Not Mini Millennials: Introducing Gen Z

These days, many of us keep a running tally in our heads: years until retirement, number of new producers we need, revenue we’re losing because we need more people.

Wincing at yours? You’re not alone. As baby boomers continue to retire in droves, many of us don’t have enough Gen X and millennial employees to even cover the business, let alone grow it.

Altogether, the industry is facing 400,000 unfilled job openings by 2020, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That could translate to two vacancies in your ranks, or it could translate to 12. Without new producers and staff, you may already be fighting for the life of your agency.

In recent years, we’ve looked to millennials to fill these gaps—without huge success. The Hartford’s 2015 Millennial Leadership Survey found that only 4% of millennials are interested in an insurance career, often because they consider it boring. To some degree, the millennial train has left the station, and we’re still short on people.

Fortunately, there’s a new generation on its way. Born between 1995 and 2010, Generation Z is already beginning to graduate college, and its oldest members are ready to be recruited.

Just don’t treat them like millennials.

Old-Fashioned and Risk-Averse

Gen Z kids grew up during the 2008 economic crash and the long recession that followed. They witnessed the loss of 9 million jobs, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities—along with 8 million homes due to foreclosure, according to the National Center for Policy Analysis.

Unlike millennials, Zs were exposed to adult worries about budgets, bills and employment at an early age. As kids, Zs learned the value of a dollar, and they developed frugal sensibilities as a result.

Research reveals that Zs worry about the economy more than anything else. They would rather save than spend, and they grew up helping the family make financial decisions. In a 2009 Octagon First Call survey, 84% of their parents said Zs serve as resources, routinely informing and influencing purchasing decisions.

All this makes Zs kind of old-fashioned—practical, risk-averse and careful with money. They’ve seen that the cliff really does have an edge. Whereas millennials are generally optimistic, Zs tend to be realists. Raised largely by no-nonsense Gen X parents in no-coddling zones, they set achievable goals, and they expect to work hard to get there.

Motivating Zs

For a decade now, the newest people in the office have been millennials—confident risk takers whose baby boomer parents worked hard to protect them from failure. Millennials tend to be collaborative, offering ideas and asking a lot of questions, and they often wait for consensus before taking action. Because millennials sometimes wrestle with the question of when to act on their own, you may have become accustomed to urging your younger employees to step up and take initiative.

By contrast, most Zs tend to be self-directed. Teachers report that if Gen Z students don’t have a solution, they find one. If they can’t find one, they make one. Because they’re more independent than their generational predecessors, Zs are actually likely to under-communicate with you. You may need to chase after them to remind them to check in more often.

Millennials expect their work to have an impact on the world and bring about positive social change. But Zs are more likely to be practical and circumspect—they expect to work to make a living, and they find satisfaction from creating everyday solutions for everyday problems. Team bonuses that work for millennials may fall flat with individualistic Zs. As a manager, you may surprise yourself by urging Zs to be more idealistic, ask more questions or be less compliant.

Many Zs have seen underemployed millennial siblings move back home, and 64% worry they won’t find a job at all, according to research from consulting firm Millennial Branding. That explains why a whopping 72% want to become business owners. In surveys, Zs often say college should teach students how to start and run their own business—great news for someone like you, who knows firsthand the perks of being your own boss.

Overall, the Gen Z mindset signals a sea change for your recruitment conversations. Forget fancy perks. Talk dollars and cents instead. Zs are more future-focused than millennials, so give them real timelines and focus on their long-term potential. Don’t stress big company advantages—most Zs believe big financial institutions and banks have too much control. Instead, emphasize your small, local roots.

You should also play into that risk-averse mindset. To motivate a Z to join your agency, ask if they want a job helping people manage the risk in their lives. That’s an idea they can get behind.

Staying the Course

Your biggest challenge with Gen Z employees will be the same one their teachers and professors have been facing for years: lack of focus. By elementary school, these digital natives were “cross-platforming”—mastering multiple social platforms at the same moment in time—and using five screens simultaneously while working on a task.

With brains molded by tech, Zs are fast at skimming and scanning, scrolling and pinching. The advantage is that they’re natural multitaskers. The disadvantage is that they’re highly distractible.

Speed is not usually conducive to focus or precision—and in insurance, that can be a big problem. Generally speaking, most insurance organizations require months of working through modules in order to earn a license. That’s a big hurdle for Zs, because most industry training materials do not jive with the way a digital native learns and works.

The internet conditioned Zs to prefer images over text. They complete most of their searches on YouTube or Google Images, and research from the Maryland Department of Public Safety & Correctional Services suggests they read less than 20% of the text on a screen or page. That shakes out to spending about 4.4 seconds on every 100 words. Meanwhile, 43% of Zs want to learn on the internet and not use paper-based materials at all, while 38% prefer blended learning. Only 16% want to use books.

If training modules still look like books or even function like them, Zs are almost certain to avoid them. Without project-based, problem-solving exercises replete with links, hypertext and a personalized experience, Zs are going to have a hard time getting through the training we need them to complete.

The Personal Touch

None of us can afford to hire Zs who don’t tick off the training. Hiring Zs will require you to invent new ways to coach, push, pull and encourage them through that tough, initial training phase.

Fortunately, your personal push and pull carries serious weight with Gen Z.

When it comes to their bosses, Zs want—even crave!—face-to-face interaction. Millennial Branding reports that more than half of this generation prefers in-person communications with managers. Only 16% prefer email, and only 11% would rather have instant messaging.

Why does your face-to-face guidance matter so much to Gen Z? Perhaps because they grew up close to their parents—and they’re staying close. While Zs were in elementary and high school, the U.S. experienced a 400% leap in multigenerational households, according to global nonprofit Growing Leaders.

Zs trust their parents and look to them for guidance, and they’ll happily transfer that trust to you—as long as you’re willing to nurture them and teach them the focus and precision they need to perform and succeed in their careers.

Just like their work preferences, Zs are anything but one-dimensional. They’re a throwback to their great-grandparents at the same time that they’re fast, tech-savvy digital natives who communicate naturally on screens. They’ve got the digital chops and speed we all need now, and they value people skills—even if they don’t have them yet.

That’s an appealing combination that promises new life for independent agencies.

Amy Lynch is a researcher, consultant and keynote speaker about the generations at work. Her newest book, “GEN IQ: Generational Intelligence for an Age of Disruption,” is forthcoming from Nautilus Press.