Millennials were the first generation to disrupt traditional ways of working and introduce a more purposeful approach. Realizing that the “move fast, break things” mindset of pre-2008 was no longer sustainable, they began to fix it.
But for a generation–now the largest demographic in the workplace–that began entering the workforce in the early 21st century, hangovers from the previous era remained. While flexibility no doubt increased as technology accelerated throughout the 2010s, businesses’ cultures of presenteeism and profit persisted.
In 2021 however, it appears that approach is on its way out for good. Accelerated by the pandemic, a new era for work has begun.
The earliest members of Generation Z–born from 1995 onwards–began entering the labor force in around 2016. And like younger millennials, they demanded flexibility. They stepped into the office and questioned their relentless commutes, their suits and ties, their employers’ dedication to profit at any cost.
The digital natives
Unlike any cohort before them, this is a digital native generation and one whose formative years have been defined by the pandemic. And if these challenging two years have taught us anything, it should probably be that they were right. Traditional working models are no longer fit for the 21st century.
It took a global pandemic for organizations to wake up to what their youngest employees were telling them. And while some will maintain they prefer the traditional office structure–and both politicians and some business leaders unhelpfully call for staff to “get back to the office”–it is clear that with technology, most non-service roles do not require five days a week and fixed 9 to 5 hours in the office to get the job done. In fact, remote working saw a 13% increase in productivity and an increased culture of trust fostered between employers and employees.
For those requiring their staff to get back to the office full-time, despite all available evidence telling us it is unnecessary, it will only be themselves that they have to blame when they can no longer attract the best and brightest talent. The overwhelming majority of today’s graduate pool come from Generation Z and will do so for the next decade at least. While in the short-term, companies will make up for shortfalls in fresh talent with their existing workforce, 10 years down the line they will find they have been left behind by competitors far more open to change.
And for anyone who says that certain organizations will always remain an appealing prospect for young employees, simply because of their status, they are missing the bigger picture. They are missing what makes Generation Z stand out from any before them. Their desire to work in a different way is not founded on a lack of desire or being overly sheltered, but out of a belief that things can and must be better than it was for generations before them.
This is the generation that have grown up with smartphones, experiencing first-hand the mental health impact of social media. It is the generation that saw their parents lose jobs in the financial crisis. It is the generation who have seen the gap between the richest and the poorest in our society grow ever larger, and for whom getting on the property ladder in their 20s is but a distant dream. It is the generation of Greta Thunberg and the school climate activists, who feel let down by corporations failing to act on global warming – with the results set to hit them the hardest.
Nothing to lose
Quite simply, it is a generation that has been failed by those before them. And in many ways, it is a generation with nothing left to lose.
And so, rather than telling them that they are naïve and that their utopian view of what work and society could be is merely a product of “Generation Snowflake,” *perhaps instead we should listen.
A 2020 Gallup poll found that just 20% of employees globally felt engaged with their job. 11 years ago, in 2009, it was even lower at just 12%, with a steady rise in the succeeding decade, before a slight fall during the pandemic. This tells us that employee disengagement is not a Generation Z or even a millennial phenomenon, but an inadequately addressed and longstanding issue at all levels of business.
In fact, as the more idealistic younger generations have started working, engagement levels have risen. Why should we then question their demands for better?
Where previous generations of employees have been told to “suck it up,” younger generations ask, ‘why should we?’ They are rejecting the linear career path that tells them to put the hours in, get promoted, repeat. Instead, they are looking for fulfilment and to make a positive impact on the world.
They are happier, not motivated by money or status but causes and projects they are passionate about. They live to work rather than work to live. And they are choosing to work for themselves, with an increase in freelance workers across industries. Those we engage with through Worksome tell us they are happier as a freelancer than as a permanent employee, with more time to spend with their families and greater economic freedom.
If we enable Generation Z to do what they love and love what they do, then this could be the biggest productivity driver of the 21st century. It is time to throw away the perceptions that satisfaction is driven by good performance, rather than the other way around. When we are driven in our careers by passion and inspired to go to work each day, we perform better. It is as simple as that.
The pandemic has been an opportunity to change how we work for the better. The most successful companies of tomorrow will be the ones stepping up to ensure all of their employees have the freedom to work as they want on the causes they are passionate about. The rest will be a reminder of a bygone age.
Morten Petersen is cofounder and CEO of Worksome, an online talent solution that helps companies tap into a global on-demand workforce. He previously worked on Google’s Danish management team, leading commercial activity out of Copenhagen.