How did Gen Z Talks get started, and what does it do?
After working in business and education for a number of years, I was eager to bridge what I perceived to be an ever-widening gap between universities and colleges and the working world. I felt that the best way to bridge that gap would be to create a set of programmes and events that would bring young people together with experienced professionals.
As well as helping those young people to build up valuable skills and connections, the initiatives would help professionals develop a clearer idea of the younger generation’s perspectives and, with that, some ideas on how to create a better workplace and attract the best young talent.
Gen Z Talks is the vehicle for those programmes and events.
We launched in September 2020, so the pandemic was definitely a driving factor behind why we got started. From what I could see, young people were more disconnected than ever – not just from each other, but from a concept of what their future in the working world could look like. That only increased my motivation to bridge the gap.
One of the first things we did was conduct a global round of interviews where we asked young people all over the world for their thoughts on a host of different work-related topics. We then invited seasoned professionals to join them in a virtual events platform so they could soak up those ideas. Topics included the rise of entrepreneurship among Gen-Z, the value of university, the usefulness of apprenticeships and views on working from home.
There’s still a nagging stereotype out there that young people are lazy. But we wanted to demonstrate that they are thoughtful and enterprising – indeed, lots of young people started businesses during the pandemic.
Which point really stood out from those discussions?
Young people are more attracted to office life than you might think. When they’re in that crucial, career-entry stage, lots of them are living in flat shares or house shares. So, they find it a bit embarrassing if they’re on a videocall with their colleagues – some of whom may be quite senior – and they’re interrupted by noise or other disruptions from their housemates.
They also find in a remote-working setting that the lack of corridor chats, and not having their line manager right next to them to answer quick queries, have negative impacts on their mental health.
In fact, I should note that mental health was a massive topic across the board – and we always take the opportunity at Gen Z Talks to signpost our young participants to new and existing organisations that are able to provide them with brilliant help and resources.
In particular, I can recommend Championing Youth Minds – founded earlier this year by LSE student Tanya Marwaha – which helps young people to tackle the stigma associated with mental ill health and provides a safe space for them to express any concerns they may have.
In which ways would you say Gen-Z is helping to reshape the future of work?
Gen-Z has a voice, and that voice is social media. In many ways, young people are becoming ‘career activists’ – unafraid to share their views on how the workplace should function, and what companies should do better in their approach to designing work.
Younger employees have learned how to harness LinkedIn to create sophisticatedly pitched posts that are very clear about where they think certain companies are going astray, but without overstepping the mark. And what’s really struck me about that is how empathetic young people are: they’re not just doing this for themselves – they want to build a better world for their kids’ grandkids.
Gen-Z workers are very much plugged into the spirit of the gig economy. As they crave stability, companies don’t have to worry about them leaving their jobs if they start their own businesses. So, it’s up to employers to accept that Gen-Z staff are going to run side-hustles. Hustle culture enables young people to devote their own time to projects where they can make a real difference on things that matter to them, in a context where money may not be the primary objective.
As such, flexible hours are a major plus point with Gen-Z. They want to do the work that’s required of them – but, at the same time, they want the autonomy to be able to decide when they work.
They also want much more detailed feedback on job applications than employers have traditionally provided. Plus, they are very passionate about diversity and inclusion, and employers doing all they can to tackle climate change.
What are the best ways for Gen-Z talents to develop leadership skills?
Networking is pivotal. When I was in the legal sector, I created a networking group for fellow professionals that helped me develop so many new skills and opportunities – and to learn so much from far more experienced people.
Attending networking events, listening to senior leaders and honing the verbal skills for speaking to key decision makers, will help you build the interpersonal qualities that you yourself will need as a leader. You will gain advice; you will obtain mentors – you will learn how to foster and strengthen relationships with people who are already leading.
Indeed, obtaining a range of different mentors is something I always encourage Gen-Z groups to do. Not only does mentorship help young people to tackle challenges and develop new skills – it enables them to transition into leaders themselves. Mentors provide mentees with the confidence to step outside their comfort zones and grow: something that leaders should always be looking to embrace.
Enterprise is another important route. It’s easier than ever to start a business, so young people have every opportunity to put themselves in the spotlight and become leaders in any field they want.
A facility for personal branding is something that employers are paying much closer attention to. If you use platforms such as LinkedIn, Instagram and TikTok to take a lead on a particular issue or cause that you feel passionately about, and become known as a leader or influencer in that context, that will certainly make an impression.
Continuous learning is also crucial. Knowledge is power, and Gen-Z employees have avidly curious minds. As well as being eager to pick up as much as they can from conventional learning channels, they are constantly seeking out information from leadership voices they respect on YouTube and their favourite podcasts.
And finally, putting yourself out there and joining a youth forum at a charity – or becoming a youth representative on your employer’s shadow board – will put you in a position where you are regularly making or contributing to decisions that will enable you to have a positive impact on the future.