Work-life balance, fair pay and value alignment: today’s youngest workers want it all – and are willing to walk away if they don’t get it.
Clarissa Holleman had always felt like teaching was her calling. But just more than a year into her first job caring for children with special needs, the 24-year-old from Hinesville, Georgia, US, was burnt out from what she calls the “high stakes” and “compassion fatigue”. She had “no life” of her own outside work, and was struggling to see a future within the education field.
When Holleman started teaching in July 2020, all her classes were remote due to the pandemic. She felt both powerless and ill-supported to help the children she was caring for. “That kind of work environment is just crazy; you have no energy left at the end of the day,” says Holleman. On top of the anxiety and exhaustion she was experiencing, there were financial issues: she wasn’t being paid during school holidays. Holleman increasingly felt that the toll the job was taking on her life was no longer worth the sense of purpose it offered.
So, in January 2022, after spending months upskilling via free LinkedIn courses, Holleman quit what had been her “dream career”. She’s now a tech recruiter at a millennial-run company, and although she doesn’t identify with her work as much anymore, she prefers it that way. Holleman has unlimited (and culturally permitted) paid time off, great work-life balance that allows for established hobbies and a better salary. “I definitely see myself staying there really long term,” she says.
For decades, the cultural mandate in many Western countries has been hustle hard for your employer, and you’ll be rewarded. If the striving is for a job you love, the pay will be satisfaction. And if the job involves climbing the rungs of a corporate ladder, the pay will be, well, big bucks. Though different in motivation, both paths share the same narrative. As a result, work has become an obsession, an identity even; something workers traditionally felt lucky to have.
But increasingly, Generation Z workers like Holleman – those born between 1997 and 2012 – are insisting we write a new script for work. Having observed older workers experience burnout, time poverty and economic insecurity at the grindstone, they’re demanding more from workplaces: bigger pay cheques, more time off, the flexibility to work remotely and greater social and environmental responsibility. Many of these values were millennial preferences, but for Gen Zers, they’ve become expectations – and they’re willing to walk away from employers if their needs aren’t met.
As a result of their war on work, Gen Zers have been dubbed entitled or anti-capitalist. Yet they’re not; Gen Zers want it all – and are willing to work hard for the right employer. But if the juice isn’t worth the squeeze, they’ll leave and find other ways to make ends meet. Many have argued they’re simply a generation responding to the social movements of their time, and using lessons hard won by older workers to inform their career choices. And some even think the youngest in the labour force have potential to bring meaningful change to the workplace along the way.
‘Not for me’
While there are, of course, Gen Zers aspiring to all sorts of lives, the top priority for this cohort of workers as a whole is higher pay, according to a 2022 survey by US job site CareerBuilder. That goes for Gen Zers who haven’t yet entered the workforce, too: 77% of college seniors in a 2020 job-seeker survey by recruitment platform RippleMatch said compensation would be the number one factor when evaluating offers.
This represents a significant shift in values compared to millennials. According to a 2011 global survey by professional services network PwC, millennials entering the workplace valued career progression and personal development over financial reward. They were more attracted to employers who could help them climb their ladder of choice than those with the deepest pockets.
Still, it makes sense that wages are in sharper focus now, says CareerBuilder CEO Susan Arthur. Gen Z is entering a workforce and economic landscape that is very different to before, she says. While young workers across generations tend to struggle financially early on in their careers, Gen Z faces particularly acute stressors, especially as rising inflation outpaces salary growth.
The pandemic has intensified economic precarity for all workers. Half of American Gen Zers who are old enough to work witnessed someone in their household lose a job or take a pay cut due to the Covid-19 outbreak, according to the Pew Research Center. They’ve also watched older generations go through multiple recessions and end up with huge amounts of debt, says Elizabeth Michelle, a London-based psychologist and workplace engagement consultant. “So, Gen Z are looking at all of that and thinking, ‘Not for me; I’m not going to do that’.”
But as much emphasis as there is on pay, Gen Zers are also looking to grow their careers at certain kinds of organisations. Mia Jones, a 23-year-old proposal writer from California, dreams of a workplace that’s “modern, transparent and entrepreneurial”. She values work-life balance, mental health benefits, the flexibility to work when and where she wants and companies that invest in developing workers in a diverse and inclusive environment.
Jones isn’t alone in her desire for a more humanistic type of labour. According to 2022 research by workplace training company TalentLMs, 82% of Gen Zers surveyed want mental health days, 77% consider it important that their company supports diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, and 74% would opt for either hybrid or totally remote work. After an unsatisfactory salary, burnout and lack of work-life balance was the number one reason they’d quit. Where work used to be about what employees could offer companies, says Michelle, “now it’s all about what Gen Zers are expecting from work”.
There is nothing wrong with just focusing on existing and enjoying life. You do not have to define yourself by your job – Mia Jones, 23
Millennials also yearned for flexibility and balance, but they were more willing to sacrifice corporate social responsibility for companies they admired as consumers; the ones that aligned with their passions and were perceived as prestigious places to work. In 2008, 86% said they’d consider leaving an employer whose values no longer met their expectations, but by 2011, that figure had plummeted to just 56%.
Jones, on the other hand, rejects the idea that an employer – reputable or otherwise – should dictate her identity. While she appreciates the skills she’s learned at work, she finds meaning and purpose outside employment, through art, making music and going to yoga. “There is nothing wrong with just focusing on existing and enjoying life,” she says. “You do not have to define yourself by your job.”
‘I’m a huge advocate for taking the leap’
With both salary and work-life balance front and centre, Gen Zers also come with another stand-out characteristic: they are the cohort most likely to quit if they’re unsatisfied at work. One 2021 study by consumer financial services company Bankrate found that 77% of the Gen Zers surveyed were on the hunt for a new job. Of millennials at the same stage in their careers, only 38% of those surveyed in 2011 said they were on the lookout for opportunities. And Gen Zers already spend less time in a role than millennials, according to CareerBuilder.
Quitting or changing careers might seem likely to nudge higher salaries further out of reach, but research finds that’s not the case. In comparison to those who stay put, the UK’s Office for National Statistics found higher wages were a key perk of job hopping for all workers.
Since switching from education to tech, Holleman's making more now than she did as a teacher. It’s not that she expected a bigger teaching salary right out of college, but in the district where she worked, Holleman would have had to wait three years for any sort of pay rise. And within her first six months as a tech recruiter her salary has already jumped by USD$10,000 (£8,000). “I’m a huge advocate for taking the leap if your mental health is suffering,” she says. “I mean, I could always go back to teaching.”
How a workplace operates also factors into whether younger workers stay or go. Gen Zers and millennials hold many of the same workplace values, says Michelle, but Gen Z seems to have more willingness to act on them – something she suspects is born of the knowledge that there are endless other ways to earn a living now, thanks to the internet. “It takes a lot less for them to leave than it did for previous generations,” she explains. Gen Zers want to see companies follow through on their mission statements, particularly in regard to social and environmental values, and if they aren’t “practising what they’re preaching, Gen Z will hold them accountable”.
Beth Kennedy has witnessed this phenomenon in her workplace first-hand. Gen Zers are assertive when it comes to establishing work-life boundaries and upholding ethical standards, says the 32-year-old, who runs a marketing agency in New York City, and employs younger workers. They’re “thoughtful, compassionate and hardworking”, she explains, and they’ll call out policies and behaviours they disagree with. While millennials “were taught, and believed, that you needed to be always available for work, Gen Zers don't subscribe to that”.
Given the context of their lives, Gen Z attitudes make sense, says Kathleen Gerson, a professor of sociology, arts and science at New York University. Born into a digitally connected world, they are acutely aware of the social justice and environmental movements as well as the new-found ways of working, that are shaking up the status quo. They’re also, adds Gerson, entering a job market that – despite endless new tech-enabled career opportunities – been growing less stable and more amorphous since the 1950s.
Trust and loyalty between employers and workers has eroded, and Gen Zers have internalised that insecurity, says Gerson. What may seem like entitled behaviour – quitting and demanding changes at work – is actually employers failing to meet the demands of modern life. Gen Zers just “want decent pay for doing work they enjoy, and the respect that allows them to have a life outside of their jobs”, says Gerson.
Catalyst of change?
Gen Z is erupting into the workforce at a time of major upheaval. In the wake of the pandemic, we’re experiencing something of a power struggle between workplaces and their employees, explains Gerson, as workers push for better conditions and many companies resist their efforts. Naturally, conversations around flexibility, work-life balance and social and environmental justice are louder than ever.
The youngest workers are entering the labour market with a set of demands and the determination to act on them. Still, despite their efforts, the news is not all positive; Gerson is concerned Gen Zers are applying individual solutions to collective problems. Workers quitting or speaking up, she says, are moves that are less likely to convince employers to make changes than government legislation or union pressure that mandates benefits like higher wages and more time off. Especially, she says, considering mobility largely depends on privilege; hourly workers and those with less corporate experience have very little leverage to job hop or assert boundaries that could prevent work encroaching on life.
Gen Zers are “thoughtful, compassionate and hardworking” and they’ll call out policies and behaviours they disagree with – Beth Kennedy
Plus, Gen Z workers like Jones are already reporting burnout, suggesting the hustle culture and financial burden that plagued generations before them is still taking a toll. Despite focusing on her life outside work, Jones finds her job overwhelming. “I'm dealing with a lot of stress I didn't even think to prepare myself for; navigating corporate dynamics, no structure and little support,” she says. “I often feel overworked, underpaid and angry.” Still, she holds out hope that her generation’s vision for a new kind of labour could eventually manifest.
Despite her caveats, Gerson, who describes herself as “a short-term pessimist but a long-term optimist” about these workplace shifts, is hopeful Gen Z can catalyse change. The needle is more likely to move, she says, as millennials with similar values to Gen Z increasingly take on leadership roles and companies pressed to attract and retain talent are forced to yield to some worker demands – but she cautions that it will likely take some time before all workers benefit.
Kennedy, who has already implemented Gen Z-driven policies in her own workplace, is adamant the youngest workers are already succeeding in their quest, however. No one is expected to be contactable outside set hours, meetings feel more collaborative and inclusive, and she’s aspiring to introduce a four-day workweek. Gen Zers are asking the tough questions, says Kennedy, “and workplaces are being forced to have broader discussions and make shifts when they don't have good answers”.
In Hinesville, Holleman is thriving in her new role. Her millennial boss is understanding and flexible. The work feels meaningful, but she doesn’t think a whole lot about it while she’s not on the clock. And outside the office, she’s a Miss Georgia candidate and has plenty of time for hobbies. “I’m able to just live my life now,” she says.