When companies want insights into how to reach teens and young adults, they call 19-year-old Jonah Stillman.
Stillman, who skipped college to jump straight into the workforce, is co-founder of Gen Z Guru, a consulting company that he runs with his father. Gen Z refers to anyone born after 1997, and Stillman is selling himself as the poster child of the post-millennial generation.
LinkedIn hired him to speak at its Talent Connect event and consulted with Stillman for a program with company executives. The Minnesota Vikings tapped him to to help with team marketing, fan events and digital media content. Intuit revamped its recruiting strategy after meeting with Stillman.
Other clients have included 3M, Deloitte, Fannie Mae and Land-O-Lakes.
"I'm one of the very few Gen Zers talking on the topic of Gen Z, and there are very few that actually have data," said Stillman, who lives in the Minneapolis area. "It doesn't take much to share an opinion, but numbers don't lie."
Stillman sees Gen Zers as "digital natives," who grew up in a post-9/11 world in the middle of a recession, when the average household lost one-third of its net worth. In other words, they're very different from the entitled millennials who preceded them.
It's a whole new population, just graduating from college, for corporate America to comprehend. Employers have to thoughtfully consider how to recruit the youth, and then retain them.
"I really hadn't considered there was this new generation joining this workforce," said Nicholas Mailey, vice president of talent acquisition at tax software company Intuit. It affects "the things we need to do in terms of to engage talent and attract talent," he said.
The challenge is particularly acute for a company like Intuit, which has to compete with all of its better known Silicon Valley neighbors.
"One exit to the north of us is Facebook. An exit or two to the south of us is LinkedIn," Mailey said. "The tech talent we want to attract — we aren't in the top considerations. These are products that the Gen Z grew up with. They aren't used to working with financial and tax software."
This wasn't what Stillman always planned on doing with his life.
He was really into winter sports as a kid. But he broke his back as a competitive snowboarder. In fact, he suffered so many injuries that his family nickname became "Bones." So he realized that a professional athletic career wasn't in his future.
At age 16, while at Minnetonka High School in Minnetonka, Minnesota, he was assigned a 50-page research project, and decided to focus on his generation. After the assignment was complete, he told his dad he was interested in doing more research.
Stillman's father, David, is no stranger to the concept of a generational consultant. In the mid-90s, he founded and eventually sold Bridgeworks, a consulting firm that helped companies navigate workplace and marketplace issues between generations.
David helped Jonah fund a small survey of local Minnesota high school students to learn more about the unique qualities of of his generation and what kids thought of the name Gen Z.
"Everyone was assuming everyone under 30 was the same," David said. "If we treat Gen Z like millennials, it's going to backfire, like when people tried to treat Gen X like Baby Boomers."
The two then teamed up with the Institute of Corporate Productivity to do three representative national surveys and one global survey on Gen Z workplace and marketplace trends. They also reached out to celebrities and executives like Oprah Winfrey, Mark Cuban, Ashton Kutcher and Dara Khosrowshahi (now Uber's CEO) to submit a question they wanted answered about Gen Z.
They turned their findings into a book called "Gen Z at Work," which published last year, when Jonah was a senior. At the same time Jonah joined a program offered at his school that allowed him to intern at General Mills, where he studied teen snack trends.
Jonah and David have their own generational battles, mostly around technology. Jonah has no problem Skyping into meetings, something that made David furious at first. Jonah sees it as perfectly natural to read from his phone when giving a talk, but his elders don't tend to appreciate it.
"In my world, when I speak I would have my bullet points and my notes on my phone and I would put it on the podium and scroll through," he said. "But I genuinely think half my audience thinks I'm checking Instagram so I can't do that."
When the first Apple Watch came out, David excitedly waited by the mailbox for it to arrive. The day he got it, he made Jonah go to another room and give him a call so he could answer it. Jonah could hear him screaming into the watch asking if his son could hear him.
"Yeah, they can hear you in Europe," Jonah recalled saying. "Put your wrist down."
Jonah bypassed college to pursue his generational consultancy work full time. He earns between $12,000 and $25,000 for speaking engagements, and $50,000 and up for research projects. Consulting projects are charged on a case -by-case basis.
While David supports his son's decision to skip college and go straight to work, he admits he's a bit worried.
"It did sting a bit, not because it will affect his development at all, but I see the cultural biases there," David said. There are so many people who "think if you don't go to college there's something wrong," he said.
As of now, Jonah's clients are seeing his value in the business world.
During his meeting with Intuit, Jonah went to an offsite meeting and was informed about the company's recruitment strategy. Mailey said the company realized from Jonah's insights that it needed to be more narrowly focused in recruitment letters, differentiating between divisions like software engineers and product managers instead of sending email blasts for all engineers.
Intuit also started asking employees if they would prefer to have Slack channels listing new opportunities within the company. Not only did employees like the idea, the next day they organized the channels themselves.
"We kind of said, wow we really got to rethink what we were doing if we want to differentiate ourselves and be competitive," Mailey said.
Jonah has been asked back multiple times.
He's also gotten comfortable taking risks, like cold emailing NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, asking him to submit a question for the Gen Z book. Goodell sent in a question, and he also told Jonah to stop by the headquarters if he was in town.
Jonah booked a trip the next day, told Goodell he happened to be in New York and pitched him on why the NFL needed to improve marketing, social media and in-game experiences to connect with Gen Z. It led to a year-long project, which involved coming up with strategies to get more youth interested in the Pro Bowl. He brought in the idea of including more social media influencers.
"In today's era, they're more influential than a TV star," Jonah said. "There's more traffic from them posting than you'll get from a TV channel."
Jonah sees plenty of work for him in the future. Now he's thinking about the 2020 election, which will be the first time Gen Z will be eligible to vote for president.
"Companies are just adapting to my generation in the workplace, and most have yet to notice us," he said. "The impacts and the clashes are likely new. We're just now attaining massive spending power and influence over our parents spending."