Generation Z are often told how others see them, but how do they see themselves?

To find out, I developed a survey, while working at Young Enterprise, that over 600 young Gen Z (1995-2010) entrepreneurs responded to. The results reveal a tension within the cohort, both in terms of identity and sense of control. It provides a fascinating insight on the next generation of New Zealand entrepreneurs.

Disruptive, entrepreneurial, digitally native, and purpose-driven?

The practice of chunking off and defining generations is partly for convenience (and often marketing purposes) but cohorts will always share several behaviours and characteristics.

However, when students were asked if the characterisation of being ‘disruptive, entrepreneurial, digitally native and purpose-driven’ was accurate, only 17% agreed. 57% said it was somewhat true, while the remainder either disagreed or were unsure.

So how does Gen Z see itself? This is where tension starts to surface. Survey responses established a negative thread in how they understand themselves and how they are perceived by others. For example:

  • “I know that our generation is labelled as lazy and a big problem in the workplace.”
  • “We are always connected to the internet and many people as a result of this feel a sense of disconnection and isolationism without it.”
  • “Stressed and depressed generation.”

However, when prompted to describe their strengths, respondents submitted over 1,500 affirming words or phrases. The most common single words included: new, ideas, knowledge, change, digital, skills, awareness, change, leadership, creative, world, people, work, fresh, open, driven, risk and courage.

Even if Gen Z do not adhere to any obvious external description, they are still affected by a range of external viewpoints that contribute to the tension between being optimistic and downbeat. Indeed, the only consistent theme is that this group sees themselves as being truly digitally native.

Why is this important on a generational scale? Because such generational identity uncertainty can easily impact career and life choices, and the sense of agency within those choices.

The locus of control

Identity tension surfaces again in how the students responded to questions about finding work after their education.

On a scale of 0 (very anxious) to 100 (very confident), the average rating was only 57. However, in a separate question, 89% strongly agreed or agreed that there are enough jobs out there, they just “need to be flexible and brave.” But 74% say that the future of work is uncertain, and this causes anxiety, while 68% believe they are well-prepared for their future career path.

Amelia Sharman, from New Zealand’s Productivity Commission, believes that the friction in these results “could be the result of respondents having different views of their locus of control – this is the view about whether success is under your control, or whether it’s largely impacted by other factors.

Research has shown that students with a more internal locus of control are more likely to view themselves as adaptable to the world of work.”
This pattern is consolidated in the surprisingly (given this was a survey of entrepreneurial students) conventional responses to questions concerning education.

Over three-quarters of respondents said that tertiary education would be their immediate next step, while 98% (48% absolutely, 50% a little) said that their education had helped them develop the skills, knowledge and attributes necessary to succeed in their careers. This would suggest that most students are comfortable in following traditional educational routes, rather than seeking to create and control their own pathways.

Reading these survey results and the thousands of comments students provided, it is hard to escape the struggles of an identity crisis: driven vs. lazy; courageous vs. unprepared; purpose-led vs. powerlessness.

Feeling prepared for the future

However, there is plenty of reason for optimism. In a further section of the survey, Gen Z students rated themselves against the types of skills and knowledge they think will be useful for a future world of work. These findings show that of the top five skills identified as useful to do well, nearly all were skills that respondents thought they were currently strong in.

Amelia Sharman attributes this to “a belief in self-efficacy – [which] is no bad thing. Optimism and confidence about the future and ones’ place in it can be self-fulfilling.” This indicates a cohort full of entrepreneurial energy.

This energy can agitate and achieve change in education and work; it can drive through change in a new economy; it can allow Gen Z’ers to be the translators of this time.

For this to happen, Gen Z need to feel comfortable in their own skin and, of course, previous generations need to listen, learn and let them be who they are: disruptive, entrepreneurial and purpose-driven.

Dr Colin Kennedy is a Senior Innovation Specialist at Creative HQ and Entrepreneurial Ambassador at The Atom—Te Kahu o Te Ao innovation space.

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