Four happy colleagues working in the office

4 keys to understanding Gen Z: trust is the new loyalty

The oldest members of Gen Z are starting their careers. Learning the whys behind who they are can help you integrate them successfully.

If you read “Gen Z” solely as a business buzzword, you can add that to the long list of ways today’s 16- to 26-year-olds are being misunderstood. They’re literally the future of work, and they’re changing how we work in real time.

Here are four keys to a better understanding of the young people who are shaping our collective workforce and future.

1. Their views are forged by change and adversity

From 9/11 to the Great Recession to the COVID-19 pandemic, Gen Z has lived through one crisis after another since they were born. In the rolling wake of the Columbine High School massacre and the multiple campus shootings that followed, schools have always had metal detectors; since 9/11, global terrorism is a daily, de facto threat; in an ever-volatile economic climate, parents could lose their job any day. These young people take everything seriously and almost nothing for granted. Employers looking to hire them should recognize they are seeking inspiration and promise for their own futures, regardless of the company’s size or maturity.

2. They expect intuitive experiences

Gen Z shares a relationship with technology that surpasses the understanding of previous generations. They’ve grown accustomed to a level of speed, ease and simplicity that’s not a marvel or a convenience — it’s a given. They are assumed to have a short attention span — seven seconds, to be precise — but they can focus when they want to, when it’s something they’re interested in. If they feel it’s a hassle or wasting time, they will simply move on.

3. They value authenticity

Gen Z is leading us into an era of radical transparency. Formerly sensitive subjects like sexual orientation, gender identity, race, class and mental health are their version of small talk. They expect inclusivity and report a desire for fairness and equity; it bothers them when others are treated badly, denied opportunities or have limited access to resources. This is a generation of skeptics who are calling into question the honesty, integrity and motivations of business and leaders, with 60% reporting that they believe most people can’t be trusted. For them, loyalty is never automatic, and they’re more likely to trust individual people than organizations or brands. They expect an employer to live its stated values. In short, trust is the new loyalty.

4. They are pragmatic

More than 60% of this generation is actively worried about money. Buying pre-owned goods is not viewed as a sacrifice but common practice, and status is not tied to material things. They consider time their most valuable commodity. Despite financial concerns, most say that making a difference in the world and enjoying their work are both more important than what they are paid. For their future bosses, that means balancing clear expectations with a degree of flexibility that may be new — but necessary.

Read more about Gen Z in the EY 2021 Gen Z Segmentation Study.


Business leaders are thinking about tomorrow’s workforce, not just today’s. To attract the talent and competency required for sustained success, companies need to understand the mindset of Gen Z. This rising work generation is defined by adversity, technology, diversity, skepticism and a thirst for authenticity. They put a high price on their own time and health and expect employers to do the same. If leaders can inspire them to invest in a collective mission, they’ll give all they have, because the boundaries between work and life are more blurred than ever.

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