in the first half of 2020 alone.

Where’s the rebound coming from? It’s worth considering the sort of companies that have thrived in the crisis – it’s those that have embraced digital. Their success has come from a digitally enabled ability to react to rapidly disrupting environments.

At the same time, there is an increased focus on making sure that however we build back, it is built in a more sustainable fashion. Studies suggest that climate change can actually aid the proliferation of pandemics, while a McKinsey & Co article suggests that “a low-carbon recovery could not only initiate the significant emissions reductions needed to halt climate change but also create more jobs and economic growth than a high-carbon recovery would.”

So, on the one hand, we’ve got the potential for a digital-fuelled, more sustainable economic recovery; on the other, we’ve got terrifyingly high rates of unemployment among younger generations. It’s clear we need to address the latter if we want to achieve the former, because if there’s one thing you don’t want when you’re trying to accelerate growth, it’s a lack of people with the right skills.

A generation of explorers, learners and innovators by necessity

Put another way, the only route to global economic recovery in the digital era is by employing the knowledge, skills and abilities of younger generations.

There has not been a better time to bring them into business. According to new VMware research, three-quarters of 18–24-year-olds, or Generation Z, identify themselves as ‘digitally curious’ or ‘digital explorers’. They’ve grown up with technology, but there’s more to it than that – they’re actively seeking to learn and develop their knowledge. Sixty per cent think they should take personal responsibility for their digital intelligence – a Godsend for resource-strapped businesses that perhaps haven’t the time to provide digital development programmes.

Given the pace of change in business is only going to keep accelerating, the natural flair that Gen Zs have to learn and adapt ‘in the moment’ is invaluable. So much of what we do now didn’t exist even ten years ago. Look at vaccine development – not so long ago it took a decade to develop a working medicine. Now we’re at a point where the Pfizer BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine can be developed and certified within months, thanks in part to a DNA printer. It extends to jobs too. One report suggested that 85% of the jobs that today’s learners will have in 2030 haven’t been invented yet.

What’s more, this digitally curious generation is already demonstrating a strong allegiance to sustainable and ethical products and brands. Six in ten Gen Z respondents feel that digital skills can enable businesses to become carbon neutral in ten years; 47% are willing to pay a premium on goods and services from a retailer that demonstrates its commitment to carbon neutrality. The younger generations seem to be more attuned to the sustainability and climate change pressures the world is facing. It’s not surprising – they will have to deal with the consequences.

Could businesses undermine their own opportunities?

Yet there is a risk that Gen Z could be overlooked – as it stands, with many internships and entry-level roles being frozen due to economic concerns, they are facing an uphill battle to even get a foot in the door.

Why is this a risk? Firstly, because if you don’t give someone an opportunity, they’re liable to find it somewhere else. That might mean with an established competitor; it could well mean going off and building something themselves. Gen Z has the aptitude for the learning this requires; they’ve got the passion for a more sustainable approach to business and they’ve got the digital knowledge. Would you really want them as competitors? Enterprises need to be engaging Gen Z so that they can build the future with employers, rather than without them. 

Secondly, if you don’t take steps to engage with the talent of the near future, even if they’re not the talent for the right now, you could end up with a massive gap, which is going to be very expensive to fill. Look at the construction industry – 2008 brought it all screeching to a halt, and it took years for employers to start hiring new talent. Now there’s a huge shortage of skills, such as bricklaying, which directly impacts the costs of construction projects. We can’t have the same thing happen in the digital sphere.

By not thinking long-term, businesses can seriously undermine their own chances of future success. Yet how can they hire for roles that don’t exist yet? By understanding that jobs, like people, evolve over time. If you’ve got a position that you think might look very different in a few years’ time, it probably makes sense to fill it with someone with the aptitude for learning, so they can continuously develop, so that both they and the role evolves incrementally. All in a manner that meets the needs of the business.

They can also bring diversity of thought into an organisation, the fresh perspective that any new generation of workers brings. The difference is their grounding in digital life – whereas millennials were joining the workforce as employers were questioning whether digital approaches were really necessary, Gen Z is reaching working age when the consensus is that digital is imperative, but the talent to deliver it is in short supply.

An untapped route to sustainable recovery

Gen Z represents a huge, untapped market of opportunity; there is also significant danger that short-term economic challenges leave them ignored by the very businesses that need them most. If a business can onboard those most adept at not only using technology, but finding new ways to make it work, it will not only see short-term gains, but be in a much stronger position to succeed in the coming decade. By taking a strategic long-term view, with a young, technology-literate talent pool available for hire, we should see a stronger economic and sustainable growth recovery from the pandemic. 

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