Generation Z is the largest generation in history, and they’ve never been in an office. Here’s how they may revolutionize how we work.
Generation Z is the youngest, most ethnically-diverse and largest generation in American history. They’re also the workforce of the future—and employers desperately need them.
As many as 10,000 Babyboomers are retiring every day, leaving a huge gap in the workforce. That’s top of mind of today’s leaders, who need to ensure they can recruit and keep Gen Z—which includes anyone born after 1996. They’re finding that this generation is far different than those in decades past, and Gen Z may stand to revolutionize how we think about work.
“There are so many misconceptions about this generation,” says Danielle Farage, a 25-year-old Gen Zer who took to the job of public speaker and consultant about her generation. “Gen Z includes the most ambitious, smart, technologically savvy self-starters I’ve never met.”
Today’s uncertain economy and high cost of living mean many young people are juggling side hustles as sources of income as they embark on their careers. As many as two-thirds of Gen Z Americans have started or intend to start their own businesses, and nearly half of them have numerous side hustles. They’re redefining what is considered a high-status job, valuing flexibility, autonomy and corporate ethics over the grind of jobs within traditional high-powered industries.
Generation Z, the oldest of which is 25, comes to the workplace with an enormous amount of anxiety, and some people have consequently dubbed them lazy, demanding and fragile.
Farage says those assumptions are flat out wrong. These are people who grew up carrying supercomputers in their pockets—devices that delivered constant notifications and a barrage of bad news, from climate change and school shootings to race inequities and dire warnings of rising COVID-19 cases. No other generation can say they lived through a pandemic in their formative years. At least 91% of Gen Z adults have experienced at least one physical or emotional symptom of stress, such as being depressed or lacking interest or energy, according to the American Psychological Association.
At the same time, this generation faces enormous financial woes, with rising inflation, rising student loan debt.
How is this for daunting? The cost of a home has increased 121% since 1960 but household income has only increased 29%. Gen Z is also graduating college with 20% more debt than Millennials. Consequently, as many as 60% of Gen Zers plan to live at home after their first job for the first year or two, and 44% expect their employer to help them pay off student loans, according to a 2022 Career Interest Survey of 11,495 Gen Z students by the National Society of High School Scholars.
And while employers talk about drawing people “back to the office,” this is a generation that has never really used the office. In fact, for a number of years, 80% of them were taking classes online during the pandemic.
The office provides a unique opportunity to connect those young workers face-to-face not only in terms of mentorship and training but for social connection and feeling a company’s culture, says Adam Segal, who has been watching how this generation as founder and CEO of Cove, a technology platform for managing building operations, tenant engagement, and tenant reservations.
“The office is very much like a learned behavior,” Segal says. “And so now we talk about how the office gets introduced to Gen Z. It’s a great opportunity for the office to define itself in a way that it becomes absolutely mission critical for the way we work and engage with each other.”
The hybrid office, with shared desks, booking a meeting room via an app, and moving around an office space based on your activity, all make sense for this group of workers who grew up on smartphones.
“They haven’t even needed a laptop to complete 95% of their lives,” says Segal. “It’s really incredible the role of the phone for Gen Z — we’re going to have to make this behavior the standard for how we use and engage with the office and our colleagues everyday.”
Previous generations may have had rigorous onboarding and training in their first job, but the pandemic and hybrid and remote work has left Gen Z hanging. Many managers haven’t received adequate training in mentoring and onboarding over Zoom and Slack.
New workers may go into the office, but in some cases, no one is even there, and mentorship and face-to-face direction are absent. Without that direction, young people can feel lost. “A lot of us are feeling a little bit misguided, a little unmotivated and absurdly depressed,” says Farage.
Farage says many Gen Zers don’t feel like they have the guidance they need to manage the workplace—or other important parts of life.
“No one taught us how to network. No one taught us how to find a mentor. No one taught us how to find a job. No one taught us how to do taxes, budget and save money,” she says, adding that many don’t know who to ask for help.
They’re used to specific clear rules and guidance, says Scott Zimmer, a longtime generational workplace consultant. They grew up with rubrics in the classroom and step-by-step instructions on YouTube to do everything from playing the guitar to building a dog house. As a result, they tend to be timid at work and tend not to branch out on their own and work independently—because they’re worried about making mistakes, he says.
Gen Z wants work to be intentional, says Farage.
“It comes from a place of wanting intentionality about how we actually come together and not just because we want office culture,” says Farage. “It’s more about the experience that you deliver, whether that’s career coaching or a space they can show up as their authentic selves or be with other people.”
Socializing and collaborating doesn’t have to be in an office either, says Farage. It could be a coworking space or a coffee shop with colleagues. They want flexibility on how they work and where and when they work, whether that’s at eight in the morning or midnight. They value their friends and family and want true life balance. And they’re willing to quit their jobs if they don’t get that. As many as 78% of Gen Zers are likely to search for a new job within the year, according to a 2023 Bankrate survey of 2,400 adults. Nearly two-thirds of them said they want more flexibility in work.
They may, in fact, be revolutionizing the way we think about work. They’re increasingly questioning the very structure of capitalism, wealth, poverty and a workplace that doesn’t serve everyone. While Boomers and Gen Xers might have started their careers never saying no to long-hours and a high-pressure grind, Gen Z is asking why.
They want to understand what they’re working for and why, and they want to believe in it. This comes down to corporate culture and values: Are you protecting the environment? Are you making the world a better place? Are you inclusive? Do you care about wellbeing, health, racial justice, equity, diversity and mental health? And do you live it in a true and honest way?
As the most diverse generation in history, diversity, equity and inclusion is not a perk. It’s a baseline expectation.
Gen Z wants a workplace where they can share their concerns, their fears, their shortcomings or simply ask why. They just want to be able to share how they feel, good or bad, says Ira Wolfe, a Boomer and a longtime HR consultant, author, and speaker on the future of work. But for Gen Xers and Boomers, sharing that information would have gotten them fired.
“Culture and values are so important,” says Farage. “We want to be our most authentic selves at work.”
But that doesn’t mean they want to be coddled, says Wolfe. He says some companies have gone too far in trying to create a “safe environment” for their younger employees, not criticizing, not saying anything to offend them. That’s not what they want, he says. Like most generations, they want to feel accepted, to be treated with dignity, to learn and grow at work.
“They’re willing to take risks, they’re willing to learn. They’re willing to grow. They’re willing to innovate,” says Wolfe. “They’re willing to shape the whole hybrid, remote revolution. This is really the only work experience they know.”