Generation Z and the increasingly automated work environment

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A GROWING NUMBER of members of Generation Z, born roughly between the mid-1990s and early to mid-2010s, is entering the workforce. For businesses, it’s becoming increasingly important to get a good grasp of what makes these young people tick, in order to attract, onboard, and retain them.

One of the more recent attempts to understand this cohort was made by local firm Acumen Brand Strategy Consultants. In 2018, Acumen conducted a study involving hundreds of participants from two digital generations: Generation Z, also known as the centennials; and Generation Y, the millennials. Though mistakenly lumped with the millennials, centennials are a distinct group.

In May at the BusinessWorld Economic Forum 2019, Pauline Fermin, managing director of Acumen, presented some of the study’s key findings. “Digital devices, digital media and the Internet are fully integrated into their lives and even their definition of being,” she said. The formative years of many Gen Zers were shaped by the rapid digital evolution in the 2000s that brought about smartphones and social media, among other innovations. They were exposed to and began using these technologies at a young age.

Unsurprisingly, all the Gen Z participants of the study said they use the Internet. A majority of them use it for more than four hours a day. Meanwhile, 45% said they get bored when they’re offline. On social media, the study found, the top accounts Gen Zers follow are those of their friends, family, celebrities and companies. Thirty-two percent of the Gen Z participants want their followers and/or friends on social media to react immediately to anything they share.

“The principles of technology are now basic expectations when it comes to life: high speed, high availability, constant accessibility and human-optimized machines, convenient, easy, seamless,” Ms. Fermin said. Curiously, she noted that Gen Zers recognize that they have weaknesses in terms of communication and interpersonal skills. Some 38% of the centennial participants in the Acumen study said they can express themselves better online than in person.


Gen Zers are highly in touch with everything — good and bad — that’s happening around them. “Technology is their visa,” Ms. Fermin said. These people also “find anchor in purpose and authenticity.” Ms. Fermin said, “They seek meaning beyond what’s [on] the surface. They’re disillusioned when it comes to false information or empty words.”

Drawing on its study’s findings, Acumen came up with ways for businesses to effectively engage centennials. “As leaders, if we want to attract, manage, retain and draw out their full potential, we must first strive to have intergenerational understanding within the work environment,” Ms. Fermin said. In addition, when teaching and coaching, “leaders will have to adapt to their worldview and baseline in order… to effectively build the necessary on-the-job capabilities,” Ms. Fermin said.

Acumen also recommends that businesses be digitally enabled and their workflows re-configured. They ought to support work-life unity to retain Gen Z talent, too. Centennials, Ms. Fermin said, “expect seamless, frictionless fusion of personal passions, priorities and professional growth.”

Gen Zers are moving into the workplace at a time when businesses are embracing automation and artificial intelligence, which has raised fears about widespread job losses and questions about what skills new and old workers should learn to survive and thrive in an automated work environment. At the same BusinessWorld conference, Kristine Romano, Philippine managing partner of McKinsey & Co., said artificial intelligence and automation will change how we work.

In her presentation, she noted that some activities are more automatable than others. For instance, 78% of predictable physical work (e.g. welding and soldering on an assembly line and packaging objects) is automatable, while only 25% of unpredictable physical work (e.g. construction and raising outdoor animals) is automatable. Work activities that are less susceptible to automation include ones that involve stakeholder interaction, applying expertise and managing others. “On average, six out of 10 jobs have at least 30% of work activities that can be automated,” Ms. Romano said.

“Because so much of the tasks in the workplace will be automated, it becomes even more important for employees to hone their critical thinking and complex problem-solving skills,” as well as “[j]udgment and decision-making, creativity, ability to work with others, emotional intelligence — human skills and skills which for the moment humans are still better at than machines,” Rizalina Mantaring, president of the Management Association of the Philippines, told BusinessWorld in an e-mail.

For the vast majority of the centennials that are still studying, educational institutions play a critical role in helping them develop the skills they will need when they transition to an increasingly automated work environment. “Much of what we learn today will be obsolete in five years. Students should also be prepared for a lifetime of continuous learning, hence the most important thing students may get out of their education is to learn how to learn,” Ms. Mantaring said.

For the Gen Zers that have just entered the workforce and their co-workers that belong to older generations, it will be wise to invest in learning new skills. “The key is lifelong learning, to be able to cope as the world changes,” Ms. Mantaring said.

Ms. Mantaring said that companies will need to retrain their employees through programs that can be done in-house or in partnership with specialist or training institutions. But she noted that skills don’t get “baked in” until they are applied, so it will also be important for companies to provide their employees with opportunities to participate in projects or new initiatives. “Companies can help allay fears of job displacement by proactively retraining at-risk employees for new roles, although there is a limit to how many can be retrained and how much retraining can be done,” she added.

Even high-ranking people in any organization affected by automation will have to upskill. Ms. Mantaring, who also chairs Sun Life Financial Philippine Holding Co., Inc., said businesses of the future will need so-called “super managers” who are empathetic, skilled at mentoring, creative innovators and data-driven decision makers.

“Complex problem-solving, critical thinking, creativity and people management will perhaps be the most important skills as the routine administration work which makes up more than half a typical manager’s tasks will be left to machines. Business leaders need to be able to envision the future, and for this they need a deeper understanding of the technologies driving their businesses — artificial intelligence and data analytics are probably basic now. They need to be able to make that leap to see how technologies disrupting other industries can be applied to their own,” Ms. Mantaring said. – FATV