There’s no doubt that the impact of the pandemic and the Great Resignation on our country is unprecedented. Nineteen million workers quit their jobs between March and July this year. Job openings surged to an all-time high of 10.1 million in June.
While informative, these numbers are inherently flawed because they don’t differentiate between generations—which means that they aren’t telling us the whole story. Think about it: there’s a big difference between a 37-year-old Millennial who has been working for 15 years and a 22-year-old Z who is just entering the workforce. What each looks for in a job is wildly different, but the data doesn’t give us insight into their unique wants and needs.
To rectify this, we conducted a study of 500 Zs across the United States, ages 18–24. Our goal? To better understand what Zs really want and how companies can create work environments (as well as compensation and benefits packages) that will both attract and retain this talented, creative generation. As we reviewed our findings, one thing quickly became clear: What Zs expect from potential employers is much different from what the previous generation expected. If we want to attract and retain Zs, we need to acknowledge they aren’t Millennials.
The created narrative around compensation
Here are the first two bombshells we discovered in the results of our survey: remote work is being overrated. And salaries—yeah, that actually matters to Zs quite a bit. Sixty-one percent of Zs told us fair pay and benefits are most important to them.
Meanwhile, remote work—which has become the assumed preference for younger workers who entered the workforce during the COVID-19 pandemic—isn’t that big of a priority for Zs. In fact, in our study, only 34% of Zs rated remote work options in their top three most-important job benefits, and only 30% of Zs wanted a fully remote position.
Along with fair pay, another area of emphasis was mental health support. Fifty-one percent placed this expectation in the top three most important things they look for in a job—and that preference held true across ages, geography, and political affiliation. This is a strong indication of how broadly Zs prioritize (and have de-stigmatized) mental health.
Clearly, Gen Z’s focus on mental health and wellness is a generational hallmark—one that employers would do well to heed. But what does that actually look like in practice?
The myth around mental health
When Gen Z talks about mental health support, they aren’t talking about squishy self-care. For them, mental health has a medical basis.
It should come as no surprise, then, that Zs want paid-time-off—think sick days, not vacation days—to care for their mental health. They also want mental-health benefits, like therapy, and they want employers to emphasize a better work/life balance.
It can be hard for prior generations to empathize with Zs on this. In decades past, long hours, toxic leadership, harassment, discrimination, and workplace dysfunction were the norm.
Permissive attitudes towards toxic workplace behaviors are rapidly shifting, though, and older generations need to shift too. If companies want Zs in their workforce, they must embrace the cultural shift that is occurring around mental health and how people are treated at work.
The remote work fallacy
Let’s return to the topic of remote work. Part of the reason our results showed that working remotely is a low priority for Zs is that they actually want to work in an office. In fact, 70% of respondents said they preferred a hybrid work model (48%) or working mostly in the office (22%). Only 30% of Zs who took our survey wanted to work mostly remotely.
That’s pretty shocking, right? Well, if you consider the context, it begins to make more sense why Zs feel this way. Because of the pandemic, most Zs never had in-person internships or have taken a business trip. Many working Zs have never even set foot in a physical office.
That’s why the vast majority of Zs are eager to experience what it’s like to work in an office. They want to get out of their house (which has served as both college campus and workplace for the past two years) and establish a routine. They want to meet other young professionals and experience the sense of community and connectedness that is only possible in person.
They also want to collaborate with others and receive mentorship on a deeper level than they’ve experienced before. While Zs are very comfortable interacting digitally, they also realize there is a certain level of connection that can only be achieved when people are face-to-face.
The truth about traditional jobs
At the end of the day, Zs are not against traditional jobs. They just want companies to take the time to understand what their generation prioritizes (and why), then craft workplaces and roles that deliver on those expectations. While this may seem selfish, it’s not—Zs are acutely aware that what they’re asking for benefits everyone in the workforce, not just their generation, and they’re willing to demand the changes that lead to a better work environment for all.
My advice? Don’t think of Zs as the generation that opts out of the traditional workplace. Instead, think of them as opting into jobs that deliver a new kind of workplace culture, and shift what you offer accordingly. If you do that—offer this generation what it wants and needs—you will be able to attract and retain Zs, even in the face of the Great Resignation.
AnneMarie Hayek is a cultural consultant, generational expert, and founder of Global Mosaic and ZSpeak. She is the author of Generation We: The Power and the Promise of Gen Z.