The jewelry industry is a uniquely multigenerational entity, with boomers, Gen Xers, and millennials coexisting—even flourishing—in spite of their differences. But now that Gen Z has arrived on the scene, things are about to get…interesting.
Generational differences are commonplace in most modern jewelry work environments, but Generation Z employees—a cohort of 72 million people born between 1997 and 2012—pose unique challenges: They are tech dynamos but don’t know how to use a conventional can opener (Google it). They’ll spot and solve inefficiencies at lightning speed but are not in a hurry to respond to your emails (even if you’re their supervisor). They expect to become a “boss babe” after five minutes on the job.
That may sound like a headache, but with staffing shortages at an all-time high, Gen Z employees are vital to the health of our industry. So if you can get a handle on how their minds work, anticipate conflicts, and commit to investing in their growth, Gen Zers promise to be an invaluable asset.
JCK spoke to members of this generation, and a few experts who have figured them out, in order to help you welcome them into your store, studio, or office. The kids, they’re alright.
Meet the Zoomers
The Gen Z work ethic is generally defined by a few common characteristics, many of which can leave employers from older generations feeling baffled. The most pronounced point of difference is that Gen Zers are true digital natives.
“And more importantly they are mobile and social natives,” says Lindsey Pollak, career and workplace expert, and author of The Remix: How to Lead and Succeed in the Multigenerational Workplace (Harper Business, 2019). “The example I like to give is, ‘A Gen Z[er] has never answered a telephone that was not for them.’ They’ve always had a cellphone; they’ve always had the option to decline a call; they’ve always had the ability to text. What you as a store owner or an executive might think of as common sense—like how to answer a phone, how to put somebody on hold, how to email in a professional way—that is not necessarily common sense to Gen Z.”
Gen Zers are particular about their workspaces and value having a nook of their own. “And if they don’t have a physical workstation, they’ll create one with headphones,” says Liana Ogden, creative strategist at Demonstrate, a marketing and communications agency specializing in consumer insights–based brand development. “Gen Z teammates might be sitting next to one another with headphones on while working on the same project.”
Unlike their counterparts from previous generations, Gen Zers don’t equate hard work with long hours. To them, a good work ethic means being efficient with your time. And with that comes another important priority: mental health.
“This means they will not overwork themselves like previous generations,” says Nita Patel, a motivational speaker, career and life coach, and author of Boss Vibes: Self-Esteem, Success, and the Art of Etiquette (River Grove Books, 2020). “It’s not because they’re not willing to work hard; it’s because overall health is very important to them. So they will prioritize their personal well-being over working 17 hours a day.”
Finally, members of Gen Z want to feel that the values of the organization they work for align with their own. “As far as what Gen Zers bring to the table, I would say their fluency in current social concerns and trends is key,” says Kim Nelson, jewelry design department chair at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT). “Even if we as employers might be potentially less interested than we should be in social justice, diversity, climate change, environmentalism, nonbinary, or LGBTQIA concerns, our Gen Z peers will make certain we at least remain sensitive to these concerns and how they might present challenges or opportunities for our businesses.”
JCK interviewed a number of Gen Z jewelry industry staffers, and nearly all expressed a desire to advance quickly and to have their ideas accepted and validated, despite their lack of on-the-job experience. Perhaps not surprisingly, culture clashes are a regular occurrence.
Take Amanda, 22, a sales manager at a jewelry store in Utah who asked to remain anonymous, fearing repercussions at her job. She explains that the 65-year-old, third-generation owner of the store she works for has a frustrating unwillingness to modernize. “When I suggest transitioning our bank statements/invoices/storage to digital, my boss shuts me down because his paper filing system is what he, his dad, and his grandfather have used all these years,” she says.
Victor, 24, a bench jeweler in Michigan who also wished to remain anonymous, has similar feedback for management. “I feel like older generations are just set in their ways even if there are better solutions to doing things,” he says. “Merchandise is another pain point, specifically the lines we carry. I get that it was in style 20 years ago and that ‘jewelry doesn’t have an expiration date,’ but if you got rid of them and offered better brands with better styles, you would make more money.”
Amber Wilcox, 22, is a jeweler at a family-owned jewelry store in a Colorado ski resort town. “At my previous employer, I worked as an apprentice before going to jewelry design school,” she says. “After completing my training, I got a small raise but was not trusted with much more than I had been before graduation. It was a huge bummer because I had all this new knowledge and was ready to unleash it on the world but wasn’t able to.”
Z Right Stuff
While the generational contretemps may seem like more trouble than they’re worth, investing in Gen Z employees will benefit jewelry businesses in the long run. For example, Sara Bautista, 25, a fine jewelry specialist at Gem Breakfast in San Francisco, says her demographic has “a go-getter attitude, a willingness to jump right on in, and a commitment to self-education and continual learning.
“I think a lot of Gen Zers come to jobs in our industry with a lot of knowledge because access to it is easier than ever before because of the internet,” Bautista adds. “If you’re interested in learning more about any aspect of the business, the information is at your fingertips.”
Amanda says the strongest value she provides her employer is “the way I advertise our products and connect with all age ranges of clients.” For Victor, it’s “how fast I, and most younger people, can pick up and learn new skills. We just got CAD software at our store along with a 3D printer, and if it wasn’t for me, those tools would have never been implemented. Technology is moving fast; there are benefits to having a better baseline skill set with technology.”
What unites members of this generation, according to Ogden, the consumer marketing expert (she’s a millennial), is their comfort level with questioning and disputing long-held norms. “Gen Zers are super creatives and ingenious problem-solvers who grew up expressing themselves more often and in more formats than any other generation,” she says.
The FIT’s Nelson, a late boomer, believes one of the greatest assets Gen Zers offer employers is, quite simply, their youth—and how it “connects them to current tastes and trends.”
In other words, when Gen Z is the demo that’s buying the engagement rings and setting the jewelry trends, an insider’s perspective is invaluable—and well worth the pain of navigating generational conflict.
If you’re intrigued by the Gen Z employee value proposition, be prepared to pay this age group well. “Gen Z applicants will know what a reasonable starting salary should be, because their smartphones will have told them,” advises Nelson. “Frank and open discussions surrounding payment and expectations are key. A mentor once cautioned me to never underpay, because if a person does not profit from working with you, they have little reason to do so. This was always sound advice, but it is particularly so with Gen Zers.”
Nick Bright, 22, owner of Dynasty Casting and CAD in Manchester, Md., cautions employers against “having unnecessarily high qualifications” because it limits his peers from opportunities and growth, “especially since a lot of talented jewelers are self-taught.”
He also believes that jewelry industry employers should avoid outsourcing production overseas and instead invest in the skills of young American employees. “American labor commands a premium, and companies who market that feature or value to customers—instead of being the ‘lowest in cost’—will be most successful at attracting younger jewelry professionals.”
Bright comes from three generations of jewelers and, working as his own boss, is living the Gen Z dream. The long game for many of his peers does not involve the jeweler’s bench, CAD station, or drafting table, but rather creating their own brands or becoming influencers.
In fact, employers who hope to compete with this particular ambition need to recognize that Gen Zers “have entrepreneurial spirits and are willing to risk working for themselves over a boss, so fair treatment and pay at a job is key,” Bautista says.
Here to Stay
Once Gen Zers join your team, how do you get them to stick around?
“Don’t be afraid to give us responsibilities, even if we haven’t been in the industry as long as the older employees,” Bautista says. “Managers need to know that our generation is very communication-oriented, and it is easier to be honest at all times than to beat around the bush. If we’re doing something good or bad—just let us know! We can handle it.”
Another important driver of retention is making sure Gen Z employees feel aligned with the company’s big-picture mission. Managers need to make explicitly clear what they value, whether it’s an impeccable product or something as seemingly obvious as punctuality or a strict dress code, and how these values relate to the overall goals of the organization.
Critique performance within the context of how improving a skill or correcting a misstep matters on a macro level. And always layer in words of praise while communicating that you want to see your Gen Z workers succeed.
“Adding just that little bit of coaching and understanding can go a really, really long way with a generation that isn’t used to the culture of direct negative feedback,” says workplace expert Pollak. “Even if they don’t stay, maybe they’ll recruit people who do stay and the [ex-employee] becomes a net promoter for your business for the rest of their lives.”
So try not to think of these measures as coddling or handholding. Instead, find a way to take pleasure in the process of mentoring and passing your love for the jewelry industry on to the next generation. The future of your business depends on it.
(Top illustration: Getty Images)