Why Do So Many Gen Zers Seem to Lack That Old-Fashioned "Professionalism?"

Why don't young people today hold themselves to a higher standard when it comes to their attitude, work habits, and people skills?

Just like those of previous generations, Gen Zers' (Second Wave Millennials, born 1990-1999) first real job usually coincides with their first real taste of adult freedom and autonomy. They embrace the freedom and autonomy of young adulthood but often resist the attendant responsibility, discipline, and consistency. Why do they not, like those of previous generations, quickly realize that young adults need to make the adjustment to the grown-up world?

First, most Gen Zers are coming to you straight from school. If they have the most in-demand technical skills, then they are probably coming from college or university; maybe graduate school. That means they've probably become quite accustomed to a very luxurious form of pretend adulthood. I'm not blaming the institutions, but think for a moment about the college/university lifestyle from which your young employees come to you: Room and board are not only covered, but also arranged conveniently in close proximity to campus. College students are surrounded by their peers all the time and often with intimate friends. College students have access to the resources of a major institution, but their only responsibilities are those of a valued customer. They have the support and services of staff, administration, and faculty, but their social status is determined by where they fit in with their peer group. Their "job" is a privilege for which someone else is paying (even if it is paid for by student loans, the tremendous cost of all this is deferred.) In exchange for all of this, one could make a strong argument that very little is required or expected of most young college/university students. They have very little supervision and a great deal of latitude in all manner of their personal habits and conduct. How many college students come to work for you who have gotten in the habit of staying up too late hanging out with their friends? Skipping too many classes? Doing their work at the last minute... or not at all? Then expecting to receive an inflated grade? Or else their parents will call an administrator to insist on why the student's individual learning need requires a special accommodation, like maybe an A-. Indeed, Gen Zers' parents are still just a phone call away to bolster their self-esteem when they do sub-optimal work for you but are frustrated you are not treating them like A-students.

That takes me to the second reason: Being raised by those helicopter parents on steroids. Even after they arrive in the workplace, Gen Zers are still only a phone call (or text) away from their parents. It is unlikely that their parents are still enforcing a bed time (perhaps that one is unfortunate), but I would bet some of your less than tardy Gen Zers may still be getting an actual wake-up call from a parent in the morning. Even worse, maybe they are on their own now, for the first time, after being reared by parents (and their parenting posses) who did all the work for them of closely scheduling, managing, and supporting their every move. With their parents doing so much of the work, many Gen Zers never mastered the basics of taking care of themselves.

Third, the customization of everything has entrenched in Gen Zers a fundamental expectation that individual accommodation is the norm. Even if they, themselves, did not home-school, never had an ILP (an "individual learning plan," very common in schools nowadays), and never took meds for their special 'diagnosis,' they surely grew up among kids who did. And surely too many people told them each and all, way too often, "you are a special case." Meanwhile, there has long been a growing current of personal customization in every sphere where consumers dwell ---especially media. Of course, all of this dovetails with the long-term zeitgeist swing toward relativism - ie "all styles are equally valid."

Gen Zers' basic assumption is that they should be able to just "be themselves" and "express" their true identity at work, even if that might include stuff like failing to follow through on a day when they are "just not feeling it."

Fourth, when it comes to Gen Zers' people skills, it is easy to blame the fact that they have become so accustomed to electronic communication that they are losing the ability to communicate well in-person. That's surely a big part of the story. Communication practices are habits and most Gen Zers are in the habit of remote informal staccato and relatively low-stakes interpersonal communication because of their constant use of hand-held devices and the mores of social media and instant messaging. But there is much more going on here than Gen Zers staring at their devices too much, sending too many texts, and becoming increasingly less articulate because they get so little practice having real conversations. As a partner in a large accounting/consulting firm put it so well, "It's not just how they communicate that is the problem. It's what they have to say that really pisses me off!"

Fifth, much of what older more experienced people might see as matters of professionalism ---attitude, self-presentation, schedule, and interpersonal communication--Gen Zers are more likely to consider highly personal matters of individual style or preference and really none of their employer's business.