How Employers Can Help Ground “Untethered” Digital Natives

Digital natives (Millennials and Gen Z-ers who grew up with the internet) make up 38% of the workforce, a percentage that is projected to rise to 58% during the next 10 years, according to a CNBC article. While digital natives’ natural familiarity with the internet and technology can be a big advantage, for management and older colleagues, the demands of digital natives may feel unrelatable – and sometimes even out of line. But understanding digital natives’ worldview and attitudes toward work can help organizations create a productive and nurturing work environment for everyone.

Dr. Julie Albright, digital sociologist at the University of Southern California, shares her research findings and insights about what she calls an “untethered” generation and how employers can create a work environment that provides both missing connectedness and career success.

Growing up in a “risk society,” digital natives have been shaped by a perfect storm of factors:
9/11, high divorce rates among their parents’ generation, a recessionary economy, the mortgage crisis, and high levels of college debt. One of the biggest consequences of this perfect storm is that we’re seeing a generation of people coming untethered.  

Digital natives are unhooking from traditional, once-common social structures and processes. The median age of marriage rose to 29.5 for men and 27.4 for women in 2017, up from 23 for men and 20.8 for women in 1970.  Among those 22 to 38 years old, nearly three out of four never or infrequently attend religious services, according to Pew Research. This untethering from traditional social institutions means fewer social connections and a higher risk of depression, anxiety, and loneliness. We’re seeing the highest rates in 30 years of anxiety and depression amongst young people, and a quarter of college students – your next generation of employees – are taking psychotropic medications.

And although Millennial turnover and employer loyalty is slightly better than the Gen X-ers who preceded them into the workforce, the career expectations of digital natives are different.  All these changes have profound implications for the workplace.


How digital natives are changing the workplace 

As a result of untethering, employers need to recognize that, for digital natives, the American Dream has become “customizable.” Digital natives have seen what was once the ideal – such as staying at one job for an entire career and retiring on a pension – disappear. Instead, they want to create their own personalized path to fulfillment. Once employers understand that motivation is no longer “one size fits all,” they can better keep up with these seemingly “spoiled” workers. Here are a few examples of their different desires:

Remote working. Nearly seven out of 10 digital natives feel they have the right to work remotely. They want to have the freedom to job hop and travel, as opposed to other generations that felt tied down to one place and job.

Pace of time. Digital natives expect things to happen quickly. Business leaders used to recommend having a five-year plan for success. For many digital natives, five years can seem like an eon. For prior generations, a yearly performance review was typical, but younger workers want quick feedback monthly or even more frequently.

Digital natives, accustomed to the immediate response of the internet, texting, and smartphone apps, also expect to move up the corporate ladder at lightning speed. They want a promotion or to see a clear path to promotion within one year, and they’ll leave if they don’t see the possibility. In a Gallup report, 21% of Millennials had changed jobs within the prior year, more than three times the number of non-Millennials. 

Differing expectations. There are multiple generations in the workplace now, and each has different expectations. Digital natives expect prompt responses and communication and short deadlines; whereas, older generations may be more comfortable with “analog” methods of communication, such as phone calls and business meals. These contrasting expectations can lead to clashes that breed unintentional resentment, anger, and potential team breakdowns.


How employers can lead and respond

Organizations have a unique opportunity to lead and create new social structures, anchor points, support systems, and socialization for all employees by listening to digital natives. Here are some tips to achieve this:

Remote working: Use remote working as an opportunity to build flexibility into employees’ daily schedules and work locations. Leverage tools for video meetings and dedicate specific times and activities for teambuilding. These will help foster team cohesion and avoid miscommunication, whether online or in person. Remote working can also help you hang on to valued employees who may need to move for family reasons or desire less expensive living standards, allowing you to recruit from a larger pool of candidates.

Communication, timing, and differing expectations: Temper digital natives’ expectations about communication styles and promotions or leadership positions.

Be sure to address generational differences by encouraging communication and learning. Consider implementing a mutual mentorship program. For instance, digital natives can share expertise with new technology or social media, and more experienced workers can provide coaching on how to navigate office politics or move up the career ladder.

You may also need to consider introductory training for younger workers on skills needed for smooth business transactions, such as business meals or negotiations, because personal touches with customers still play a crucial role in successful deals and relationships.

Wellness and growth opportunities: Finally, consider opportunities to offer wellness and growth benefits to help fill the gap for these untethered workers. Humans are social creatures, and these social connections are a missing link we need to figure out in a fast-moving, untethered society. Consider how to contribute to your employees’ wellbeing by ensuring your healthcare coverage includes mental health benefits and supporting family transitions like maternity leave and elder care. Then consider “softer” perks like opportunities to participate in good causes, join industry groups, and attend relevant conferences to encourage connections within and beyond the office.

The sometimes-conflicting aspirations of digital natives and previous generations creates a vexing problem for organizations: How do you maintain critical business processes while helping all workers succeed?

Employers can take the lead in finding a balance between yesterday’s analog world, today’s digital world, and the as-yet unimagined world of work tomorrow. It will take new ways of thinking and some creativity, but understanding digital natives’ motivations and priorities can help you create a future-ready workplace where all generations of workers can flourish.


Interested in learning more about the role mobile apps can play in untethering your employees from their desks, while easing everyday tasks like expense reporting? Visit our mobile apps hub.

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