Introducing Generation Z: Who Are They and How Will They Impact the Clinical Research Workplace?

Barbara van der Schalie, MS
Learning and Professional Development Manager  
Clinical Monitoring Research Program Directorate
Frederick National Laboratory for Cancer Research, Sponsored by the National Cancer Institute

Abstract: Generation Z, the postmillennials, are the latest addition to the extremely generationally-diverse American clinical research workplace. Their preferences for critical workplace parameters, including workplace engagement, communication, leadership approaches, and flexibility, differentiate them from even their most closely age-aligned colleagues, the millennials. This article describes the differences between and preferences of the generation and provides ways to optimize the integration of Generation Z into the current clinical research workplace.

Disclaimer: This project has been funded in whole or in part with federal funds from the National Cancer Institute, National Institutes of Health, under Contract No. HHSN261200800001E. The content of this publication does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the Department of Health and Human Services, nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.

Introduction to the Generations

Between 1970 and 2015, the global age distribution has changed significantly to include many older workers. This trend is projected to continue. In the past, Americans regularly left the workplace at age 50, but that is not happening now. Reasons for staying in the American workplace longer include the need for money and healthcare insurance as well as a new realization that people are more valuable, not less, as they mature in their careers. Instead of being put out to pasture as in the past, they are invited to stay longer and add age diversity and organizational memory to the workplace. Thus, the composition of the American workplace is changing.

A generation is a group of people who live in the same time period and live through the same events that occur in that time period. People are most familiar with the four generations that currently compose the American workplace: 

  • Traditionalists (1925-1946)
  • Baby Boomers (1946-1964)
  • Gen X (1965-1979)
  • Gen Y (1980-1999) (also known as the “millennial” generation).

The dates for the beginning and end of each generation may differ, depending upon the researcher and the area of the culture being studied. For example, the defining years for generations might be slightly different when considering trends in employee training preference and generational sales trends. 

Changes to the Mix of Generations in the Workplace

By 2020, approximately 42% of the workplace will be made up of Gen Y, known as the millennial. The preferences and characteristics of the millennials are extremely important, as they will soon be the predominant generation in the workplace. For example, the millennials are multi-tasking masters. Colleagues who need to concentrate on one job at a time may be confused by seeing the millennials do two things at the same time, thinking they are doing them equally well. This could create friction, especially when trying to train clinical research professionals.

Gen Z (2000-2015) was expected to be an enriched version of Gen Y, but based on what has been seen so far, Gen Z is different than the millennials. Most members of Gen Z are in high school, with the oldest ones now entering the American workplace. In response to the school shootings that occurred in high schools in the United States in 2018, Gen Z took action. Members of Gen Z said that they have had enough, and they marched on Washington. They are pushing hard to be able to vote younger, at age 16. Gen Z is very socially aware, and very visible. Gen Z will be a power to be contended with.

The mix of generations in the workforce has changed between 1995 and 2015 and will continue to change (Table 1). By 2025, Gen Z will be about 20% of the workforce, while millennials will be 42% of the workplace by 2025. Millennials and Gen Xers will be managing Gen Z, so knowing their activities and workplace preferences will help shape managing styles. Many influences will shape the workplace of 2025.

Cuspers in the Workplace

Along with the generations in the workplace, there is also the phenomenon of “cuspers.” Lancaster and Stillman define “cuspers” as: 

“Persons born within 3-5 years of a generational divide are referred to as Cuspers and may favor and display characteristics from both relative generations. They are the folks that cement the generations together. They function as mediators, translators, and mentors.” 

The number of cuspers between the millennials and Gen Z is quite extensive. There are also many cuspers between Gen X and the millennials, while there are fewer cuspers between Gen X and the Baby Boomers. The significance of the number of cuspers is that it indicates that more members of the workforce are moving away from a single-generation identity; they are identifying with select generation-specific values and perspectives.                                                                

Generation Z 

The newest addition to the American workplace is referred to as “Generation Z.” This demographic is people born from 2000 to the present; however, some experts report as early as 1995 as the start of Gen Z. This would make Gen Z older than age 18. Gen Z is referred to by many names:

  •  Generation 9-11
  •  Generation V (virtual)
  •  Generation C (community, content or cell phone, click, connected, community, or celebrity)
  •  Generation NOW
  •  Gen @.

Before 2000, many aspects of our current culture did not exist, including iPhones, Facebook, YouTube, and iTunes. This generation was born into a world where these now common electronic resources already existed. In addition, Gen Z has a huge global footprint. They do not think in terms of geographical limitations. India has the most Gen Zers, followed by China and the United States.

Members of Gen Z are agents of change, as they are characterized by open-mindedness, social impact, and inclusion. Gen Z is interested in authenticity and their values are key. As digital natives who were born into digital life, they need speed. Everything happens to them in warp speed: entertainment, transportation, and growing up. They are collaborative partners, which is important for clinical research professionals. As micro-miners, information must be broken up into bite-sized manageable pieces for Gen Z. They also want to understand why they need information.

Comparison of the Generations

The preferences of different generations are an important consideration in the workplace. Many traits of Gen Z have not yet emerged. As previously mentioned, they are digital natives and fast decision makers who are highly connected. 

On the other hand, Gen Y believes that respect must be earned. They are technologically savvy and goal- and achievement-oriented. Different still, Gen X is comfortable with authority and does not challenge it. They were the first generation to focus on the importance of work-life balance. Baby Boomers expect some degree of deference to their opinions and are workaholics. Traditionalists value authority and a top-down management approach. They are hard working.

Risk management is a key part of clinical research. Gen Yers are risk takers who take calculated risks. If the research team has older generations who are risk adverse and Gen Yers who are risk takers, risk management is more difficult. Gen Yers are emotionally stable and intellectually curious, wanting to know why things need to be done a certain way. 

Table 2 compares the five generations in the workplace. Gen Z will be larger than the millennials. Their parents are from Gen X. One of the ways that Gen Z is characterized is as more mature millennials. They are learning from the challenges that they saw the millennials having and they will do things better. 

Gen Z is less likely to job hop and has only ever known smart technology. They prefer face-to-face communication and are very interested in money, job security, and independence. While other generations might measure people based on seniority, Gen Z measures people by merit.

Under aspiration, Gen Z is looking for security and stability because they see the struggle of the generations before them, but do not want to be tied down. They are also technoholics. That is different than being digital natives. Technoholics cannot live without technology. They are always connected to their hand-held communication devices. As aforementioned, Gen Zers are career multi-taskers. For example, they may be working in clinical research while doing computer repair or making jewelry on the side. Their signature products are nano-computing, 3-D printers, and driverless cars. 

Table 3 highlights the following critical characteristics of the generations:

  • Aspiration
  • Attitude toward technology
  • Attitude toward career
  • Signature product
  • Communication media.

The Gen Z Effect

Gen Z lives in what is called a post-generational world, meaning they do not think a person’s generation matters and are looking to break down the generations. Gen Z is shifting the paradigm from affluence to influence; affluence, being the people who have the most money and the most access to knowledge; and influence being people who have the most influence. Gen Z is interested in this information, which makes sense considering that they live in a world of MOOCs (massive open online courses), where massive amounts of information are available for free on the Internet. Gen Z will be the generation that makes sure that across the world, everyone has access to electronic knowledge.

Life hacking and slingshotting are characteristics of Gen Z. Life hacking is taking shortcuts and finding easier ways of doing things. Slingshotting is accelerating things. Gen Z wants to move forward quickly. Table 4 highlights six forces that will be shaping the future of business through Gen Z.

The Next Generation: Gen Alpha

People born starting around 2017 are part of Gen Alpha. Gen Alpha will be the most formally-educated generation in history, beginning school earlier and studying longer. Some kids are now in school as early as three months old. They go to daycare centers that have early childhood education. Globally, it is predicted that 90% of Gen Alpha will complete high school with the majority going on to some sort of college.

Gen Alpha will be the job-fickle generation, having an average of six careers, which could have a sizable implications in the clinical research workplace. 

When members of Gen Alpha start to enter their 20s, there will be an unprecedented demand for workers. More people will be exiting the workplace than entering it because the birthrate is going down. The ratio of workers to retirees, currently 5:1, will decrease to 3:1. It is predicted that the newer entrants to the job market will be working fewer hours per week with job tenure at an all-time low. All indications suggest that the workplace will look significantly different than it does now.

Members of Gen Alpha are likely to have 1.5 children. They will have a global perspective, especially for shopping. In terms of social life, Gen Alpha will team up with neighbors, friends, and nearby shops to make shopping a social experience. By 2027, there will be six generations in the consumer marketplace.

Managing Five Generations in the Workplace

By 2020, five generations will be working side by side: Traditionalists, Baby Boomers, Gen Y, Gen X, and Gen Z (Table 5). Managers of clinical research professionals will need to mind the gap, that is, consider the differences between the preferences of the generations.

Each generation contributes to a rich diversity of experience, creativity, and problem-solving approaches. The traditionalists believe in a hierarchy in management style. They have a strong work ethic and are loyal to their company, something that no longer exists. Traditionalists are slow to adapt to new technology.

Baby Boomers have a more reserved communication style. They value traditional instructor-led courses. They also like self-learning tools; however, they want support from instructors who care about them and will consolidate their learning. Their top qualities for a manager are being ethical, fair, and consistent.

Gen X views change as a vehicle for opportunity. Baby Boomers hate change. Gen X likes a hands-off management policy. They have an entrepreneurial spirit and are results oriented.

Gen Y (the millennials) really want to be coached or mentored. A mentor provides a more global look at advancing one’s professional persona, whereas a coach is task oriented. The millennials are the first generation that really wants to learn from others. Once they learn what is expected, they take off. The millennials prefer collaborative and technology-centric training. Thus, they do not mind if they are not in the same room with other learners. Values drive millennials, who work for companies whose values are aligned with their own values.

Gen Z is accustomed to change and expects it in the workplace. For them, change is cool. Gen Z values in-person interactions and looks for frequent, ongoing feedback. They want to see the person who is giving them the feedback.

When working with cross-generational teams, managers should: 

  • Rethink the boring stuff
  • Flex the hours
  • Help people learn
  • Give people good reasons for doing things
  • Help people learn from each other.

No one likes to do the boring stuff. Managers should consider exploring new technology offered by tech-savvy younger employees to reduce repetitive and routine work for everybody. They should let younger employees be good at the things that they are good at.

Managers should offer flex work hours if possible. No matter what age employees are, they want a life outside of work. Managers should balance off-hours coverage so that no one has to work 24/7.

Asking employees about what they need to learn is a great way to help them learn. Managers should instruct employees about what must be done and the salient points, and then let older and younger employees mentor each other in different ways. For example, older employees are organizationally savvy while younger employees are technology savvy.

All employees want to be given good reasons for doing things. Managers should not insist on doing something just because that is the way it has always been done. All generations and age groups can offer wisdom to one another if they are open to hearing it.

Conclusion

Managers must consider the generational diversity that is currently in their organizations and what is being done to retain the oldest members of their workforce while inviting and enticing the newest members of their workforce. Action will be necessary in order for clinical research sites to have access to the required number of highly-technical workers for clinical research.

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