Next Gen Talent in a Post-COVID World: Preparing for Future Leaders Now

Next Generation Talent

“In these challenging times, it’s difficult to anticipate how customer needs will evolve and how operations may be disrupted. A business must be flexible and adaptable to stay relevant. This challenge will persist if a company is resistant to change. That’s why introducing young talent to the business is so important. Young employees can augment a company’s agility, and ensure it has the technical skills and innovation needed to succeed.”

Marvin Opperman, “Businesses should be actively seeking out young talent right now.” HR Future, 9 February 2021

People and organizations will come out of the COVID-19 crisis changed, if not transformed. Next gen talent—specifically younger Millennials and older Gen Zs who grew up digital and came of age during the global financial crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic, respectively, have been shaped by this disruption in meaningful ways. C-suite executives investing in their talent pipeline and preparing to recruit and retain young, high-potential candidates would do well to consider the social and professional impact of the pandemic on these future leaders.

Next Gen Snapshot

Multiple researchers on generational ‘types’ indicate that Millennials, born from 1980 to 1995, tend to be willing to compromise, have learned to be self-sufficient, and want to contribute. 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 now the pandemic has forced many Millennials, already disproportionately impacted by debt, to postpone milestone events such as marriage, having children, buying a home or starting a business.

Gen Zs, born from 1996 to 2010, have been shaped by an adolescence online. They know how to access information and they act on what they find, influenced by the ethics of a brand or organization. As early-career workers, the pandemic made them more vulnerable to job loss and they have experienced significant COVID-related setbacks in their training and education. Whether employees or students, they lost a year, exacerbating their stress and uncertainty. Gen Zs 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.

Employment and Education Stress Test

At the height of the pandemic at least half of all young people were worried about their futures. According to an International Labour Organization (ILO) study, “Thirty-eight per cent of young people, globally, are uncertain of, and 16 per cent are fearful about, their future career prospects.” (YOUTH & COVID-19: Impacts on jobs, education, rights and mental well-being,” Survey Report 2020, International Labour Organization, August 11, 2020.) Concerns about the global economy remain, and may be exacerbated by the rise in COVID variant infections and the threat of further lockdowns and disruption.

That fear is well-placed, considering the pandemic’s disproportionate economic impact on younger people. According to one economist, Luke Pardue at, workers under 25 were furloughed 73% more than those 25 and older, and they were 79% more likely to be terminated. (Luke Pardue, “Class of 2021 Job Prospects in the COVID Economy,” Company News, April 30, 2021) In addition, research by Bart Cockx 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. (Bart Cockx, “Do youths graduating in a recession incur permanent losses?” IZA World of Labor, August 2016)

The pandemic also tested the resilience and ingenuity of young and prospective workers, who adapted with side gigs and multiple income streams, even as students. NYU Professor of Entrepreneurship Arun Sundararajan 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.” (Byron Lufkin, “How the youngest generation is redefining work,” BBC.Com, February 27, 2018)

It remains to be seen how younger professionals will approach their careers going forward. Before the pandemic and resulting upheaval, next gen talent was drawn to purpose-led organizations that aligned with their values. Those preferences are likely to be even more pronounced as economies stabilize and talent have the opportunity to consider how organizations conducted themselves under pressure and reimagined themselves through the recovery.

Fresh Expectations

Working and studying from home and the myriad disruptions of COVID-19 have given people the world over an opportunity to recalibrate their values, priorities and expectations. Key among them:

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 and will look to employers to provide robust services and destigmatize mental health issues.

BALANCE AND FLEXIBILITY - The lockdowns proved that office workers can be trusted to do their jobs remotely, and younger talent prefer continued flexibility with their hours and location to create better balance in their lives.

COMMUNICATION - Effective communication was essential during the pandemic, and remains a deciding factor in employee engagement levels, particularly communication that shows leaders are willing to be vulnerable, authentic and transparent. For people who have been immersed in the immediacy of digital communication and social media, frequent feedback is essential.

OPPORTUNITY - Next gen talent’s desire for mentorship, training and a clear path to career advancement is not new, but may be intensified by the economic uncertainty they continue to face. They are increasingly likely to develop multiple streams of revenue.

LEARNING - Keeping up with the pace of change will require regular upskilling and reskilling, and digital natives are eager to learn. A recent LinkedIn survey shows that 83% of Gen-Zers want to learn skills to perform better in their current role.

ALIGNED VALUES - The pandemic and social unrest of 2020 exposed inequities and vulnerabilities that next gen talent cannot unsee. An organization’s purpose, commitment to ESG principles including environmental sustainability and track record on diversity, equity and inclusion are likely to weigh heavily as next gen talent evaluates current and future employers.

Future Leaders

Rising generations are increasingly committed to driving change. They expect both the private and public sectors to leverage their influence for good, and they will leverage their own influence—as consumers, voters, employees, entrepreneurs and influencers—to create the world they want to live in.

According to Sherif Kamel, Dean of the School of Business at The American University in Cairo and President of the American Chamber of Commerce in Egypt, “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.” (Sherif Kamel, “NextGen Leaders in a post-COVID-19 World,”, Jan 28, 2021)

With their commitment to positive change, hard-earned adaptability and much-tested resilience, next gen talent may be uniquely positioned to lead the organizations of the future. COVID-19 raised the anxiety, uncertainty, resilience, and ingenuity of a generation. The by-products of the pandemic also include empathy, compassion and gratitude —essential skills for the people who will perhaps guide the world through the next pandemic and shape the kind of communities and organizations, societies and economies we will become.