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Gen Z and DEI: A Generation's Commitment to Change

“This is a generational shift in the belief that these values are really important and foundational to their experiences as workers,” — Alvin B. Tillery Jr., director of the Center for Diversity and Democracy at Northwestern University.


Every generation brings certain values with them when they enter the workforce. Values they grew up with, shaped by their understanding of the world, and their experiences. The baby boomers grew up with parents who were driven by their experience of hardship through the Great Depression and a world at war, and consequently valued hard work, loyalty, and a sense of optimism deriving from the U.S’s success in a post-war world.  

  

Gen X, the children of the hard-working baby boomers, often grew up in a household with two working parents, latchkey kids who had to learn to fend for themselves, while their parents were away. Resourceful and independent, these Gen X entered the workforce at a time when 21st century technology was experiencing its first boom and they understood intimately the advantages therein. Indeed, it’s no coincidence that the two most prominent technocrats of our time—Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk—are both from this generation. 


Millennials, in some ways, have had it much better than our predecessors. As the most educated generation alive, they represent the majority of the working population today (though not for much longer) and have grown up at a time of unprecedented peace across a majority of the world. Our society is far more diverse and multicultural than ever before, and this generation knows the importance of representation in our workplaces.


But at the same time, millennials are also a generation that has lived through two economic crises, seen the boom, bust, and second coming of IT, witnessed rising debt and inflation, falling wage benefits, environmental anguish, and the all-consuming rise of social media. They strongly value diversity, environmental sustainability, and eco-social awareness yet progress has not always been apparent. Caught between the expectations of the past and the values of the future, millennials are truly a middle generation.   


All the while, Gen Z has been watching and learning.


In many ways, Gen Z brings with them the best values of the previous generations. They are fiercely individualistic, yet willing to unite behind a common cause. They’ve grown up as digital natives, in a world where technology is the premier metric of growth, yet Gen Z is fully aware of the consequences of unsustainability and environmental degradation. They are very value-based in their approach to their work, yet pragmatic, having learnt the futility of rootless idealism from millennials.


Tech-savvy in a way no generation before has been, exposed to online scrutiny from a young age thanks to social media, politically and culturally aware, and purpose driven, Gen Z is not just entering the workforce, they’re storming in.


And they have expectations from all of us.


A Highly Connected Generation


Gen Z is the most diverse generation yet. They have grown up in a society that not only appreciates multi-culturalism but takes it for granted. In their schools, colleges, and social circles, most Gen Z Americans have experienced a degree of diversity that is, unfortunately, not reflected in corporate workplaces.


As a generation, they are also highly connected and capable of astonishing organization. As the first generation to be born into a world with social media, they know how to navigate the online space with ease and stay socially and culturally aware. Their unique experiences in a rapidly changing, technologically advanced world have fostered a greater appreciation for diversity and individual identity.


This generation is pushing for changes in labor union issues, social issues, and organizational issues, leading the way in demanding a workplace reset. They expect their employers to rethink what work means to employees today, emphasizing the importance of aligning with their values and priorities


Gen Z Will See Through Corporate BS


“You can say there’s no systemic racism, but millennials and Gen Z don’t believe that. If you’re under 35, you expect these conversations, and if you don’t offer them, you’ll have trouble recruiting.” — Alvin B. Tillery Jr., director of the Center for Diversity and Democracy at Northwestern University.


Gen Z's significant cultural and political impact is evident in their engagement with issues like climate change, gun control, and social justice. They are redefining social norms, workplace dynamics, and political landscapes with their values-based, pragmatic approach.


What’s more, they are fully aware of how paper-thin corporate social responsibility can be and spot a smoke-and-mirrors act from a mile away. Their keen awareness is informed by experiences and observations in the workplace. A Tallo study revealed that 67% of Gen Z respondents had witnessed workplace discrimination and 44% experienced it themselves. This suggests that Gen Z is attuned to the gap between proclaimed diversity policies and actual practices. As VP of Netflix’s Inclusion Strategy Verna Myers puts it, “"Diversity is being invited to the party; inclusion is being asked to dance."


There is a Lot that Can Be Done but Where Do You Begin?


“The modern corporation has evolved to treat workplace discrimination not as an urgent moral or business imperative, but as a manageable PR investment.” — Lily Zheng, author and DEI expert


Inculcating diversity is not the same as implementing a new tool, something that can be tacked on to an existing institutional framework. It needs to be inculcated through active goal setting and embedded into the organizational agenda. It needs to be driven by the conscious desire to create a positive change. 


Promote diverse leadership

Representation, at all levels of the organization, is crucial for any DEI initiative to succeed. Gen Z needs to see leaders who look like them.


This is not just about racial and ethnic diversity, but also includes gender, sexual orientation, and different backgrounds. The presence of diverse leaders can inspire and empower younger employees, fostering a sense of belonging and inclusion.


A recent study by recruitment portal, Monster.com, found that 83% of Gen Z employees consider a commitment to diversity and inclusion significant when deciding where to work. This expectation for diversity in leadership has only been heightened by the recent reversals in affirmative action at institutions of higher learning.


Top down and bottom up

Author and DEI expert Lily Zheng advocates for a comprehensive approach to diversity that involves both leadership initiative and active employee engagement and feedback. What she calls the top-down and bottom-up approach.


Zheng emphasizes the importance of measuring the impact of any policy, process, or practice, particularly from a DEI perspective. Leaders need to overcome their fear of finding potential inequities and audit legacy policies and processes for discrimination. This means admitting ignorance about the experiences of all employees and seeking to understand and correct biases.


Lily Zheng’s approach necessitates a thorough examination of existing policies, a commitment from leadership to understanding diverse employee experiences, and a willingness to address and correct institutional biases.


Organizations need to actively seek and value employee feedback, ensuring their concerns and experiences shape policy revisions and implementations.


Learn from outside partners

It’s important to remember that with any diversity initiative, there’s no need to re-invent the wheel. We have a huge amounts of data to work with and recognize what works.


As a C-suite leader at Peterson Technology Partners, I am privileged to be a part Chief, a professional network of high-level women executives from across the globe. This network has given me the opportunity to connect with brilliant women leaders from various backgrounds and learn from them.


One thing I have learned from this experience is that businesses don’t have to build a DEI platform from the ground up. Instead, they can partner with organizations that specialize in customizing DEI initiatives to suit their unique needs. These external organizations can not only be a source of learning for leaders but can also help them audit their existing frameworks to identify problem areas. 


Conclusion


Gen Z's entrance into the workforce heralds a new era of values-driven, inclusive, and transparent work culture. Their demand for representation at all levels, particularly in leadership, reflects a broader societal shift towards valuing diversity and inclusivity.


Organizations must adapt by embedding these values into their core operations, actively seeking and valuing employee feedback, and ensuring that policies and practices genuinely reflect these ideals. The future of the workplace depends on our ability to embrace and nurture the diverse perspectives and experiences of Gen Z, creating an environment where everyone, regardless of background or identity, feels valued, respected, and empowered.


As we navigate this shift, the onus is on leaders to foster a culture that resonates with the aspirational and pragmatic ethos of this generation.

 

Tulika Mehrotra Chopra, Chief Digital Officer | Digital Marketing and Strategy Executive | Equity and Inclusion Leader | Talent Executive | Communications Leader | Author | Chief Member


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