Gen Z and the death of the networking mixer

No need to network—at least not in person.
No need to network—at least not in person.
Image: REUTERS/Cristian Charisius
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Gen Z, the largest and most ethnically diverse generation, is also emerging as a more opportunistic generation, taking advantage of today’s tight talent market to pursue new jobs that offer more purpose and direction.

The job market revival isn’t the only reason Gen Z is thriving. It’s also their unique approach to building relationships—a very human habit—that now counterintuitively hinges on virtual technology.

Unlike their parents, young people aren’t just maintaining existing connections online as a way to navigate the pandemic. They’re forming entirely new connections, and planning to continue virtual relationship-building even after quarantine.

Finding meaningful connections online

Through that lens, the networking mixer of yesteryear, with its requisite travel time, name tags, and small talk, seems inefficient and perhaps even unnecessary. One recent study finds that seven in ten job seekers now believe they do not need to meet in person to forge a meaningful professional connection. Another study found that more than half of Gen Z is friends with someone they exclusively know online. Indeed, virtual relationship-building is the new normal.

If the barriers to building social capital are at an all-time low, and the reward of new opportunity is at an all-time high, will Gen Z ditch in-person networking completely? No, we’re all humans who need in-person interaction as a part of life. But three emerging trends suggest the traditional model of in-person networking is losing its appeal to digital-first approaches favored by Gen Z.

The lines between IRL and virtual are blurred

Gen Z’s identity and digital presence are inextricably linked, and their appetite for virtual ways of doing things continues to grow.

Take the dating world: Virtual dating reached new heights during the last two years thanks to Gen Z. On OkCupid, one in four users prefer video chat over meeting in person, and on Hinge, 65% of users go on video dates before meeting people in the real world.

Likewise on Handshake, more Gen Zers are growing their professional networks online, from scratch, than ever before. New research shows that 3.5 million messages between students and employers were exchanged on Handshake over the past 12 months. Indeed, eight in ten Gen Zers agree it’s easier to make professional connections now than was possible in their parents’ generation, and half of students now prefer to interview virtually.

Pandemic or not, virtual fosters inclusivity

When covid-19 subsides, Gen Z still plans to forge ahead with the virtual aspects of their lives: 40% of Tinder users plan to continue using video dates, and 54% of Handshake students want to continue attending career events virtually.

But there’s an equally important reason to keep the trend afloat: Virtual mediums are giving way to more equitable spaces and processes.

Handshake research has shown that virtual career events help level the playing field for students of color, women, LGBTQ+, and people with disabilities. Many report feeling more “seen” and psychologically safe online versus in person, which can counteract implicit bias or other behaviors that favor more outgoing and socially confident individuals in “real life.”

Cincinnati-based Procter & Gamble, which often competes for LGBTQ+ talent with companies in progressive cities like Los Angeles or New York, has seen first hand how employers can capitalize on this comfort with digital recruiting processes. In launching a live virtual recruiting campaign called “This is Love,” P&G facilitated online conversations with people like Megan Mitchell, a well-known Cincinnati news anchor, LGBTQ+ icon, and TikTok influencer. Over the next two weeks, P&G received over 500 applications from event attendees.

Employers are tossing out old playbooks

Big employers like Ford Motor Company and Microsoft have now committed to a digital recruiting strategy, acknowledging that the newest generation of workers is forgoing paper resumes and business cards. They’re also finding that they can reach more students, with no need to budget for travel and events.

Even for employers who have already attracted great early talent, it’s still important to develop fresh strategies tailored to drive Gen Z retention and engagement.

Duolingo is one company that has been staying ahead of the curve. Its new “Thrive” internship program is designed to unlock opportunities for software engineers and product designers of color, who have been historically boxed out of careers in tech. The 10-week virtual program provided structured access to on-the-job training, and most importantly, a strong, inclusive community to ensure that everyone from the cohort would feel a sense of belonging and sponsorship within the organization. The result was a 95% retention rate among today’s most nimble segment of the workforce.

As human beings, we will always find value in in-person interactions, but Gen Z is showing us that in-person is no longer the only, or even the most valuable, way. Indeed, a new currency of social capital is emerging, and employers who are meeting early talent where they are will be best positioned to cash in.