Gen Z, Here’s What Will Really Make You Happy At Work – From A GenXer

It seems like only yesterday that we were hearing about what Millennials wanted from the workplace. But the millennials’ time in the spotlight is over, and we’re now seeing the rise of a new generation, Gen Z, with different wants and needs. Just recently, I received a surprising article from a friend: a survey of what Gen Z graduates want from their potential employers.

The survey showed that members of Gen Z have some workplace desires that are drastically different from previous generations. In particular, five preferences stand out:

  • 47 percent want to be provided mental health support at their workplace.
  • 43 percent want to talk openly about mental health at the office.
  • 41 percent want their company to be engaged in social causes the employee supports.
  • 34 percent want virtual interaction to be the norm, rather than the exception.
  • 22 percent want cryptocurrency as a compensation option.

If you are in your 40s or 50s, the above stats may prompt you to scoff and revert to a sentiment I heard someone recently express jokingly: “get a therapist and do your job.” However, ignoring this data altogether would be a mistake, as it represents a major shift in priorities that may shape the future workplace. We don’t need overpriced Gen Z consultants promising to share the secrets to managing this generation—we just need to listen, seek to understand and have a dialogue.

When I saw the statistics shared earlier, I was curious why Gen Zers value these workplace qualities so highly. What I think we have is a conflation two things: what Gen Zers want from their lives overall and what role their employer should play in their lives. These two things are very different in reality.

I can hear your protestations: great, another Baby Boomer takedown of the Millennials and Gen Z. Well, on that front I have good news: I’m not a Baby Boomer. I’m a member of Generation X, the middle child of generations. We’re the generation between the Boomers and Millennials who came of age in the 90s, raised by Nirvana, early MTV and oversized flannel shirts. We are often called the latchkey kids; we were the first generation where a majority of children had two working parents, and we regularly had to let ourselves into our homes after school.

Gen X hasn’t been a player in the great inter-generational media wars of recent years. That’s partly because, as latchkey kids, we aren’t used to much attention and don’t require as much affirmation as the generations who preceded and followed us. We have a strong sense of independence, at times to our detriment. Even though we focus on getting the job done at work, we also highly prioritize our families and were the first generation to push for better buffers between work and life. And while we make up a majority of the senior leadership and C-Suite roles today, to our chagrin, no one seems really concerned about our opinions or our roles in society or the workplace.

If you’re a Gen Z reader, you might believe Gen X can’t possibly have anything relevant to share about your workplace ambitions. That would be a mistake—thanks to our age, our workplace experience is more extensive than the Millennials, but more relevant and recent than the Boomers.

I’d like to extend an intergenerational olive branch and find some common ground based on real world experience. As the founder of a 300-plus person company with a growing percentage of Gen Z employees—and the father of three children who qualify as Gen Z—I have a personal stake and vested interest in the success and happiness of this generation.

With that said, I feel compelled to share why I believe the things graduating Gen Zers believe they want from their employers won’t actually make them happy at work. Let’s talk about why.

Referring back to the survey data referenced above, one thing the various items on this list have in common is that none of them have any proven relationship with what creates high engagement and satisfaction at work.

To illustrate this, I’d ask any Gen Z reader this question: would you choose to work at an organization that allows full-time virtual work, takes stands on social issues, provides cryptocurrency compensation and offers free mental health counseling, but requires you to work 80 hours a week on work you don’t enjoy, for a toxic boss? I have to believe the answer is no for most of you, and for those who said yes, you would likely find yourself quickly burning out despite appearing to have everything you want.

Now, to any Gen Z readers still with me here, I understand why you’re rolling your eyes. But I’m not trying to tell you what you should want from your workplace or convince you that everything you think you want is wrong. Instead, I’m just looking critically at the preferences you’ve shared and positing that you may be putting the cart before the horse.

Let’s address the points in this poll, one at a time.

Mental Health Support

Mental health is quickly becoming one of the greatest challenges of our era. A Harvard study found that 61 percent of adults experience loneliness on a regular basis, which contributes to a commensurate rise in anxiety and depression. These mental challenges are most acute for younger people—a whopping 44 percent of college students report experiencing symptoms of clinical depression. While members of every generation experience issues with self-esteem and self-worth at a young age, it’s clear these problems are more severe for Gen Z.

While it’s understandable that many young employees want their organizations to cater to their mental health needs—47 percent of Gen Z respondents in the survey above stated they expected mental health support from their employer—there is a right and wrong way to bring mental health into the workplace. Many might envision a major investment in mental health from their company, such as a professional therapist on staff for employees to visit as needed, as depicted in the popular television show Ted Lasso.

Indeed, it might seem great to meet with a therapist with the ease of scheduling a meeting with a coworker. Unfortunately, there are many pragmatic issues that make this type of arrangement impractical, if not impossible, for all but the largest and most sophisticated businesses. A company that directly offers mental health services opens itself up to liabilities, or even lawsuits, and there are serious potential conflicts of interest as well.

For an example of the latter, imagine if the company’s therapist ends up working with several members of a team at once or, even worse, works with both an employee and their manager. What if the company therapist learns something about the employee that is likely to have an impact on their job, or discovers that the employee is looking to leave the organization? Do they have a duty to report to the employee’s manager or company? As you can imagine, this arrangement can get messy quickly.

Gen Z employees also want to integrate mental healthcare into the workplace by being granted the opportunity to talk openly about mental health at work—again, 43 percent of Gen Z respondents referenced wanting this. While people should be encouraged to bring their full selves to work and be able to get support when they’re struggling, it might not be the best idea to rely on your manager or peers to be your primary mental health lifeline.

I’ve witnessed how open discussions of mental health issues in the workplace can have unintended consequences, even if all parties involved have good intentions. At an all-company event a few years ago, an expert facilitator led our team through an intense vulnerability exercise that prompted deep emotional sharing between team members. While the session was cathartic and strengthened interpersonal bonds, we had trouble putting the genie back into the bottle. In the days that followed, some managers had their employees sharing intense mental health challenges they simply weren’t equipped to handle.

Companies can and should support their employees’ mental health without being the front line of support in that area or expecting managers to become amateur therapists. It’s better for organizations to give employees the space and time they need to fit a regular therapy appointment into their work schedule, take mental health days when they need them, or make time in the day for exercise, meditation, mental breaks or whatever else they need to stay balanced. Most companies can’t solve mental health challenges for employees, but they can give the time and space necessary to tend to those issues.

Good managers and leaders help here as well. There’s a middle ground between a leader who doubles as your therapist and one who doesn’t care about you and makes you feel terrible about yourself or your work. A great manager or leader should care about you personally, be invested in helping you grow in and out of work, check in on your mental health and encourage you to take time for self-care where necessary. With that said, the actual mental healthcare services are best left to licensed professionals and not tied to your workplace directly.

Social Issues

Gen Z is passionate and vocal about social justice, perhaps more so than any generation that proceeded them. For example, the survey cited at the beginning of the article found that 41 percent of Gen Z employees want their company to be engaged in social causes they support. And while it’s fair to want to work with people who are passionate about the same social causes as you, this is a complicated topic—and a double-edged sword.

For example, how would you want your company to handle the causes your colleagues care about that you don’t support? Doesn’t inclusion require a company and its leaders to be open to a broad set of viewpoints?

The truth is that it is very difficult for a company to represent the full range of stances that employees hold. Even in cases where employees agree there is a problem, they may not agree on the solution. Additionally, when a company chooses to speak out on some issues, but not others, that can alienate employees who wonder why their closely held issue did not receive an “official” company response.

There are just too many important issues happening around the world for organizations to be expected to take an official company position on all causes employees care about. In many cases, this is the reason many companies are reticent to speak out specifically on social issues, not apathy or support for injustice.

Rather than expecting an organization to articulate a position on every issue and respond to every headline, Gen Zers should look for workplaces that advocate for employees, support them and give them a platform and voice. Companies can give employees the time, support and resources they need to advocate for the causes they are passionate about, provide paid-time-off for employees to do volunteer work, make charitable donation matches and create employee affinity groups.

While Gen Z has come of age in a world where every issue is litigated verbally in real time on social media, it’s crucial to remember that actions speak louder than words and that great organizations always prioritize outcomes, not press releases. The actions a company takes, or empowers their employees to take, on social issues often drive more change than any social media statement or stance.

Virtual Work

As the founder of a 100 percent remote organization, I’m not surprised at, nor in disagreement with, the survey’s finding that 31 percent of Gen Z employees want virtual interaction to be the norm, rather than the exception. However, I’d issue a note of caution: a generation that is concerned with improving their mental health should not be overly reliant on digital connection.

One issue with a virtual-only approach is screen-time. Zoom fatigue is real, and studies have found a link between more screen time and a greater risk of depression and anxiety. Even as a major proponent of remote work, I acknowledge that most people’s best professional memories won’t be on Zoom; they will be from connecting with people in person.

Laughing with a colleague at dinner, winning a big in-person sales pitch, or bonding at a company or leadership offsite are the events that will create lasting memories and strengthen your bonds with colleagues. There’s a reason even fully remote companies invest in big in-person all-company events each year—they’re necessary to team cohesion and employee happiness. If a workplace promises you virtual interaction, make sure to ask if they supplement that with meaningful in-person connection opportunities as well, even if you think you don’t need it.

Cryptocurrency Compensation

Of everything on the list of Gen Z preferences, I was most surprised to learn that 22 percent of employees want to be paid in cryptocurrency. I can almost guarantee that being paid in cryptocurrency won’t actually make you any happier at work, especially during declines like the one we saw recently that evaporated $300 billion in value in an instant. Crypto payment is also likely to be taxed in real dollars.

At the risk of being blunt, I’d offer the following advice: if you believe in cryptocurrency, just buy it with your paycheck that doesn’t fluctuate week-to-week. I can’t imagine an employee asking to be paid in Netflix stock; if they believe Netflix stock is a great investment, they would just buy it themselves. And frankly, if a company is offering cryptocurrency as part of a compensation package, it’s probably just a gimmick that’s aimed to position the company as hip. Don’t fall for it—getting paid in cryptocurrency won’t be worth much if you hate your boss and coworkers.

What Really Matters

Few things are more disappointing than getting everything you think you want from your workplace and discovering you’re still unfulfilled or unhappy. Ensuring your workplace preferences are actually tied to deeper fulfillment is an essential step.

While Gen X hardly has all the answers, I’ve been around the block a few times in the working world. And after over 25 years of professional experience, including leading a business with employees from several generations, I’ve come to learn that the following things are what really bring happiness in the workplace:

  • Flexibility: This is a more recent trend, particularly due to the pandemic-pushed rise of remote work. Increasingly more workplaces give employees the opportunity to set a work schedule that works for them. They may not get involved in your mental health or personal fulfillment, but they’ll give you time and space to prioritize those things in your life outside of work.
  • Fair Compensation: It doesn’t matter whether your company pays you in cryptocurrency, NFTs, options or frequent flyer miles. What matters is that they pay you fairly and based on your market value.
  • Learning and Growth Opportunities: New York Times bestselling author Daniel Pink found that mastery is one of the core pillars of intrinsic motivation. In other words, people want more than a job that pays their bills; they want a role where they can learn and grow, advance to higher levels in their field and ultimately master their professional craft. That’s probably why LinkedIn found that 94 percent of employees say they’d stay at a job longer if given more opportunities to learn. No one wants to stagnate, especially early in their career.
  • Great Teammates: Even if your company gives you almost everything you could hope for, no one wants to work with a bunch of a-holes. Most people want colleagues who care about them as people, who they can build genuine relationships with, and who care about doing their jobs well—and don’t leave their teammates hanging. Plus, it helps if the company makes a concerted effort to bring everyone in the company together for meaningful in-person connection.
  • Mission and Values: Most people want to get some form of meaning from their work. This could mean working for an organization with a mission you find personally resonant or societally valuable. It could also mean working for a company with core values that broadly align with your personal core values. Your company doesn’t need to opine on or solve all the world’s problems for you to be happy at work—but shared values allow you to show up for work each day knowing what the company stands for and give you energy to live your values both inside and outside of work.
  • Good Management and Leadership: If you’re just starting out in the workforce or preparing to graduate, it’s possible you’ve never had to work for a terrible boss. Trust me, there’s a reason why the number one reason people leave their jobs is due to unhappiness with their manager: nothing deflates your professional fulfillment and personal happiness more than waking up every workday knowing you have to deal with a terrible manager. Conversely, when you have a manager who mentors you, gives you space to work, helps you learn from mistakes and accelerates your development, you will be excited to show up each day, even if you are paid in boring old cash.

All generations want different things from life. However, the qualities listed above have largely stood the test of time since office work became a dominant professional path. What’s striking is that none of these job characteristics are reflected in the preferences shared by Gen Z college students—except perhaps the connection to mission and values, which ties somewhat to the desire for employers to take a stand on social issues.

The good news for Gen Z is that there’s a growing trend that enables all these qualities: work-life integration. Work-life integration is best understood through the metaphor of a puzzle: the pieces of work and life fit well together, but there are still clear boundaries between the two. This differs from the more common notion of work-life balance, which describes the often unrealistic goal of trying to keep a perfect 50/50 balance between work and life every day.

Graduates and new employees may benefit from shifting their expectations of what a company can do for them, especially at a career stage where they have limited experience. If you expect your company to solve all your problems for you or be a conduit for many of your personal needs and interests, you’re going to end up disappointed, no matter where you work. I love my job, but let’s face it, some days work is work.

Instead, look for a workplace that provides an environment where you can do great work, grow your career, be held accountable and coached, and be given the flexibility to live your best life outside work.

Work and life should be integrated, not combined or muddled. I know I prefer to keep my personal life out of the workplace and leave my work in my home office, and whether they realize it or not I think most generations want the same at the end of the day. Everything else is often just noise that keeps those high-priced consultants busy.

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