By Brian Brokowski
In just a few weeks, my son will graduate from college along with thousands of other members of the class of 2023. The typical message sent to graduates this time of year is: “Congratulations and welcome to the real world – now the real learning begins.”
But this class has lived in a world far more real than that of the typical college student. As much as we’d like to impart our experience to them as seasoned professionals, the truth is we have much to learn from them. In fact, I’ll go as far to suggest we may be witnessing the rise of another “greatest generation” – a generation born from struggle and coming of age during a period of remarkable technological, cultural and economic transformation.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic started, the class of 2023 has received an education well beyond the classroom. Along the journey, they adapted to remote learning (remote everything), battled isolation when social connections were severed, marched for justice, voted for the first time in one of the most divisive political climates in history, endured historic levels of mental health struggles – dealing with their own while supporting their friends. And now they’re among the very first to embrace and use perhaps the most powerful new technological tool in our lifetimes – generative AI – before many of their parents, or instructors, even knew what it was (and no, they’re not all cheating).
A real world indeed. As most adults struggle to make sense of the wave of change in our world – things like hybrid work, increasing diversity, burnout and mental health in the workplace, the role of new technology – the class of 2023 is already riding it. I see three areas where the experiences, ideas and input from this generation will drive significant transformation in the short term:
The creation of a reimagined workplace where good mental health can coexist with productivity and performance
Perhaps no generation has been more impacted by mental health challenges at a young age as this one. This year’s annual Healthy Minds Study found that during the 2021-22 school year, 44% of students reported symptoms of depression, 37% reported anxiety disorders and 15% reported having seriously considered suicide in the past year – the highest recorded rates in the history of the 15-year-old survey. Conversely, more students than ever actively seek help. Nearly 40% report having visited a therapist at least once over the past year, also a record high.
It should be no surprise then when asked in a survey by the recruitment platform A.Team about their top concern about the work landscape, 21% said they were most worried about finding a role that affords them work-life balance. A third of new grads say the option to work remotely is their most important factor in their job search, more than any other factor. This is consistent across younger generations. Deloitte found more than 75% of Gen Z and millennial workers currently working in hybrid or remote roles would consider looking for a new job if their employer asked them to go on-site full time.
They’re not just lazy or entitled. Already carrying the weight of mental health challenges that so many in the workforce now experience, they prioritize a new approach to work that recognizes their health is non-negotiable. This priority will continue to shape workplace policies over the coming years, requiring businesses to continue to reimagine the work experience and employee benefits. Those employers trying to enforce 2003 sentimentalities in a 2023 world will find themselves at a significant competitive disadvantage.
The ethical adoption of generative AI and other technologies to improve efficiencies and work product
When I visited a class of college seniors a few weeks ago, they were surprised to learn generative AI wasn’t consistently used to support marketing and communications programs. In a recent survey by Tyton Partners, nearly half of college students have used generative AI while nearly one in three students reported being a regular user.
The same study found more than 70% of college faculty had yet to touch it. Maybe that’s why Boston University asked its own students to formulate a policy for responsible use of AI programs in the classroom. The policy was so good, it has been adopted by data sciences faculty as the official policy governing how students can use it and how faculty should grade.
For much of the class of 2023, the question “how can AI help” is already engrained as a first step in solving problems and being more efficient. They don’t need a webinar on how to use it – rather, they could give it. As company’s look to further understand, embrace and control the use of AI, they’d be smart to lean on an emerging generation that isn’t trying to fit the tool into existing systems and expectations, but rather as a powerful tool to accelerate ideas, innovation and learning. There are far more questions than answers when it comes to the impact of AI, but this generation will ultimately be the leaders in answering them.
Holding their employers, and their jobs, to a higher standard
Graduates are always known for being aspirational as they enter the workforce, looking to “change the world.” What’s wrong with that? Maybe this time we can actually harness that passion and optimism rather than break it down as unrealistic?
Younger generations value a company’s societal impact more than older ones. Eighty percent of millennial and Gen Z employees consider positive ESG ratings to be at least somewhat beneficial when making job decisions, versus just 61% of Gen X and baby boomers. (USC/Weber Shandwick). Allison+Partners’ Purpose Center of Excellence this week released Reconciling ESG: Rhetoric vs. Reality, which found that 71 percent of millennials have positive viewpoints on ESG and 75% want companies to continue making progress.
Today, 65% of college graduates would choose a job with slightly lower pay if it meant working at a company whose mission aligns with their personal values (A.Team). Second to not finding work/life balance, working in a job they lack a passion for is their second greatest fear.
Younger generations are even more passionate when it comes to their employers’ approach to climate impact. The same Deloitte survey found 55% of millennial and Gen Z respondents research a brand’s environmental impact and policies before accepting a job, and more than 40% reported they already have, or plan to, change jobs due to climate concerns.
For many in this generation, they don’t just want to make an impact, they expect to. They didn’t struggle through the past several years to settle into a job or employer that doesn’t align with their values, doesn’t provide growth opportunities and doesn’t make a positive contribution to the world around them.
We live in a time where traditional systems and schools of thought are challenged like never before. Exacerbated by ongoing effects of the pandemic, the burden posed by mental health challenges can no longer be ignored. And the pace of change brought about by new AI technologies strains even the most progressive of business models.
Enter the class of 2023. They’ve proven remarkably resilient. Adapting to and driving change is in their DNA. They embrace what’s different. Their new ideas and the clean canvas of their beginner’s mindset may be exactly what we need at exactly the right time.
Congrats graduates – we could use your help.
Brian Brokowski is General Manager, Growth & Operations for Southern California. He is the father of two sons in college, the oldest a member of the Class of 2023 and the youngest the class of 2026.