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What Roles Will Gen Z Play in Gov Tech — and How Soon?

They are young, starting careers and are beginning to vote. But Gen Z and its traits and attitudes promise to influence gov tech soon enough. What can the industry do now to prepare for that future?

Young woman working on computer at table in office, closeup. Banner design
Given the post-pandemic environment, cybersecurity, workforce changes and the ongoing, long-term push to make public agencies more digital, it would seem that suppliers, buyers and users of government technology already have enough on their plates.

Now comes the rise of Gen Z.

Those consumers, professionals and voters are still very young, inexperienced and lacking dominant power in any field save for, perhaps, pop culture. But evidence is emerging that their voices are starting to be heard within the gov tech industry — and that their preferences will soon enough help influence how state and local governments deploy technology.

That’s not to get ahead of events — the U.S. Congress just got its first Gen Z member, and they make up no more than 13 percent of the U.S. workforce, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics — but that isn’t stopping some gov tech vendors from promoting their ability to listen to Gen Z and plan accordingly.

“A generational shift is occurring and it’s unstoppable,” Nick Stevens, senior director of product management at Active Network, which sells recreation management and other software to public agencies, told Government Technology.

The company has some 1,700 local government clients, he said. Part of the reason he is sounding out about Gen Z, he acknowledged, is to broaden awareness of the company and maybe even win more clients beyond the parks and recreation space.

Even so, his tales from the trenches do offer reasons why gov tech suppliers should at least heighten their interest in the younger generation that is coming up — a generation that has known nothing but the digital life. And the preparations for the rise of Gen Z also point to the generational complexities inherent in gov tech.

“We are increasingly seeing this generation take up seats at the table during product demos and pitches,” Stevens said. “We are increasingly seeing them in the room. We are seeing them move into roles faster than they would five to 10 years ago.”

WORKFORCE CHANGES


He attributes that not only to retirements creating room for younger employees but the private sector and its larger paychecks luring away tech experts from public agencies, creating yet more space for Gen Z workers with a civic and tech mindset.

It can be hard to get a handle on how quickly state and local government tech workforces are getting younger, and how much direct or indirect influence that Gen Z has right now. But some recent data do help illustrate the issue.

An analysis of 2021 pension data for Wisconsin state workers — the state says it has the 13th-largest pension system in the U.S. — found that the government workforce has become significantly younger over the past few years, which would seem to bolster Stevens’ points about Gen Z.

The average age of active members in the Wisconsin Retirement System — the pension plan for state, public school and some local government workers — has decreased to 44.6 years old, the youngest average age since 2003. In 2010, the average age peaked at 46 years old. COVID-era departures, private-sector competition, job cuts and other factors contributed to that shift, the report stated.

Additionally, the average worker in the system has 11.1 years of service in 2021, which is the least amount of experience since 2001, and down from the peak of 12.1 years in 2010.

“Though in a sense modest, this shift is notable because it is spread across more than 200,000 state and local workers,” the report stated.

Meanwhile, at the federal level — an imperfect but still useful way to measure larger employment trends in governments — recent reports indicate that younger workers are leaving their jobs at a higher rate than their older colleagues. About 8.1 percent of the federal workforce is younger than 30, according to another analysis. That compares to 23 percent in the private sector.

GEN Z AND GOVERNMENT


Part of the problem might not be only that Gen Z is just finishing college and grad school or starting their careers — it’s that they don’t trust government.

An Eldeman survey from late 2021 found that 47 percent of Gen Z trusted government leaders. That’s a lower rate of trust than expressed toward doctors, scientists, educators, CEOs and celebrities. It’s hardly a stretch to see that public agencies and gov tech providers will have to find ways to counter such attitudes when recruiting and retaining talent among the younger class of professionals.

The generation’s relatively heavy focus on such things as mobile payments and sustainable commerce — traits recently documented via surveys from retail tech firms and others — could certainly spill over to their expectations for the public sector.

Those are among the part of the Gen Z proposition that is catching the attention of gov tech executives such as Stevens. Those younger citizens — and, by extension, younger public agency employees — want to pay property taxes via a mobile app, not by check or visiting a government office, for instance. They don’t want to drive to city hall to take care of a parking ticket.

Gen Z also tends to have different ideas about how work should function than do their older counterparts. From the point of a view of a gov tech supplier such as Stevens, that means offering hybrid methods of work for government employees, along with the necessary back-end supporting tech — a challenge for public agencies, maybe, but an opportunity for vendors and younger tech professionals.

As well, when it comes to product demos and sales pitches from gov tech vendors, the members of Gen Z who might now sit on the other side of that conference table — and who will do so in the coming years — demand an approach likely to differ from their older counterparts.

“What you need to put in front of them in order to get their attention is quite a bit different than what you need to put in front of somebody who grew up with Instagram and TikTok,” he said.

GENERATIONAL GOV TECH CHALLENGES


None of this, of course, means that gov tech and public agencies should or can ignore members of the millennial, Gen X and boomer generations when it comes to the newest services and tools for government. In fact, that would be nearly impossible — or politically impractical — given government’s charge to serve all demographics.

Josh Rogers, senior vice president at Advantage Capital, jokes that he is “not much of a Gen Z whisperer” before he offers a wider view of the larger issues in play even as a new generation prepares to take on more influence and power in public matters including gov tech.

“Do you need to have a call center for boomers when millenials/Gen Z would rather deal with a chatbot than a live person on the phone?” he wrote in an email interview with Government Technology. “Do we need to mail physical documents or are PDFs or digital wallets in apps enough for providing documentation? How do you handle security concerns including hacking and/or identity theft? I don’t think there’s a right answer. I think each case is unique.”

As for Gen Z specifically, that generation still has to prove it can take on more gov tech responsibility. For instance, Gen Z only started voting within the last two presidential election cycles, and it is the voters to whom gov tech buyers ultimately answer, he said.

While Gen Z is certainly joining the workforce — and in the relatively chaotic time following a pandemic — Rogers comes across as more cautious than Stevens. He argues that more time and experience is needed before Gen Z really makes its presence known, especially given how the industry works.

“I think we’ll start to see more gov tech products serve Gen Z,” Rogers said. “But in gov tech, sales cycles are long, and I don’t think we’ll start to see those differentiated products take off until we start to see more Gen Z folks gain influence in government workplaces.”
Thad Rueter writes about the business of government technology. He covered local and state governments for newspapers in the Chicago area and Florida, as well as e-commerce, digital payments and related topics for various publications. He lives in New Orleans.