Next gen talent in the COVID era: understanding the future of leadership
People and organisations will inevitably emerge from the global COVID-19 crisis pandemic changed, if not transformed. The last few years are likely to leave a lasting impact on next-generation talent’s attitudes, values, and aspirations. Understanding that impact and how the next generation continues to evolve is invaluable insight for executives who invest in the future leaders of their organisation.
The following article is based on a story shared by the Association of Executive Search and Leadership Consultants (AESC) in August 2021. It explores insights to next-generation leaders addressing common values, life expectations, employers and career, stress triggers, and more.
Profile of next-generation talent: Millenials and Gen Z
Considerable research on generational ‘types’ shows that Millennials (born from 1980 to 1995) tend to be ready to compromise, are self-sufficient, and want to contribute to all areas of life. They are more likely to change jobs and careers than are the generations that precede them. The global financial crisis of 2008 left Millennials under-employed and experiencing disproportionately high levels of debt. Now the global COVID-19 pandemic has forced many Millennials to postpone traditionally valued milestone events in life, such as marriage, having children, buying a home, or starting a business.
Typical Gen Zs (born from 1996 to 2010) grew up as digital natives. They know how to access information and are comfortable acting on what they find, influenced by the ethics of a brand or organisation. As early-career workers, COVID-19 has made Gen Zs more vulnerable to job loss and significant setbacks in training and education. Whether employees or students, Gen Z lost much time in the last 12 months, which exacerbated stress and uncertainty about the future. Studies show the Gen Z generation may be twice as likely as Millennials to experience anxiety and depression. They are increasingly committed to diversity, equity and inclusion, environmental sustainability, and economic and social justice.
Fears of next-generation leaders
An International Labour Organization (ILO) study in 2020 revealed thirty-eight percent of young people globally are uncertain of, and 16 percent are fearful about, their future career prospects.
That fear is well-placed, considering the pandemic’s significant economic impact on younger people.
According to Luke Pardue, an economist at Gusto.com, workers under 25 years old were furloughed 73 percent more than those aged 25 and over. They were also 79 percent more likely to be terminated. Studies by Bart Cockx, research professor in the Department of Economics of Ghent University in Belgium found that it takes about ten years for cohorts that enter the labor market during a downturn to catch up with cohorts that did not.
Next-generation leaders remain concerned about the global economy. As time goes by, those concerns are likely exaggerated by the rise in COVID variant infections and the threat of further lockdowns and disruption to studies, work, and life.
The pandemic has also tested the resilience and ingenuity of young and prospective workers, who adapted with side gigs and multiple income streams, even as students. Arun Sundararajan, Professor of Entrepreneurship at NYU Stern School of Business, told the BBC in 2018, “This will be the first generation that actively embraces the micro-entrepreneurial jobs as their primary way of earning a living, rather than stable, full-time employment.”
Before the pandemic and resulting upheaval, next-generation talent tended to embrace purpose-led organizations aligned with their values. Those preferences are likely to be even more pronounced as economies stabilize and talent can consider how organisations conducted business under pressure and reimagined operations through the recovery.
Expectations of next-generation leaders
Globally, working and studying from home and the myriad disruptions of COVID-19 have given people an opportunity to recalibrate their values, priorities, and expectations. Trends emerging worldwide include:
Mental health. Particularly for younger talent, well-being and mental health have come to the forefront with urgency. This cohort experiences higher levels of anxiety and depression than its predecessors. It is likely to look to employers to provide comprehensive support services and destigmatise mental health issues.
Balance and flexibility. Across virtually every industry, lockdowns proved employees can do their jobs remotely. Younger talent generations value flexibility with work hours and location to create and maintain a better work-life balance.
Communication. Effective communication was essential in the COVID-19 era, particularly communication that shows leaders are willing to be vulnerable, authentic, and transparent. This communication style remains a deciding factor in employee engagement levels. Frequent feedback is essential for the generations who grew up with, or who have become accustomed to, the immediacy of digital communication and social media.
Opportunity. The customary next-gen talent’s desire for meaningful mentorship, training, and a clear path to career advancement is expected to intensify by the economic uncertainty they continue to face. They are also increasingly likely to develop multiple streams of revenue.
Learning. As organisations and businesses evolve to survive and thrive through the disruption created by COVID-19, regular upskilling and reskilling of the entire workforce remains a typical requirement. Research shows the generation of digital natives are keen to learn and are willing audiences for education. A recent LinkedIn survey shows that 83 percent of Gen Zs want to learn to perform better in their current role.
Aligned values. The upheaval of 2020 exposed inequities and vulnerabilities that next-gen talent cannot unsee. An organisation’s purpose, ESG commitments, and track record on diversity, equity, and inclusion are likely to weigh heavily when next-gen talent evaluates current and future employers.
Every generation rises with a fresh set of commitments to drive change through the landscape designed by the previous generations. In 2021, next-generation leaders will expect the private and public sectors to leverage their influence for good honourably. In parallel, they will leverage their power as consumers, voters, employees, entrepreneurs, and influencers, to create the world in which they want to see, work, and live.
Sherif Kamel, Dean of the School of Business at The American University in Cairo and President of the American Chamber of Commerce in Egypt says, “The world needs a different leadership style that is more visionary, effective, pragmatic, engaging, empowering, compassionate, and transparent. In the age of continuous disruption, there is a dire need for leaders who are humble, trustworthy, and willing to reach out to their constituencies and ecosystems for guidance, so they can effectively navigate through the endless uncertainties.”
The next generation of talent is uniquely positioned to lead future organisations based on their commitment to positive change, hard-earned adaptability, and much-tested resilience. Yes, COVID-19 raised the anxiety, uncertainty, depression levels, and fear of the future across an entirely new generation. But the same pandemic also heightened this generation’s empathy, compassion, gratitude, social awareness, and ingenuity. These are essential leadership skills for any historical era. These are also core values the world needs to shape our future communities, organisations, societies, and economies.
Contact us today to speak with an experienced generation on how to hire for the next generation of leaders your organisation needs.
 YOUTH & COVID-19: Impacts on jobs, education, rights and mental well-being,” Survey Report 2020, International Labour Organization, August 11, 2020.
 Luke Pardue, “Class of 2021 Job Prospects in the COVID Economy,” Company News, Gusto.com. April 30, 2021
 Bart Cockx, “Do youths graduating in a recession incur permanent losses?” IZA World of Labor, August 2016
 Byron Lufkin, “How the youngest generation is redefining work,” BBC.Com, February 27, 2018
 Sherif Kamel, “NextGen Leaders in a post-COVID-19 World,” CEMS.org, Jan 28, 2021