July 28, 2022

Gen Z, Meet Your Millennial Manager

Dani Cahn

A recent article by Business Insider suggests that Gen Z might not hate the office after all. 

This, of course, is contrary not only to much of what we think we know about Gen Z in the workplace– not to mention what Gen Z thinks it knows about itself –- but is also contrary to what Business Insider told us back in April, when they observed that “companies who are demanding workers back at the office every day” were taking a gamble with their Gen Z workforce.

And yet, Jessica, the 25-year-old software engineer interviewed for Insider’s July feature, quit because of her employer’s “work-wherever-you-want” policy. 

“Paradoxically, I wanted to go someplace that was less flexible,” she explained. “I get that remote work is really helpful to some people, but I just wanted to work somewhere where people come into the office.”

This distinct Gen Z attitude towards work deserves some further evaluation.

Remote vs In-person work debate

A lot has changed since spring, when many workplaces began phasing out the COVID-19 mitigation strategies that had gotten them through the pandemic, and the rise of new, more contagious variants would have been fresh on workers’ minds. 

But there’s another aspect of the “remote” versus the “in-person” workplace debate that has less to do with coronavirus-based anxieties than it does with a fundamental difference between Gen Z workers and the millennials who’ve become their managers.

A column comparing teen employment rates for millennials to that of Gen Z published last week by the Washington Post touches on one aspect of this generational conflict– the profoundly different experience Gen Zers have had since they began working in their teens. 

As explained by the Post, two trends stand out when it comes to the employment-to-population ratio for ages 16 to 19,  “The millennial collapse. And the Gen Z rebound.” 

When the oldest millennials turned 16 in 1997, teen employment was a healthy 43%. By 2016, when the youngest members of their cohort would have been eligible to work, it had plunged to 26%. 

That changed when Gen Z  joined the workforce. According to official Generation Z workforce statistics, Teen employment is seeing its first sustained growth in decades—-  Not because millennials were lazy, but because they entered the workforce amidst two significant recessions “and the jobless recoveries that followed.”

Their exit from the teen labor force was about demand. They faced stiff competition from a “huge reservoir of talented, hard-working adult competitors,” all while “the entry-level jobs that drew Gen X into the workforce” evaporated. 

Businesses not only did not have to change to accommodate them, they didn’t really need them in the first place.

But by the time “zoomers” joined the workforce, the competition for workers had heated up, and “folks who mastered teen hiring had a significant advantage.”

The Rise of Gen Z at work 

When Sugarpeach, a soul food restaurant in Iowa, first opened, “they didn’t need teenagers.” Owners Chad and Carol Simmons told the Post that, initially, it was easy to find people with experience “‘at the price point that we at the time were needing to pay.’”  They could pay at around the minimum wage, and still have takers:

But as the economy improved, older workers were drawn to higher-paying work at manufacturers and distributors. So Simmons got creative. Drawing on skills honed in his previous career as a human resources professional, he launched Scholars Making Dollars, a program to train and mentor high school freshmen. In just a few years, the high-schoolers in that program have matured into a pillar of his business model.

With workers in short supply, teen hiring became a necessity. Businesses had no choice but to embrace flexibility and incorporate elements of professional development to entice Gen Z applicants. “Something,” Simmons explained, “ to make sure that they’re all set up to do well in high school and then go to college.” 

Millennials working remotely- The Hard truth

The truth is, the Big Bad Boomer no longer looms so large; Gen X has graduated to the C-Suite, and millennials? Well, they’re your new manager, and odds are that very little in their professional history will have prepared them to be the kinds of managers who sympathize with Gen Z’s need for a more customizable experience.  

Clearly, the experience of entering the office during and after the 2008 financial crisis has led, at least in part, to this profound disconnect. 

It’s hard not to wonder if part of the millennial preference for remote work is related to having to cope with the managerial quirks of some other generation. Their belief that individuals, not employers, “should be responsible for keeping their skills current and mastering new tools and developments within their industry” seems likely to be. (Really can’t blame Boomers for that one– 90% of them believe that that responsibility lies with employers.) 

It’s worth considering Business Insider’s April and July articles in this context. Read between the lines, and their takeaways are not so different to understand Gen Z and work attributes. In one case a person quits because her company’s decision to return to the office puts control above community; and in the other, an employee who doesn’t want to work from home, and believes a physical workplace is the key to the camaraderie she craves leaves to pursue it.

The real question is ‘What does Gen Z want from work’? Both of those workers were asking for a leadership style that prioritized connection and engagement. The Great Resignation is, in part, a symptom of the managerial rigidity they encountered. 

According to Kornferry, there are more than “5 million millennial-aged managers in the US now who are short on experience.” By 2030, they will likely make up 75% of the total US workforce — and the majority of its managers, and yet, when asked, the top two things they said their education did not prepare them for was managing others and working with older people. 

If we’re to believe recent trends, they’re not much better with the young. .

Gen Zers, for their part, have seen their labor as valuable since their first jobs out of high school. And if the businesses that hired them as teens were prepared to evolve, their new millennial managers should at least be prepared to talk – in-person if needs be –  about why they won’t.

Dani Cahn Communications and Creative Development