The Zers are coming! The Zers are coming!

Just when you thought you were finally up to speed with millennials, it’s time to look ahead to the next group, “Generation Z”—roughly defined as those born from the late 1990s to the early 2010s. Some sources use birthdates beginning with the mid-1990s or earlier (Williams 2015; Sparks & Honey 2014). Generation Z is on trend to outnumber millennials by nearly 1 million, according to census data compiled by Susan Weber-Stoger, a demographer at Queens College (Williams 2015).

Still relatively young, and therefore just emerging on the scene, this group includes your future employees. What characteristics bind them and set them apart from other groups? How can you best prepare to welcome them to the workforce? We’ve gleaned some generalities about how they’re predicted to differ from preceding generations and how you can adapt your training and work environment to get the best results.

Finding 1: Gen Z Has a Great Work Ethic

According to research from the New York advertising firm Sparks & Honey (2014), more than half of Gen Zers say that they were encouraged by their parents to seek employment early and that this drive is sticking.

Many Gen Z students who apply to become group fitness instructors have multiple jobs, says Christy Coleman, assistant director of group fitness for Auburn University Campus Recreation. “They understand the importance of having a meaningful resumé when they leave college and are looking to land a ‘real job,’” she says. “These students are open to learning as much as possible from a variety of sources, and they want to gain leadership skills to prepare them for the workforce.”

With this invigorated work ethic often comes a sense that they should advance faster than is realistic. Michelle Jung, faculty associate at Arizona State University’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, says that the Zers she works with sometimes become frustrated by the steps they need to take to get to a certain level.

“I’ve seen them take on more leadership roles and responsibilities in leading group exercise classes. However, there have been times when I feel they’ve overstepped their authority, assuming a greater level of expertise than they’ve earned,” notes Coleman.

What It Means for Fitness Centers

Coleman is quick to point out that this does not indicate a lack of respect for authority or experience, but rather a feeling that the value of their experience and expertise is equal to that of their seniors.

So even if that entrepreneurial spirit seems overblown, managers may want to harness it right out of the gate, says Shannon Fable, director of programming for Anytime Fitness Corporate LLC—or risk having them leave to become their own boss.

“Gen Z is mature and ready to contribute,” Fable says, “but some young instructors simply aren’t willing to bring that gusto to work in a more corporate, structured environment. They want to get to a place where they can do it themselves, as compared to putting in the work to make a team successful.”

Transparency is a great tool for appealing to entrepreneurial employees, says Millennial workplace consultant Lindsey Pollak. “Make sure people understand the ‘big picture’ of their work: the mission of the gym, what senior leaders want from employees, and why their individual role is important and meaningful to the organization,” she says.

In addition, Pollak suggests keeping the work environment fresh by adding variety to Gen Zers’ scheduling and clients, providing rewards and incentive opportunities for meeting certain goals, and offering fun social experiences to make it enjoyable to be part of the gym’s culture.

Finding 2: Gen Z Is More Independent

Gen Zers grew up in a different environment from millennials, notably because of the Great Recession. “Today there are more single-parent homes or families where both parents work multiple jobs,” says Coleman, and that has led Gen Zers to be more self-sufficient. For example, she sees Gen Z instructors taking more ownership of their classroom content and searching out videos to update their choreography and strength exercises.

“This group doesn’t wait for monthly training,” she says. “I have enjoyed watching them add more variety to their classes, whereas in the past instructors would teach the same content for weeks.”

What It Means for Fitness Centers

Because Gen Z instructors will regularly seek out new material, you have to be sure they have a strong background in safety, says Coleman. “I continually have to remind students to practice material before teaching it and to run new content by a trainer before bringing it into the classroom.”

Careful guidance can keep them in check. “As long as they’re given direction, Gen Zers are more confident and empowered, because their parents haven’t been doing quite as much for them,” says Lucy Waite, associate instructor and professor, who teaches kinesiology and trains new instructors as a master trainer for Schwinn® and BOSU® Balance Trainer at Texas A&M University.

Finding 3: Gen Z Has a Limited Attention Span; Is More Tech-Savvy

It’s no secret: This is the generation known as “digital natives,” in that they’ve always known how to swipe and tap, and they expect to have information at their fingertips.

“When it comes to technology, Gen Z will be like Millennials on steroids—more tech-savvy, more mobile, more visually communicative, more adaptable,” says Pollak.

“Their attention spans are limited and immediate,” notes Jung. In the past, the school where she teaches would start offering sign-ups for activities or events that were a month off, but now everything is done at the last minute. “They do not like waiting for things; they want to sign up and do it immediately.”

Waite calls it ADD—“Always Distracted Disorder.”

What It Means for Fitness Centers

“This cohort prefers succinct, disappearing communication; the fewer characters you use, the better. You have to get your point across in bite-size chunks,” says Fable.

Generation Zers find it easy to multi-task across five screens; therefore, Fable says, you must plan to connect with them on multiple devices. You’ll need to consider video messaging, instant messenger, notifications and alerts.

The emoji generation also reacts to pictures more than words: Think Snapchat over Twitter, and definitely over email.

The key is to keep it short. “They are way more likely to watch a 20-second video than a five-minute one, so make training short and sweet. Focus on one central point and then move on,” says Waite, who has updated her training to accommodate abbreviated attention spans.

The downside to this distraction is that it can be challenging to build camaraderie, says Jeff Kreil, who teaches kinesiology and health in the fitness specialist program for the Ventura County Community College District in California. “There is a lack of interpersonal communication skills growing with this group since they are often in their own digital worlds, and it can be a strain to encourage collaboration and camaraderie,” he says.

Finding 4: Gen Z Is Culturally Diverse

Significantly, Gen Z is the most diverse generation in American history regarding race, religion and gender identity, Pollack says.

“Diversity makes this an excellent group,” says Kreil. “It is quite easy to build small groups and partners with this generation, since they appear to be more comfortable with others and themselves.”

That extends to inclusivity around body types, adds Jung. “They are much more welcoming to all levels and less rigid about what they think their fitness standards should be.”

What it means for fitness centers

There are no two ways about it: This is a huge win, Fable says, potentially allowing facilities to connect with a wider audience and bring different influences to their programming.

Planning Ahead

Finally, one more characteristic of note from Sparks & Honey (2014) is that this generation is much less active than previous generations. Computer games overtook sports as a primary source of entertainment, and, consequently, obesity is a concern. While this fact isn’t relevant to your hiring practices and management style, it will come into play as you work with your new team to develop programs to reach this upcoming generation, and help them become more active as they move into adulthood.


Williams, A. 2015. Move over, Millennials, here comes Generation Z. The New York Times, September 18. Accessed Sept. 23, 2016.
Sparks & Honey. 2014. Meet Generation Z: Forget everything you learned about Millennials. In® SlideShare. Accessed Sept. 23, 2016.

Cathie Ericson

Cathie Ericson is a freelance writer who specializes in health/fitness and business topics. She loves group fitness classes, especially now, especially outdoors, even in the variable Oregon weather. Find her @cathieericson.

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