Situated as we are on the University of Sussex campus, every year at Sussex Innovation we witness the progression of a new group of young people as they take their first steps into the world of work.

Many of our tenants take advantage of this close proximity to hire directly from the student body via work placements, graduate schemes, and the University’s CareerHub service. We also have close ties with the Careers, Employability and Entrepreneurship Team, and help to train and mentor a wide range of fresh talent who are keen to develop their enterprise skills as part of their education.

Many column inches in recent years have been dedicated to the idea of a ‘generational divide’ between the priorities, expectations and values that Gen Z demonstrate by their actions in the workplace and their career decisions. Are these real, measurable generational differences? And if so, how might employers think differently about their recruitment and retention practices to attract emerging talent?

The Benefits of Multigenerational Teams

Any HR expert will tell you that companies with a more diverse workforce are more likely to be successful, and having a multigenerational team is no different. Bringing together people with different perspectives and life experiences encourages more creative problem-solving and innovation, since different age groups are likely to approach similar challenges in completely different ways. Research by Gartner shows that companies with age-inclusive policies and a wider distribution of ages improve team performance by up to 30%.

It’s not just that younger generations are digital natives, intuitively comfortable with emerging technologies – they have also been raised and educated within the context of a society that is always online. This experience enables them to recognise different cultural and communication norms, and apply a different kind of critical thought to the information they receive.

Many successful businesses encourage non-traditional mentoring – a two-way process where younger employees gain industry experience and institutional knowledge whilst sharing the benefits of these insights with older colleagues.

What are Gen Z Employees Seeking?

Despite the prevailing discourse, Gen Z’s core motivations probably won’t sound too unfamiliar to other generations.

“Graduates’ desires and needs are still quite consistent – they want interesting jobs that fulfil their personal interests and motivations as well as meeting their future cost of living needs,” says Andy Howard, Careers Employability and Skills Manager at the University of Sussex. “Talking about Gen Z can be a useful lens to discuss and review the landscape that current graduates are experiencing, and consider the impact of evolving societal changes.”

We are all part of a wider context that includes an increasing cost of living, climate crisis, global conflicts, challenges to democracy and human rights, and rapidly accelerating technological developments that are reshaping every part of our lives and work. This sense of uncertainty can only amplify the more personal doubts and anxieties that all of us will have felt when taking the first steps in our careers. It’s no surprise that many graduates identify with the idea of working in sustainability, healthcare, social justice and emerging tech – the sectors that are set to have the biggest influence over their lives.

However, “clustering the needs of individuals as one homogenous generational group can also be limiting,” counsels Andy Howard. “There is some discourse that challenges an over-simplification of graduates’ needs.”

He points towards dissenting voices such as Tristram Hooley, director of the National Institute for Career Education and Counselling (NICEC), and a previous specialist adviser to the House of Commons Education Committee inquiry into career guidance, who tries to avoid broad generalisations about generational behaviours in careers and wider choices.

How can we Equip Graduates for the Workplace in 2024?

One of the benefits of growing up against a backdrop of unprecedented change is that today’s graduates have had to develop a unique capacity for adaptability and flexibility. As with every generation before them, the thing Gen Z need most critically is the opportunity to gain practical experience in the workplace and exercise those skills.

“We have responded to students’ needs to explore and experience real-world work situations to help them test their career ideas and make well informed decisions based on their experiences,” says Andy Howard. “We invest in inclusive and paid work experience opportunities, promoting around 3000 placements and internships each year and partnering with local organisations to run student consultancy projects that prioritise sustainability issues.”

A Prospects early careers survey in 2022 suggested that the pandemic has increased young people’s willingness to regularly change jobs, with 48% indicating that they would move on if they couldn’t see an opportunity to develop and grow with their current employer.

Although not all businesses can offer graduates the opportunity to work in desirable, fulfilling or purpose-led industries such as creative arts, healthcare, psychology and public services, this statistic shows how they may still build a desirable employer brand. Organisations that invest in early career training and mentoring programmes, and those which signpost a clear pathway for career progression continue to have the best chance of attracting and retaining talent.