Why Generation Z isn't the feared 'zombie' generation
Kristen A. Foltz.
When I first started teaching undergraduate students after working as an attorney and mediator, I used to joke that the next generation, Generation Z, would be the “zombie” generation. I laughed and said they would be the “indoor kids” who could not communicate unless they had a screen in front of their faces. Looking back, I grossly underestimated this group of individuals.
I was not alone. Historically, older generations tend to make fun of younger generations. Growing up, I remember hearing negative things about Generation X. Then it was the millennials’ turn to receive negative comments about being “lazy” and “entitled.” Now, Gen Z is entering into this tradition. I challenge the legal field to take the opposite approach and to embrace the benefits this group can bring.
Scholarly opinions vary slightly as to the specific year when this generation was born. But it generally falls somewhere between the late 1990s and early 2000s. Therefore, Gen Z individuals are currently in college, law school or are even recent graduates. They most certainly are or will be entering the workforce in droves.
What does this mean for the legal profession? Although I predict some initial cultural clashes, smart firms can capitalize on the skills and knowledge this generation possesses.
Generation gap grows wider
When starting my career as a litigator, I remember feeling there was a disconnect between older attorneys and younger attorneys. As a young lawyer, I felt very overwhelmed while navigating the expanse of the legal profession. Based on my birth year, I am technically a millennial. I do possess more millennial traits than Gen X, even though I am on the cusp.
When I first entered the workplace, older generations accused my generation of needing hand-holding. I heard how my generation was entitled. My partners threw me into the fire constantly to “make me tough.” On my first day on the job, I had to cover a hearing on a case to which I was not assigned, nor did I have substantive knowledge of the law in that area.
I had only previously stepped inside a courtroom as an observer. It was traumatic. If there was a gulf between me and my boomer supervisors, imagine the potential divide with Gen Z.
In their defense, my partners followed the training styles of previous attorneys. The issue is that each generation is different in the way it communicates, learns and views work. With people living longer and working longer, we will see a larger multigenerational overlap at work. Training methods that were effective in the past may no longer work with younger employees.
We know from countless researchers that the generations do not view work the same. Gen X taught us the importance of work-life balance, and those in this generation passed this concept down to the younger generations. I recall one of my partners implying that I was lazy because he did not see me in the office working on Sundays.
Over time, I transitioned out of practicing law and into teaching at a four-year university, which allowed me the flexibility and creativity I craved. Now, I have the pleasure of working closely with the newest generation, teaching them about communication, conflict resolution, social justice and introducing them to the legal profession. I am hopeful that they will have a more positive transition into working life than I had.
Gen Z, like every generation, shares characteristics resulting from societal, economic and technological forces. Look at the time period when these individuals were born and developed. This generation may only vaguely remember 9/11—most of my students do not. These individuals were children when the economy collapsed. They possibly witnessed their parents losing their jobs or homes. They came of age with America’s first African American president in the White House. All these events shaped their worldview.
The technology generation
Gen Z grew up with computers and iPhone screens, and as a result, they know how to find information faster than any other generation. I frequently partner with undergraduate students to help me with research projects because of this ability.
Also, more and more students are taking online classes or have even obtained their entire education online. They have the potential to be the best and fastest legal researchers at a law firm because of their advanced technological abilities. If they are properly trained in online legal research and given projects that interest them, they will be a strong asset to a firm.
One of my undergraduate students helped me recently with a project involving case law research, and she completed it faster than I ever could. Further, with the outbreak of COVID-19, these individuals adapted quickly to online work, school and communication. Imagine the possibilities for a firm to hire someone like this who can easily navigate the online world. Gen Z understands the many features of software, can navigate Zoom meetings with clients, can attend electronic court hearings, and much more.
Similarly, Gen Z is plugged into social media even more than millennials. In fact, those in this generation may even be able to help law firms with advertising on social media or other mediums that older attorneys may not use regularly. They all have smartphones, so firms should make sure they continue to provide adequate technology for this group.
Gen Z will likely have more student loan debt than any other generation. And although they want to have a job that supports them and pays the bills, they also want a career that is fulfilling and allows them to explore issues that interest them. A lot of my students are entering the legal profession to make a difference in the world, even if it costs them in loans.
Strength in diversity
There is a lot of concern about the mental and emotional well-being of Gen Z. The reason for this is partly due to the fact it is the most diverse generation. Diversity does not only pertain to race but also gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation.
Firms have to be mindful of this and ensure working conditions that are comfortable and welcoming. Care should be given to allowing members of Gen Z to express their feelings and ideas. The benefit of having this type of diversity, new perspectives and ideas is that they can foster more creative arguments.
Another benefit of this diversity relates to how Gen Z understands and properly uses gender neutral pronouns and understands gender fluidity. They are the most attuned to social justice issues and climate change. They are concerned about inequality. They will make great advocates for the less advantaged, and I predict a number of them will enter politics to enact change.
The recent protests in our country are historic. This generation is on the front lines of the Black Lives Matter movement, and they actively want to change the world. As a result, these are the young attorneys that might proudly do pro bono work and make our communities stronger.
Now, they are not a perfect generation. My colleagues and I moan every time we review a poorly written paper. However, if you change your perspective and embrace all that this generation has to offer, I think you might be pleasantly surprised. While law changes slowly over time, law firms and lawyers have to change to maximize all this generation has to offer.
Rather than using the old methods of training, embrace new ones. Learn how to tap into the amazing skills that this new generation possesses. Gen Z is going to do a lot of good in the world, and I, for one, am excited to see it.
Kristen A. Foltz is an attorney, mediator and professor at the University of Tampa in Florida. She teaches graduate and undergraduate students about communication, conflict resolution and the law. She is also the current president of the Florida Communication Association.
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