The Soft Skills Gap: Growing Steadily From Gen X to Y to Z

Since 1993, I've been tracking generational change in the workplace and its impact on organizations, especially the impact on supervisory relationships. Based on two decades of research, I can report that the overwhelming data points to a steady diminution in the soft-skills of young people in the workplace from Gen X to Gen Y to Gen Z. Today's young workers are increasingly likely to have significant notable weaknesses in one or several key soft skills.

Why is that?

Much of why Generation Z seems like a new species from another planet is really just an accident of history:

Generation Z will be the first truly global generation --- connecting and traveling to work across borders in every direction and combination. Unlike any other generation in history, Gen Z can look forward to a lifetime of interdependency and competition with a rising global youth-tide from every corner of this ever-flattening world.

Gen Zers are the first true 'digital natives.' They learned how to think, learn and communicate in a never-ending ocean of information. Theirs is an information environment defined by wireless internet ubiquity, wholesale technology integration, infinite content, and immediacy. From a dangerously young age, their infinite access to information and ideas and perspectives ---unlimited words, images, and sounds--- is completely without precedent.

Generation Z will be the most diverse workforce in history, by far. That's true in terms of geographical point of origin, ethnic heritage, ability/disability, age, language, lifestyle preference, sexual orientation, color, size, and every other way of categorizing people. For one thing, the Generation Z workforce will include a global mix like never before. Equally important, Gen Zers look at every single individual, with his/her own combination of background, traits and characteristics, is his or her own unique diversity story. They value difference, uniqueness, and customization, most of all their own.

At the same time, Generation Z has been also been shaped by helicopter-parenting on steroids. By the late 1990s, the Boomer-esque self-esteem based "everyone gets a trophy" style parenting was morphing anew. The parents of these second wave Millennials are mostly Gen Xers, who have had fewer children and typically have children at a later age than Boomers did. Xer parents have taken helicopter parenting to a whole new level. As one Gen Xer parent told me, "I don't want to make my kid just feel like a winner no matter what happens. I want to do everything I can to set him up with every possible advantage to make sure he has a big head start in the real world so he can win for real." Parents (and contingent authority figures) are so engaged in supervising and supporting the child's every move, validating their differences, excusing (or medicating) their weaknesses, and setting them up with every material advantage possible. In China, where there are so many only-children due to the longstanding "single child policy," a similar trend in child-rearing has yielded a phenomenon referred to by many as "Little Emperor Syndrome."

Gen Zers grew up spending most of their time ensconced in their own highly customized safety zones -- the private comfort of protection and resources provided by responsible adults who are always supposed to be looking out for them. Gen Zers have been insulated and scheduled and supervised and supported to a degree that no children or young adults have ever have been before. It's been decades since children were told to "go outside and play." Even school no longer functions --- as it used to --- as a robust quasi-public sphere for children to "scrimmage" real life social interaction. More Gen Zers per capita, by far, have been home-schooled than any generation since the rise of public schooling. Meanwhile, parental involvement in the classroom is more pervasive than ever before.

Gen Zers have grown accustomed to being treated almost as customers/users of services and products provided by authority figures in institutions ---both in schools and in extracurricular activities, not to mention in their not infrequent experiences as actual customers.

As a result of all of this, relationship boundaries with authority figures are rather blurry for Gen Zers. They expect authority figures to be always in their corner, to set them up for success, and to be of service. They are often startled when authority figures see it otherwise.

Meanwhile, Gen Zers are always totally plugged in to an endless stream of content and in continuous dialogue ---through social media based chatting and sharing and gaming--- with peers (and practical strangers) however far away (or near) they might be. They are forever mixing and matching and manipulating from an infinite array of sources to create and then project back out into the world their own ever-changing personal montage of information, knowledge, meaning, and selfhood.

They try on personas, virtually. Social media makes it easy to experiment with extreme versions of one persona, or another; more or less (or much more) crass means of expression.

Gen Zers are perfectly accustomed to feeling worldly and ambitious and successful by engaging virtually in an incredibly malleable reality --- where the stakes can seem all important one moment, until the game is lost and reset with the push of a button.

In a nutshell, Generation Z ---East, West, North and South--- might be seen as a rising global youth-tide of "Little Emperors," who have been told their whole lives "all styles are equally valid," and try to "fit in" with each other, in a never-ending digital dance, by projecting their uniquely diverse persona(s) in their own highly customized virtual peer ecosystem.

Trying to make the adjustment to "fitting in" in the very real, truly high stakes, mostly adult world of the workplace is a whole new game for them. And it's not really their kind of game. They are less inclined to try to "fit in" at work, and more inclined to try to make this "whole work thing" fit in with them.