Why do so Many Gen Zers Seem to Lack that Old-Fashioned "Followership?"

Why don't young people today "respect authority"?

By the time Gen Z (second wave Millennials, born 1990-1999) was growing up, "Question Authority!" was not a slogan anymore but a hackneyed cliché. So maybe it is too easy to explain away Gen Zers' seeming disregard for joining something larger and making personal sacrifices for the greater good.

So, why don't Gen Zers value citizenship, service and teamwork?

Four reasons:

First, they think like customers. Yes. They know that their employer is the one paying them. But still, they look at their relationship with any established institution, no matter how small or how large, and they think, "What do you have for me? And what currency do I need to use to get what I want/need from you?"

It's not that most Gen Zers are not feeling very fortunate just to be employed. They are. However, that gratitude is not bottomless nor is it without conditions. They are grateful to have a source of income and maybe some benefits. They are grateful to be accepted, validated and wanted. They are grateful to have access to a hub of resources from which to acquire experience, training, networking; a place to be, with computers, phones, bathrooms, and maybe a kitchen or a gym or some office supplies. They are grateful for the future doors that might be opened by this current job. But let's not get carried away. It's not like they are likely to be here for a long time anyway.

Gen Zers may seem clueless about a lot of things, but they know very well that they are much less likely than those of prior generations to make long-term uninterrupted careers with one organization. They are also less likely to be exclusively employed by one organization at any given time, to work full-time and on-site, to trust the "system" or the organization to take care of them, and thus they are less likely to show what looks like loyalty - a desire to belong, deference to authority, a willingness to make short-term sacrifices for the good of the whole and an eagerness to contribute regardless of credit or rewards.

Second, is the way they think about their relationships with coworkers that are not in positions of authority. Gen Zers are simply unaccustomed to sustained interactions with a group of "peers" who are:

  • not all roughly their own age, and
  • not relationships of their own choosing, and
  • not refereed constantly, and
  • not also engaging with them in a parallel conversation through social media.

These relationships are real world, involve a high degree of inter-dependency in pursuit of concrete goals every step of the way and the stakes are high. Adults are in the workplace to earn their livelihoods; so there are lots of opportunities to disappoint and/or be disappointed.

Third, is how they look at individuals in positions of authority, especially authority figures in institutions in which they are constituents. Once again, they think like customers. In this case, specifically, your customer!

Remember, Gen Zers love grown-ups. They have been and remain closer to their parents - and their parenting "posses" - than any other generation has ever been. The problem is that their parents, teachers and counselors have always treated them like "little emperors." It's even worse if they are coming to you straight from a college or university, where Gen Zers are, in fact, actually the customers of the staff and faculty who were their proximate authority figures. Gen Zers look at older, more experienced people and presume on a very deep level that you are there to take care of them. Surely you wouldn't be interacting with them if you did not want to help them meet their basic needs and wants. They expect you to greet them warmly, make them feel comfortable, set them up for success, provide them with the resources they need, help them avoid pitfalls and give them lots of encouragement. Isn't that what grown-ups do?

Gen Zers don't typically look at other people in the workplace trying to figure out "their proper place" in the context -- how to adapt in order to "fit in" with others who clearly have longstanding relationships and a well established course of dealing. Instead, they look at you -- and everyone else in the room -- and think, "I wonder what role you might play in this chapter of my life story?"

Fourth, Gen Zers are not planning to follow the old-fashioned career path so they figure they are probably just passing through your organization anyway. Why go through a whole lot of trouble adapting to your approach to how they should manage themselves when they won't even be here that long? They are thinking, "Seriously, what am I supposed to do? Adapt my schedule and work habits and style and attitude for every new job?" Even if they could be convinced to adapt for an employer eventually, they are very unlikely to be ready to do it from the get-go, certainly not early in their first or second real job.