Competitive Do-It-Yourselfers: Do You Agree with This Image of Generation Z?

by Diana Drake

David Stillman and his Generation Z son, Jonah Stillman, who is 17 and a senior at Minnetonka High School in Minnesota, have written a book to help sort out the generational gap between younger people. They discussed their book, Gen Z @ Work: How the Next Generation Is Transforming the Workplace, on the Knowledge@Wharton show, which airs on Wharton Business Radio on SiriusXM channel 111.

While some debate surrounds the exact definition of Generation Z, most demographers include people born between 1995 and 2012. In the United States, those years include nearly 79 million people close to entering the workforce or in the first stage of their careers. But the Stillmans warn that employers shouldn’t confuse “Zers” with millennials, who are a generation older. (Listen to the podcast at the top of this page.)

Here are three key points from the conversation:

  1. Generation Z is ambitious and hardworking.

Compared to the millennial generation, Gen Z is more competitive and independent. Millennials were raised to believe in collaboration and inclusion, which are positive traits that extend to their work ethic. However, the view that everyone wins if everyone works together isn’t necessarily realistic.

“I was told that there [are] winners and losers, and if I’m not willing to work my butt off there are 70 million other Gen Zers who are going to come right up behind you and take your job,” Jonah Stillman says. “We are a very competitive and driven generation.”

It’s important for millennial managers to realize they need a different approach with their youngest charges. “Now we’ve got a generation that’s going to be much more independent and very competitive,” David Stillman says. “I think we run the risk that millennials will dismiss this generation as not loyal, not team players, and it’s just not true. They’re coming and looking through a completely different lens. I think step one is that we need to train those who are going to be on the frontlines just how different Gen Z will be from millennials.”

  1. Generation Z babies are digital natives.

Employees who belong to Generation Z have never known life without the Internet or social media, and they are comfortable with rapidly changing technology. It’s a trait that the Stillmans identify as phygital. “Phygital has sort of blurred the lines between physical and digital,” David Stillman says. “They see no line at all. This generation has only known a world where their phones are smart.”

Because Zers are digital natives, they can serve as authority figures on the technology that is so imperative to the modern workplace. They are quick to streamline processes, and they have less hesitation or fear to try something new.

“One thing we heard again and again in researching for the book was Gen Z felt the other generations over-thought a lot of things and took too long,” David Stillman says. “So, they are going to be good to say, ‘Let’s just try it, let’s get out there, let’s do it and maybe cut out a lot of the deep, long processes.’

“At the same time, we have to be careful because this generation can act too quickly. You don’t want them having a company spend all these resources to move something that is only just a quick fad that came and went.”

  1. Generation Z is looking for alternatives.

Economic and political events — including Sept. 11th and the Great Recession (beginning around 2007) — have critically shaped the worldview of Gen Zers. While millennials are often seen as having an undeserved sense of entitlement, Zers have an attitude more in line with their Generation X parents. David Stillman describes it as the difference between: “Wow, this job is lucky to have me,” and “Wow, I’m so lucky to have this job.” “That switch up, because of the Recession as well as Gen X parents with some tough love, [means] 76% of Gen Z said they are willing to start at the bottom and work their way up,” notes David. “I think it’s going to be great.”

Jonah Stillman describes his peers as the do-it-yourself generation, partly because the Internet provides unprecedented opportunities for self-education. “If I wanted to learn how to re-tile my bathroom floor or speak Russian, I could do all of that and anything in between by logging onto YouTube,” he says.

His generation is more willing to think beyond the traditional path to that first job. Like Harvard-bound Malia Obama, more Zers are weighing the idea of a “gap year” between high school and college to travel, intern, learn a skill or simply hone in on what they want to be when they grow up.

The reason for the change lies partly with the increasing burden of college debt. The younger set is hyper-aware of the debt that millennials have, and they don’t want to be saddled with the same load. They want to find a deeper connection between an expensive education and what they will do with it.

“We know that 75% of Gen Zers believe that there are other ways of getting a good education than by going to college,” Jonah Stillman says.

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Conversation Starters

So, answer the headline. Do you agree with this portrayal of your generation? Which points hit the mark? Which ones fall short? What is missing?

Jonah Stillman, 17, says, “We know that 75% of Gen Zers believe that there are other ways of getting a good education than by going to college,” like taking a gap year. What other “educational” paths have you considered? Share them with a group and in our Comments section at the bottom of the article.

If you could contribute to the Stillmans’ research, what would you want them to know about the way you and your friends think in terms of values, strengths, weaknesses and how you want to operate in the workplace?

8 comments on “Competitive Do-It-Yourselfers: Do You Agree with This Image of Generation Z?

  1. This article was very pleasing to read. It is nice to know that people are realizing this about our generation. Usually we are called lazy and unmotivated. We are often scrutinized for always being on the internet and being out of touch with reality. That is not true at all. The students I have grown up with are some of the most hard working people I have ever had the pleasure of meeting. So I don’t understand when millennials call us lazy, it just isn’t true. Great Article!

  2. I truly do agree that Gen- Z (My generation) is a lot more independent and the DIY type of group. I feel we also because of the way college has changed that we are the
    ‘work your way up” type of people as well. Our parents did not really have to pay nearly as much as what we have to for college today and we work so hard just to live comfortably and some because of how expensive college has become. Plus the middle class is decreasing so life is harder for us while we try to branch from our parents and make a living on our own. So we are Definitely ambitious and hardworking.

  3. I am a part of Generation Z and this article described me perfectly. I am very innovative and I love to rely on my smartphone. I enjoyed reading this article because everything mentioned was a fact about the people of Generation Z. If I break something, I go straight to google to see how to fix it. Which also puts me in the “do-it-yourself” category as mentioned in the article. One time, I even fixed my phone screen from the use of Youtube. Technology plays a major role in my life. This article describes my generation perfectly.

  4. The article was very pleasing to read as “reynardo barreto” said above me. I agree that it is very nice that people are realizing the problem in our generation however I believe that there our other solutions to these problems. The article mentions that “Gen Z is more competitive and independent” which I have to disagree with. You can’t base something like that off of one or two generations. Each generation brings and gives us something we may need in the future. Rather it’s a new book or a new computer. It also say “Employees who belong to Generation Z have never known life without the Internet or social media” but thats what Pilgrims are. Most of the things Generation Z is trying to do has already been done. Thats why I believe that there are different answers to these problems.

  5. Wow! I was born in 2002, and I was quite shocked after reading his three key points. Please allow me to address them one by one.

    1. Generation Z is ambitious and hardworking.

    My short answer is no. Not compared to Generation X (at least not in China). My parents worked their butts off to get to the positions they are in today. Back in the day, everyone in China was poor. President Mao decided that going to the countryside is better than university so many young 18 year olds were sent to farms to work. That was around 1970-1980, just a few years before my parents graduated from high school.

    People that were educated worked so hard – my father spent in his dorms for a whole summer to study for an examination. He aced it so well he got a scholarship to Canada, and that was a walk to freedom. My mother aced her Gao Kao (equivalent to AP but Chinese version) as she studied until 3 am every day, and would fall asleep by her desks.

    People that weren’t educated (from the countryside) also work so hard – no matter how laborious the work is. The money they earn is much more than agriculture, while they have absurd working hours and terrible working conditions.

    Above sums up Generation X. Moving on to my generation, Generation Z…

    Students don’t work as hard as before. There is too much entertainment distracting students all the time. While we’re supposed to study / write essays in class, students are either gaming or checking their phones… Most of the time, it’s just me and a pitiful number of students actually doing work. After class, gaming or TV shows distract them… That’s the problem with internet, even though it is really useful. I’m glad I don’t procrastinate. Only the elitist bunch can get things done and work as hard as our previous generation.

    In addition, my generation benefits from Generation X working hard, so we don’t need to worry about housing and food. We have lots of legacy, causing some students to be lazy.

    2. We are digital natives. Most of us. But, just saying – phones aren’t hard to use. Smartphones are designed so they are really easy to use. Most elderly just don’t have the ability to learn new things so it’s hard for them to pick up some technology that never existed in the middle 20th century. Honestly, we have so many social media accounts – Facebook, snapchat, instagram, whatsapp, wechat (China), linkedin, twitter etc.

    3. I’m not exactly sure what “Generation Z is looking for alternatives” means, but I’ll tackle the points one by one.

    Most of all don’t recall 9/11. Either, we were too young, or not born yet (like me). However, I do remember the day Bin Laden was finally hunted down after 10 years. This economic and political event has not totally defined us or shaped or view. Our views are based on extremely trending events, like how President Trump has increasing import tariffs once again to all around the world, and the rest of the world is using retaliatory measures.

    We aren’t a “do-it-yourself” generation. Most of us are lazy, and not hard-working. Most of us can’t be bothered to use our hands to do laborious work (correct me if I’m wrong!). We do learn stuff off YouTube though – well we watch more YouTube videos instead.

    College debt? That doesn’t apply to me, but I’ll see what I can answer. Lots of students aren’t aware of how much the debt is, so if I was in that situation, I’d rather go to a university giving me full scholarship than another one giving me partial scholarship. Applying to a public university is also a good choice (there are many good public universities in both America and Canada), which are relatively cheap.

    There are indeed other ways to get good education than college, but I don’t know how Stillman acquired the data (75% of us know how to get good education than college). I don’t know many ways – you can get a BTEC in the UK and skip college. Maybe AP / A-levels / IB is enough? I’m not totally sure.

    • Hi Harry!
      After reading comments from the past Comment and Win winners, your comment here interests me the most. It was fascinating how our views are different but similar at the same time, with only two years of the age gap and three years of commenting time gap.
      In this comment, I will focus on responding to your point one: Generation Z is ambitious and hardworking.
      This is the point that my view differs from yours the most. I wouldn’t say that Gen Zs are the most ambitious and the most hardworking generation, but they were definitely not lazy.
      Making the example from the same country as you picked, I’m not sure if you’ve heard the term “Neijuan (內卷)” or involution in English; it’s a hit topic in Mainland China these two years. It talks about the phenomenon of an “endless cycle of self-flagellation”, quoting from anthropologist Xiang Biao.
      One quick example would be how more people get Bachelor degrees in Gen Z than millennials because of the legacy you’ve picked up. But this also resulted in Master degrees being the requirement for Gen Z to get the job that initially millennials can get with a high school diploma or Bachelor degree. A more extreme example will be resulting in janitors holding PhDs, and it’s the real case in the US that ~5000 janitors have PhDs, a stat from the Bureau of Labor and Statistics.
      It may seem that millennials worked much harder in your example of your mom and dad, but you didn’t point out how the social requirements for Gen Z have risen by a lot.
      In your example, Gen Zs are easily distracted by entertainment. I agree with this, but this doesn’t mean that students don’t work as hard as before. Just like me, I’m those people who watch TV shows and Netflix after class, sharing joys and comments about it with my friends. However, I also study after class, but usually, I won’t necessarily share this because it wasn’t interesting enough for me to share my study experience; some might also assume that I don’t study, but that isn’t the case!
      After class, you would never know what your classmates are actually doing. Maybe, they are studying at their own speed and routine like me, or maybe, they are Bilibili uploaders (China version of YouTuber) active in the gaming or entertainment aspect. They could be successful in their own way. (However, I still agree with you that most Gen Zs, at least those around me, including me, still believe that going to college will result in getting better education)
      Referring back to the podcast, it mentioned how Gen Z is more competitive and independent, and I totally agree with this, especially in China.
      Harry, I assume that you aren’t studying GaoKao but other foreign/international curriculums in China because of your familiarity with AP/A-levels/ IB (The curriculum that I took), which most Chinese didn’t typically know about. This could be the reason you believe that Gen Zs aren’t that competitive.
      “一分一操場” (One mark, one sports field)
      I believe that you should be familiar with the quote above as a Chinese student, even though you don’t take GaoKao. It was a quote that even I, from Hong Kong, living under a totally different educational system heard of, because of watching Chinese dramas.
      “One mark, one sports field” is a typical quote that Chinese teachers encourage students to study for GaoKao. It means that by earning one more mark in GaoKao, then you can exceed a sports field of people.
      This quote proves how competitive the students are. But looking closer behind, it demonstrates how teachers are forming this competitive background for Gen Zs to live under. This leads to Gen Zs having the ambition to aim higher by exceeding more people, being more competitive, and working harder, saying a yes to the point from the article.
      On the other hand, I somewhat agree with your short answer of Gen Z being not ambitious and hardworking, but with entirely different reasons. As a Gen Z, I totally recognize our generation’s hardworking and ambitious straits. However, I don’t think it was because of us being Gen Zs, but because of the social standards and expectations held upon us, that forced us to be more hardworking and more ambitious to get our ideal place.
      Whether in China, the US, or anywhere, every generation has its challenges and opportunities, but I believe that the world is fair to all generations. If a generation’s challenge is removed because of time and resources, a new challenge will rise accordingly.
      Anyways, it’s been a great time replying to your comment Harry! And thank you to Knowledge@Wharton High School for giving me this opportunity to meet him and other talented students!

      • Hello Harry and Tiffany! Please allow me to respond to both of your thought-provoking comments. It is interesting how both sides of your arguments are so different, yet just as true and applicable. As a Gen Z, our definition of hard work surely differs to the older generation’s concept of hard work. For instance, tasks that would require strenuous effort, physical labour and time forty years ago can be completed in less than half the time today. Our current life is much more simple, convenient and fast-paced. We are able to easily complete many things in little time. I recently had a conversation with my mom about our day-to-day school life. As expected, our answers were so similar yet so different. We had to complete the same things (writing essays and reports, studying for tests, etc.), yet the type of effort we put into these tasks were different. My mom had to walk miles to the printing centre during the cold winter to submit her report, while I can submit my midterms to Turnitin within a few minutes. She had to spend countless nights at the library looking for books to study for her finals, yet I am now able to obtain millions of study resources from the internet with a single search. Our school life is the same, but mine is much more convenient. Tiffany, as you said, the requirements and expectations held upon Gen Z are much more rigorous. I agree with this as we cannot uphold the same standard and expectation as we did many years ago. With constant innovation and advancements in technology, we have more resources and opportunities to produce better quality work and new authentic ideas.

  6. The statements present in this article provide me a different kind of view of generation Z, because as a person born in 2002 I never thought about myself and my generation from that perspective before. Firstly, I think compared to generation Y we are more competitive but less independent than them. The education that generation Z received and the way that our parents educate us are really different from generation Y. In the 80s and 90s, China was in it economic reform transformation and opening to the rest of the world, so people were really poor at that time so they were mostly focused on making a living. And we can easily know that generation Y’s parents didn’t have that much time to take care of their children because they were focused on supporting the family. Therefore, generation Y’s children become independent at a young age because they had to take care of themselves. However, many things are different in generation Z. Chinese people have become well-off in generation Z. So the way our parents raise us has changed, and their focus shifts from making money for the family to ensuring their children have a happy and healthy life. Thus, our parents spend more time staying with us and they try to provide the best education and living condition for us. Compared to the generation Y, we as gen Z become less independent than they are because of these readily-available resources. Also, because of the education that generation Z receive, we are more competitive than they are. In the past, students were trying their best to study for exam because their goal is to get a well-paid job in the future. The goal that in their mind was only about their own future and themselves. Plus, they were not taught to compete with others. However, for generation Z, parents and teachers more often mention the meaning of success, thus to some extent generation Z’s eagerness to succeed is stronger than generation Y’s.

    Although generation Z is not as independent as generation Y, it doesn’t mean there’s nothing we are good at. As digital native, we have our own strength. For me, teaching my mom to play games is a way to eliminate the generation gap between us. However, we can’t ignore the bad influence of these electronic devices. Take myself as an example, this is a situation that occurred in my life. “Ok, go to find your aunt right know!” “Sure, Sure, I will soon get my dressed on! Don’t urge me to do that!” I reply. While after I answered my parents, I turned on my cell phone and began to play the game. I admit that I’m a little bit addicted to these games, but these games also test some of my abilities, such as analytical thinking, and logical thinking. When I play these games for the first time, I have to understand the rules and find out a way to pass each level. Games are different, so when I’m playing different games, I learn different things. And that actually trained my ability to accept and learn new things. Honestly, when I’m facing some new things in the real life, the time I need to adapt to them would not take very long, which I think is attributable to the fast learning ability fostered by video games.

    The last point I want to make is that I think generation Z is not looking for alternatives, to some extent the society changes them. Generation Z are digital native, so the way they acquire knowledge is not just through teachers’ teaching, they could easily access the internet and learn something by watching some videos or asking different people for help. Also, we are more accustomed to communicating with others online, while we could think when we type and we could use funny emojis to make the conversation more interesting. However, talking with people online does have some disadvantages. We almost always use internet to communicate with others, so we lack communication experience and practice in the real life. Therefore, when we are facing each other in the real life, we might not know how to open up a conversation and the way to continue the conversation. Generation Z’s life is based on digital network. Internet provides us many opportunities for self-education and self-development, therefore from my perspective we are not looking for alternatives. Learning things through internet is just a way we are familiar with, we use it well!

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