They know all about ambiguity and uncertainty.

My colleague Dr. Jeremy Ghez wrote, “Don’t bore them with talk about VUCA. They’ve lived in a VUCA world where change is constant and fast.”

Gen Z’s entire world experience has been nothing but volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. From the 9/11 attacks to Russia invading Ukraine, sandwiching a financial crash in 2008 and the three-year pandemic, it’s no wonder young new workers are wary, anxious, and seeking stability.

Stress appears to be hitting the generation harder than others.

Uncertainty and stress

Two years ago, Pew Research described a generation like Millennials, except that among older Zoomers, half reported having someone in their household lose a job or see a reduction in income.  

Unlike the Millennials…”Instead of looking ahead to a world of opportunities, Gen Z now peers into an uncertain future.” (“Driving forces for the emerging workforce – Deloitte”)

Pew Research

The American Psychological Association’s “Stress in America 2020” study published in October 2021, reported that reported Gen Z stress level per month averages at 6.1 out of 10. For comparison, Boomers are at 4.0 and the average across all ages is only 5.

The potential long-term consequences of the persistent stress and trauma created by the pandemic are particularly serious for our country’s youngest individuals, known as Generation Z (Gen Z). Our 2020 survey shows that Gen Z teens (ages 13-17) and Gen Z adults (ages 18-23) are facing unprecedented uncertainty, are experiencing elevated stress, and are already reporting symptoms of depression.

“Stress in America 2020”

One possible upside is that perhaps this cohort has “tested out” of ambiguity and uncertainty. Or, at least, they have experienced arguably more, early in adulthood than other recent generations.

Our work for 30 years has focused on the value of mastering uncertainty as vital towards becoming a leader. Now we have a new class of potential leaders who have experienced it in their homelives and in their education, even in after school jobs.

Is this generation akin native language speakers or “digital native” Millennials when it comes to ambiguity and the uncertainty it brings?

Ambiguity natives still need to learn to lead through uncertainty

Maybe leadership teachers can skip Uncertainty 101 and dive right into the advantages of the “learning leadership” model. However, we shouldn’t assume this new wave of high potentials knows how to engage in uncertainty. Just because you’ve experienced crazy change and upheaval it doesn’t mean you can lead through it.

Think of them like military recruits who increase their physical training before arriving at boot camp. They show up in better shape than others, but they still don’t yet know how to be soldiers.

Also, we shouldn’t assume there’s a lot of bravado, either. As with most everyone else, anxiety is high and Zoomers indicate that they seek stability and predictability.

Mahnoor Khan in Fortune Magazine says, “Gen Z is turning to the Y2K era for comfort, fueling fashion and social media trends that are driving the “throwback economy.”

Buzzfeed indicates Zoomers are dubious about the value of even saving money and investing.

The pandemic is seemingly quieting down, offering us the illusion of a return to normalcy, but there’s always the possibility of another variant springing forth to wreak still more havoc on our lives, disrupt our best-laid plans. (“The Future Is Uncertain. What Are We Supposed to Do With …”) Apocalyptic storms and fires, fueled by ever-worsening climate change, have some millennials and Zoomers wondering if it’s even worth saving for retirement. Forty-one percent of Americans think it would take a miracle to be able to retire at all.

“The Future Is Uncertain. What Are We Supposed to Do with Our Money?”

Learning leadership for Zoomers

What are some ways to guide Gen Z recruits to be uncertainty-competent leaders?

When uncertainty has been their norm growing up, we might help them most by getting them to focus on how they had to learn through trial and error and adapt along the way. One easy example – college classes went remote, but they learned to learn via Zoom. What techniques did they use to compensate for less facetime? How did they pace themselves, being remote on more flexible schedules? What new routines kept them sane and healthy under lockdown? Were there any experiments worked? What flopped? Were any new practices worth keeping in a non-restricted world?

It might be interesting to hear predictions or imagined scenarios. Dr. Ghez has been assigning young MBA students for likely “pre-mortems” of currently leading brands. Their responses are insightful, eye-opening, and possibly prescient.

The job now is applying a constant “adapt, adopt, and improve” mindset to leading others, first as managers and supervisors and eventually as leaders of teams and divisions.

We’ve seen the agility of millennials as digital natives. It will be interesting to read the inevitable surveys and studies of this next generation of “ambiguity natives.”