I’m always intrigued by and consistently study the intersection of generations and race, as many of you know. I do so because no one else does, and it’s far more important than, perhaps, people recognize. Here’s why — applying an intersectional approach to generational research helps us better understand the groups we seek to connect with, lead, motivate, and engage.
Without considering intersectionality, when assigning attributes to generations of layered multifaceted human beings, we ignore the range of lived experience, blindly marking the reality of some, the reality of all, and that “some” is typically the majority. We therefore stand to miss critical pieces in the data that may tell a completely different and more helpful story to those engaging with generational research, using it to make critical decisions and plans.
Lastly, when we look at how identities intersect, we see the unique lived experiences, of ourselves and others, through the lens of privilege, oppression, power, and marginalization — a critical frame of interpretation.
In this article, I want to speak to the intersection of Gen Z and Blackness.
There are quite a few things we know about Gen Z– born between 1997 and 2012. They are:
- The largest living generation in the U.S. and are expected to be nearly a quarter of the U.S. workforce by 2025
- The most racially and ethnically diverse generation the U.S. has ever seen, with nearly half of Gen Z identifying as part of a marginalized racial or ethnic group
- Known to be a little cynical and distrustful of leadership and power structures, and for good reason
- Likely to question more and expect more in terms of accountability and transparency, especially when it comes to their personal relationships, employer relationships, and the institutions they interact with
- Value work-life integration, financial security, diversity, equity and inclusion, sustainability, and purpose
- Entrepreneurial in spirit
Black Gen Z
But what do we know about Black Gen Z? The truth is there is not much research to be found about this important subset of the Gen Z population. For that reason, I’ve begun doing my own qualitative research, along with a little secondary research. As that research continues to take form, there are 4 distinct ways employers, leaders, and colleagues can best support future Black Leaders.
4 Ways to Best Support Black Gen Z in the Workplace
1) Provide geo-flexibility
42% of Gen Z find location very important when considering a job. My research is pointing to the fact that for those of underrepresented racial identities, location and geography is not of mid-level importance, but of extreme importance because of its connection to safety (both actual and perceived), work/life integration, and mental wellness. Feeling safe where you live and work, being able to find friends with shared experiences, and finding social outlets that reflect and respect your culture all play a role in one’s mental wellness.
With this in mind, consider the following in relation to Black Gen Z. A recent McKinsey & Company study on the Black experience in the US private sector showed nearly 60% of the Black labor force lives in the Southern States. In comparison, approximately 9% in the West and Pacific states, 17% in the Midwest, and 18% in the Northeast.
Providing geo-flexibility for Black Gen Zers looking for the safety, work/life integration, and cultural inclusion I mentioned supports them in that pursuit, and aids in your ability to attract and retain top Black Gen Z talent. Having a sense of belonging in a community where they are accepted and celebrated for who they are plays a vital role in finding an employer.
2) Provide layered support
Support can come in different, equally valuable forms. When considering how to provide internal support to your Black Gen Z workforce, I would suggest an intentional multi-layered approach.
At a Peer/ Colleague Level
Make space & hold space
Having a safe space to work is necessary for any employee’s mental and physical well-being. But Black Gen Zers are all too aware that this didn’t exist for previous generations of Black professionals. They’ve heard their parents’ and grandparents’ stories about being treated unfairly, which ranged from going to work often without a voice, not feeling a sense of psychological safety, or having their physical safety threatened. As they consider where to take their talents, they are looking for organizations who acknowledge that disparity and are doing the work to change it.
At the peer/colleague level, you can contribute to that by making space and holding space. Making space is simply about making room for someone in your organization to contribute in a meaningful, and authentic way — leveraging your privilege to amplify their voice and create physiological safety.
Holding space is a term used in relational conversations that requires being physically, mentally, and emotionally available and present for someone, allowing them to feel safe and heard, particularly during a moment of pain and/or vulnerability. Holding space for Black Gen Z, and any marginalized community in the workplace, can enhance one’s sense of belonging and contribute to an inclusive culture.
At a Management Level
Every generation of young people needs the guidance, support and advice of more experienced generations, aka mentorship. Gen Z is no different. In order to intentionally support Black Gen Z in their professional pursuits and your organization’s journey to equity, Black Gen Z also needs sponsorship.
While mentors provide guidance, support, and advice to help a mentee with their personal goals and professional career planning, sponsors help protégés take their careers to the next level by investing in their career advancement through advocacy, career strategy, and strategic placements.
It’s estimated that 20% of White employees have sponsors, compared to only 5% of Black employees; however, when Black employees are sponsored, they are 60% less likely to quit within a year than peers who are not sponsored.
Pro Tip: Do not fall into the trap of focusing so much on mentoring Black Gen Z that you completely overlook or bypass sponsorship, which actually moves the needle towards equity.
At an Organizational Level
At an organizational level, there are many things you can do to support Black Gen Z inside your company. Here are two:
Representation throughout Leadership Ranks
Representation matters. Being able to look at an organization's leadership and see yourself represented indicates what is possible for you. To the contrary, not seeing yourself indicates what is impossible for you. This has been a resounding sentiment in my interviews with Black Gen Z, and a strong factor in their decision-making process when considering internship and full-time employment opportunities. And the data shows us that there are few organizations they will be able to look to and see the former.
“There’s a power in being inspired by the people in your community,” says Amile Greene, who I recently interviewed in my podcast What Gen Z Wants: Black Gen Zers Talk Workplace & Societal Expectations.
Greear Webb, another Gen Zer I interviewed, says his generation is looking for justice-minded companies to build a pipeline for Black people to thrive, which is demonstrated by the existence of Black leadership. “Black representation and support are vital for Black Gen Z if it’s going to meet our needs and differences,” says Webb. He doesn’t want to work at a place where he feels he has to sell out his personal identity. He feels his personal values and beliefs should be important to companies.
A Strong Black ERG
Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) can help provide safe spaces, professional development opportunities, and direct exposure to leadership for underrepresented groups within companies. Having a strong, well-supported Black ERG can ensure that there is a safe space for Black Gen Z to work in, develop in and be supported in. It can also provide the type of exposure that leads to sponsorship, which we discussed above.
3) Provide meaningful and value-adding work
Both Millennials and Gen Z place high value on meaningful work. They want to do work that aligns with their values, and that contributes to the team, department, or organization in a meaningful way. This is true for Black Gen Z and can support them in building their careers and accumulating critical experiences that lead to career progression.
“Being valued from the start and working within a diverse culture where there’s opportunity to grow and excel as a Black person is critical,” says Britny Clayton-Mitchell, another Gen Zer I spoke with in my podcast. She explains the importance of her voice being heard, where she could bring to work wholly who she is and be part of a culture that provides her with a sense of belonging and flexibility. Is the type of work you plan to give your Black Gen Zers fulfilling and well-supported, or just versions of “glass-cliff assignments?”
“Glass-cliff assignments,” a term first coined in 2005 by Michelle Ryan and S. Alexander Haslam, are roles (often leadership positions) given to women and/or people of color when times are tough, or the organization is in crisis. In a recent Linkedin post, Tara Jaye Frank eloquently details three types of glass cliff assignments that are all too often assigned to Black employees or leaders and become massive career roadblocks later.
- Unimportant: work that is not important or critical to the company, department or team; it has little to no power and/or resources, and insufficient support. When a Black leader fails to make progress, they are scapegoated.
- Impossible: work that has great challenges, but few tools, with goals attached to the job that have a 50/50 (or less) chance of success. If the Black leader succeeds, they are praised, but not rewarded; if they fail, they are labeled ‘failures’, and their careers begin a steep decline.
- Controversial: work that is inherently difficult with built-in resistance. This work may be counterculture and come with high reputation risk. If the Black employee doesn't have incredibly strong relationships, they will not be successful.
Meaningful, value-adding work that effectively supports Black Gen Z is important, possible, and not controversial.
4) Encourage their entrepreneurial mindset
As mentioned above, the research shows that Gen Z is rather entrepreneurial. According to a recent survey conducted by EY Ripples and JA Worldwide, 53% of Gen Zers hope to run their own business within the next ten years. That proportion increases to 65% for those who have already entered the workforce. Coupled with the lived experience of Black professionals in corporate America, one might safely assume those numbers are even higher amongst Black Gen Z.
In 2020, thousands of Gen Zers were asked about their experiences with workplace discrimination; 44% reported feeling discriminated against in the workplace due to their race, ethnicity, gender identity, or sexual orientation. Last year, the percentage of respondents who felt discriminated against went up to 48%. For these reasons and others, many Black Gen Zers look toward entrepreneurship to gain more control and influence over their futures, and to help change the narrative for future Black generations.
Supporting Black Gen Z means embracing their entrepreneurial mindsets, creating space where their entrepreneurial spirits can be leveraged, and eliminating the barriers that may cause them to flee your organization for safer, more inclusive environments that they feel can only be created by them.
Whether you may or may not be considering it, the future is diverse. And Black Gen Z is a huge part of that future. They are brilliant, bold, and confident culture-shapers, trendsetters, and justice seekers. They are unapologetically Black, future-focused and globally connected. Recruiting them, retaining them, and developing them could mean a game changer for your organization in the marketplace, and an opportunity for your organization to truly contribute to the creation of equity.
Are you willing to do these things to support them?