Executive Education

Perception and Reality: 4 Things I’ve Learned from Gen Z

All eyes are on the latest generation to enter higher education and the workforce.

In 2019, my digital marketing students began writing blog posts, attempting to explain their generation to future recruiters. Before embarking on this project, I encouraged them to read studies about Gen Z – broadly defined as those born between 1997 and 2012 – and to consider if they agreed, or disagreed, with what was said about them – and why.

The best posts were published, and now we have more than 50 pieces, written by bachelor’s and master’s students from 27 different countries. Here’s what they had to say, and what I in turn learned about the truths and misconceptions about their generation:

  1. The world doesn’t ‘like’ them
    The first thing students discovered when carrying out their research was that most of the studies surrounding Gen Z came to negative conclusions: they are considered asocial, addicted to technology, and lazy. Teachers claim they are unable to take notes, recruiters criticize their lack of professionalism, and supervisors think that they aren’t hard workers. When I saw my students’ reactions to these criticisms, I felt annoyed on their behalf: is this really the right way to welcome a new generation that will have to solve dramatic issues like climate change?While my students admitted they heavily rely on technology and that one of their biggest fears is losing Wi-Fi access, they also maintain that they hate emails and prefer face-to-face communication. I liked Christine’s comment about teachers who try to engage students with YouTube videos. “In today’s world, lecturers think that when the class is boring, displaying a video on a screen will catch our attention,” she writes. “However, the truth is, that if we were not engaged in the beginning, there is no video on the internet that will make our brains process or even retain the information they want to transmit.”

    In nearly all of the blog posts, students say that finding a suitable job is their main priority and concern, as they are all too aware of how competitive the market is. When they’re told that they lack professionalism, they retaliate by questioning the professionalism of companies who don’t respond to queries about the availability of positions, or who don’t provide feedback after an interview. How can we ask them to respect certain courtesies when companies don’t reciprocate?

    In her blog post, Lynn expressed her disdain: “We don’t understand how some companies grade people based on a piece of paper! For me, it’s like judging its book by its cover – and we all know we shouldn’t.”

    Many students say they started small businesses in high school, and it’s clear that being an entrepreneur is very much on Gen Z’s bucket list. While some of their perceptions around entering the workforce are flawed, a large number of students, like Oliver, expressed concern about being creatively stifled: “I am absolutely terrified by the fact that I could one day work in an office cubical. This world doesn’t allow creativity.”

  2. They look for meaning everywhere
    Constantly bombarded with information, Gen Z’s attention span, according to research, is less than ten seconds. Does this mean they are not interested in anything? Or that, on the contrary, they’re simply trying to filter everything with a common goal in mind: to make sense of it?As Caroline points out, it isn’t that her generation isn’t able to focus, they just think and absorb information differently: “Just because we prefer to hear the news from a quick video rather than a newspaper doesn’t mean we have no attention span, just like wearing jeans to the office rather than a suit doesn’t make millennials lazy.”

    Indeed, access to new modes of communication has changed the way this new generation communicates. They must sort through all this data, make choices and understand what is important. In this regard, Josefin says we have the responsibility to guide the generation that ultimately consumes the technology we created. “It is said that depression and low self-esteem is increasing in our society, and who is responsible for this?” she challenges. “Generation Z needs guidance to help them find their own values and not get lost on the way. They need role models. Older generations are responsible of helping them on their way to success.”

    Expectations in the workplace have changed, too. Even if most of them genuinely appreciate their internship experiences at global hotel chains, what they crave the most is to be, “recognized and appreciated,” explains Joao. “We don’t want to work for big corporations, we don’t want to be a number. We value small environments where everyone knows each other and where everyone’s voice impacts general decision-making.”

    Far more than titles and money, what drives this generation is self-actualization. They clearly don’t like being told what to do. They want agency, and the freedom to grow. “Gen Z wants to do what they feel is right,” observes Francesco. “It does not mean that we are not willing to change according to the feedback we receive. On the contrary, we want to be able to fail and see our mistakes in order to really understand why we are doing things in a certain way. When we learn something and it is recognized, we have a feeling of accomplishment that leads to higher personal productivity.”

    Generation Z want leaders, not bosses. They look for role models. They recognize teachers’ commitment. And, above all else, they’re looking for hands-on experience, explains Linda: “Imagine a doctor. Would you say they know how to perform surgery if they’ve only read about it in books? Probably not. That’s why I wanted to gain hands-on experience throughout my studies.”

  3. They are ambivalent
    Post after post, one thing that surprised me the most is Gen Z’s ambivalence. On the one hand, they seems over-confident, believing that tomorrow’s world will be different, and they’ll be the only ones able to navigate it. The catchy headlines on many of their blog posts speak volumes:Gen Z in the workplace: We can change the rules of the game!
    Stop being pessimistic! “WE” will be more successful than “THEM”
    Adapt to invest – Why Gen Z is the future
    The future belongs to Gen Z

    At the same time, however, they express their fears around terrorism, climate change, economic instability, and, overall, the state of the world that has been left for them to sort out by previous generations. As Ankita says, “My generation is up to date on all the news from around the world; we have seen and heard about the economic crisis and animals becoming endangered. We are a generation that actually cares about sustainability, as there might not be much left when we have children or grandchildren.”

    Many draw the conclusion that certainty no longer exists, and that both global companies and countries can very quickly be destabilized and collapse.

  4. Technology is a means, not an end
    Most students see technology as an enabler, making the world of opportunity more accessible. As Tawfiq points out, “I am a Jordanian student studying in Switzerland, looking for internship opportunities in North America. 20 years ago, this would have been impossible.”He says technology offers more opportunities than barriers and rejects the opinion that Gen Z is distracted by screens and unable to focus at work. It isn’t just Tariq who feels this way: all the students refused to be defined by their access, knowledge, or addiction to technology. As Jervis says, technology allows us to go further, faster and better! “Our generation is hungry for improvement and driven by curiosity,” he says. “What has happened in past generations will be completely altered by Generation Z, as we will make huge world improvements, choose clean food over fast food, emphasize diversity, and create things that may be currently unimaginable for you.”

Older generations might bemoan Gen Z’s lack of patience and see them flitting from one trend to another, but as Mitsue pointed out, she was born into a world that is constantly moving and changing. “I know that we want everything right now,” she recognizes. “But this is what we are used to. With all the advances in technology we don’t even need to wait to download any type of files, like past generations. For us, everything happens fast, and everything is in our hands.”


Written by Claire Jollain. Hotel Institute Montreux Gen Z students quoted in article, thanks to their blog posts: Ms. Christine Murillo (Panama), Ms. Lynn Wyngaard (Netherlands), Mr. Oliver Aubry de Maraumont (Denmark), Ms. Carolina Pow-Sang (Peru and USA), Ms. Josefin Lundqvist (Sweden), Mr. João Francês (Portugal), Mr. Francesco Liam Gullo (Italy), Ms. Linda Baggio (Italy), Ms. Daniela Callo (Peru), Ms. Callisa Indrawati (Indonesia), Mr. Adrian Johansson (Norway), Mr. Xin Luo (China), Ms. Ankita Talapatra (India), Ms. An Nguyen (Romania and Vietnam), Mr. Tawfiq Irshaidat (Jordan), Mr. Jervis Wei (Hong Kong), Ms. Mitsue Gomez (Panama).

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Claire Jollain
Claire Jollain is Assistant Dean at Hotel Institute Montreux, a hospitality and business management school in Montreux, Switzerland. Passionate and optimist educational leader, with 7 years of experience within international private hospitality schools, in teaching to Bachelor students, managing and guiding staff with more than 60 different nationalities on campuses, I have a strong interest in developing and implementing innovative teaching methods for Gen Z learners.

Claire Jollain is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. You can follow her on LinkedIn.