Prepare for the Future: Understand the Young Workforce

By Ruth Ballard

As the oldest members of Generation Z turn 25 this year, the highly populous age group is beginning to make up a significant portion of the professional workforce. With several recent cultural shifts changing young people’s perspectives on working life, businesses are struggling to attract and retain these younger workers. Older generations have expressed frustration with recruitment difficulties, seeing Gen-Z demands for flexible hours, comprehensive benefits, and an emphasis on well-being as somewhat entitled. This frustration may be due to a larger misunderstanding of the younger generation’s motivations. By grasping what drives younger workers, we can get a clearer picture of what the future of work may look like: not an unmotivated workforce, but a satisfied and sustainable one.

First, let's position ourselves in the present. Millennials, the oldest of whom are now 41, are being appointed to managerial and hiring positions across industries with increasing frequency. While Millennials’ common work values align closely with Gen-Z, they may still misunderstand the context of inexperienced workers’ seemingly high expectations. Millennials find themselves at the intersection between more experienced generations, traditionally motivated by compensation, and a newer working generation, motivated by well-being and social values. Though generational categories do not account for everyone’s perspective, they give us tools to analyze and understand broader age-based trends. Unpacking these motivations can help us strategize reasonable ways to accommodate all: recognizing that generations share more similarities than differences and promoting cross-generational recruitment and retention for years to come.

According to Deloitte, Gen-Z applicants value compensation and salary less than any other age group on average. Instead, Gen-Z are motivated by a variety of workplace attributes previously seen as “perks”, or less valuable employee incentives. Gen-Z, like Millennials, place a high value on flexible work models and work-life balance. In many ways, the early working lives of both generations have seen parallel challenges. While many Millennials began their careers in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, a large number of Gen-Z graduated into an uncertain economy due to the 2020 pandemic. The uncertainty of the former crisis meant Millennials, though desiring increased wellbeing through workplace benefits, felt it necessary to emphasize job security above other incentives. Millennials were frequently the first to be laid off or moved to part-time work due to their lack of seniority, leading to long-term career anxiety and stagnated career growth. In contrast, current circumstances and a transition to remote work models have allowed Gen-Zto leverage their position and motivations more effectively.

So, what exactly do young workers want? Trends show that young people are driven by value-based motivations. Millennials and Gen-Z alike have expressed desires for more personal time and increased emphasis on mental health. They also find employers invested in global citizenship appealing, seeking meaningful commitments to address climate change, diversity, and a variety of other social issues. But outside of these broader values, younger workers care deeply about the meaning behind their work. Gen-Z seek employers who care about their autonomy and development, and who emphasize the big-picture purpose behind each task. Like all employees, Gen-Z want to feel that the work they are doing is valuable. They want independence to complete tasks on their terms and guidance from senior colleagues to help develop their skills.

While remote work models and other popular recruitment incentives can be attractive to young people, an emphasis on flexibility, employee wellbeing, and professional development can be achieved in a variety of ways. Forward-thinking employers must understand that to attract young employees, any vision for their organization must include employee interests. By communicating with individual team members, employers can determine the best schedules, work styles, and development strategies to motivate employees of all ages. When organizations create and support adaptable work environments, they promote both independent and team-based success. By giving employees more authority and input on workplace matters, organizations won’t just attract value-driven young people: they will create a stronger, more effective workplace dynamic for all.

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