Opinion: Here’s what Gen Z wants employers to know about how they work

An increased expectation that work should have positive impact and meaning.

The majority of Generation Z have little to no memory of what office culture was like before the COVID-19 pandemic. They’ve not had much opportunity to socialize or acclimatize, given dramatically shifting norms and an increase in remote work. Social activism, political polarization and hyper-transparency have shaped Gen Z attitudes amid a broad reckoning over culture and leadership.

While Gen Z does not have a monolithic perspective, they do have an increased expectation that work should have positive impact and meaning, and that workplaces will adapt to an individual’s needs and not the other way around.

To respond effectively, employers should take care to distinguish Gen Z’s long-term expectations (such as taking greater responsibility for environmental impacts) from its peculiar adaptive difficulties (oversensitivity to criticism). Here’s what to expect:

1. Gen Zers are more socially aware, and expect institutions to respond to their demands: While less experienced, Gen Z anticipates that leaders should and will respond enthusiastically to the ethical judgments and concerns they express.

This thirst for meaning focuses on an employer’s core commercial and strategic decisions. For example, young employees might expect their company to refuse to work for certain clients or customers on ethical grounds.

Company leaders must understand that they can never satisfy the full range of beliefs held by a multigenerational workforce without conflict. One sound idea is to emphasize individual voice and participation in the democratic process. Encourage employees to have a personal life and become engaged with their communities, rather than trying to impose values or control speech. Of course it is fine to place some restrictions on employee conduct, but be clear about these before, not after, a crisis.

2. When Gen Z employees broadly align with millennials on social issues, significant intergenerational tension should be anticipated: While young people are sometimes characterized as progressive or “woke,” the reality is more complex. Broadly speaking, Gen Zers still display strong, bipartisan alignment on issues such as diversity, inclusion, and environmental responsibility, and they support more government intervention in social services.

Younger millennials concur. Where alignment is clearest, the two will be poised to bring intergenerational tensions to the fore. Under a corporate leadership that is disproportionately white and male, conflicts around power, opportunity and inclusion are certain. This is not the time for companies to back away from DEI programs, but rather to make them more genuine and less legalistic. The point of diversity is for an organization to benefit from a broader range of perspectives and more accurately reflect both its customers and employees.

Older employees may see the onset of a more diverse workforce as likely to spur conflict and inefficiencies; younger employees may attack the willful blindness of those defending the status quo. What is needed is a nuanced understanding of the focus on social identity and the misunderstandings it can create among the workforce. Equipping employees with skills to negotiate and resolve conflicts can help channel energy productively.

3. Gen Zers are the first ‘digital natives,’ and this will intensify risks in the new dynamics of corporate transparency: Gen Z’s intuitive relationship with technology is impossible for older generations to fully grasp. The oldest Gen Zers were accessing social media by middle school. As the first members of Gen Z were becoming teenagers, the rise of a hyper-transparent environment began undercutting corporations’ traditional reliance on confidentiality. More and more employees leak confidential information to the media in efforts to open internal company matters to broader commentary and judgment. 

While employers now must assume that confidentiality provisions are no longer secure or reliable, they should avoid explicit commitments to “radical transparency.” Much research suggests that employees suffer when required to conduct all tasks in public, where performance and creativity become entangled in fear of failure.

Indeed, employers need to build structures that invite Gen Zers to learn, ask questions, and make mistakes outside of collective scrutiny. Just as true freedom of expression requires meaningful privacy, psychological safety is needed to safeguard employees from falling prey to workplace “call-out culture.”

4. Gen Z suffers from high rates of anxiety and depression: Numerous studies show that anxiety, depression and suicide in Gen Z are rising fast, particularly among women. The National Institute of Mental Health has found a significantly higher prevalence of severe mental health issues among Gen Zers than in older generations — 7.5%, compared to 2.7% for people over 50. The increases, experts say, cannot be discounted by cultural shifts that make it easier to disclose such problems.

Gen Z has grown accustomed to academic accommodation in the form of additional time for testing. Employers are struggling to determine how best to respond to requests for more flexible working hours or unpaid leave, given that the law allows negotiation over what is “reasonable.”

Enterprises concerned about this unhealthy shift in the social contract between workers and employers brought it on, in fact, by pressing for ever-greater insights into their workers and monitoring everything from sleep to time online. More and more employers are becoming involved in wellness initiatives, and a recent Harvard Business Review article argued that managers should have training to provide cognitive behavioral therapy. All this is understandable, but can inspire unsustainable expectations about an employer’s responsibilities. Again, giving time off when needed, but laying out role expectations clearly, emphasizing teamwork and accountability, and combining empathy with clear performance expectations can help.

Gen Z’s fluid concept of power and distrust of institutions puts its members on a general collision course with management. Fresh approaches are needed in team management, diversity and inclusion training, mental health provision, and political and social positioning, to name a few key areas. Healthy enterprises thrive on trust, cooperation, productivity and morale.

Alison Taylor is a clinical associate professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business and the executive director of Ethical Systems, where her research focuses on ethics and business responsibility. She is the author of Higher Ground: How Business Can Do the Right Thing in a Turbulent World (Harvard Business Review Press, 2024).

More: Plan to retire? 20% of young Americans say they don’t think they can. 

Also read: Gen X-ers and millennials are poised to inherit trillions in the coming years

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