See the latest issue of Briefings at newsstands or read in our new format here.
By Evelyn Orr
Evelyn Orr leads Korn Ferry’s CEO and executive assessment for North America.
“She doesn’t want my help, she wants to do it herself,” my colleague shared recently over lunch. She was talking about her Gen Z daughter, who had declined offers of introduction to people working in her field of interest. My colleague, a well-connected professional, knows people who could help her daughter think through career options, internships, or other leads. But her daughter wants to prove she can do it on her own.
We’ve been watching Gen Z grow up, and now they are beginning to make their mark on the work world. Born between the late 1990s and early 2010s, they are closing in on making up one-quarter of the workforce. But as with every generation, their approach to coming of age and finding their way is different from that of their predecessors. Independence and self-reliance appear to be defining qualities as they start their careers.
Independence is admirable, but overuse of it can come with downsides. And too much autonomy can lead to a false assumption that we are independent, rather than interdependent. Think about how relatively recently young people even started choosing livelihoods different from their parents’. It wasn’t that long ago that families’ line of work was passed down—think about all the surnames derived from a family trade: Carpenter, Mason, Brewer, Sawyer (someone who operates a sawmill), etc. And this isn’t exclusively an Anglo tradition: In other cultures, trades and professions were once handed down, along with surnames—for instance, Oliveira for olive producers or Kim for metalworkers—from one generation to another. are all trades and professions once handed down, along with surnames, from one generation to another. In some cases, parents today still hand down their business or practices from one generation to the next (think about your local dentist). This approach has meant that our network has been inherited.
No one is expecting Gen Z to do what their parents do for work. Their paths and their professions are not predetermined or inherited. But this new generation doesn’t need to go through what is arguably their most formative decade with one hand tied behind their backs, either.
In her book, The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter—and How to Make the Most of Them Now, Meg Jay talks about the importance of 20-somethings building up their identity capital—essentially urging them to pursue interesting work and start mastering new skills that will pay off later in their careers. But often, her 20-something clients and students feel that they should not 1) be underemployed; or 2) rely on “help” or “connections” to get from one position to another. The trick is opening themselves up to the relationship between the two. Jay goes on to underscore how friends of friends and colleagues of parents are the primary ways we can open our horizons. She calls these “weak ties”—weak because they are not in our immediate circle, but strong because they open us up to a variety of ideas, resources, and opportunities.
All this talk about ties reminds me of the metaphor of the red thread. It’s a Chinese parable that suggests we are all connected. A framed poster that used to hang in my daughter’s room read, “When a child is born, invisible red threads extend from the child’s spirit and connect to all the significant people who will be part of the child’s life. As the child grows, the threads shorten, drawing closer those people who are destined to be together.”
I would expand this to include “people who are destined to make an impact on each others’ lives.”
“I worry about, is this nepotism?” “Am I being selfish?” “Does networking feel like using my privilege?” These are important questions that Gen Zers are reflecting on. I would add: “Could expanding your network help you make an impact in ways you care about?” Networking and leveraging relationships—weak and strong—is how people find opportunities to make a difference in the world.