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How the Past Year Reshaped Millennial and Gen Z Perspectives on Work

published12 months ago
4 min read

For the younger generations in the workforce, the events of the past year have been life-changing in a multitude of ways. The pandemic caused millennials and Gen Zs to rethink what truly matters to them, a mindset shift which has had an enormous impact on their perspectives on work. At the same time, tumultuous racial, social, and economic events unfolded around them, reinforcing their desire to make a difference and to work for an employer that’s committed to driving broader societal change.

Business leaders who want to attract and retain these talented, ambitious, and passionate employees would do well to note how their expectations have evolved over the past year. Many leaders I’ve spoken with confirm that they’re already seeing a shift within their own organizations, and they’re adjusting their strategies, policies, and even their culture to meet the demands of these young workers.

Of course, it’s important not to stereotype employees based on their generation — every individual is shaped by innumerable factors and life experiences. However, by examining the broader trends at play, employers can glean some insight about best to adapt in the face of uncertainty and constant change. Keeping the caveat about stereotypes in mind, let’s explore how millennial and Gen Z workplace expectations have changed and why employers need to adapt:

With work no longer a central part of their identity, they’re demanding flexibility to support their personal lives.

One of the silver linings of the pandemic is that it gave people the opportunity to spend more time focusing on things that really matter, like family, friends, hobbies, and personal interests. No longer tied to an office or a 9-5 schedule, many workers were also able to reflect on their purpose and goals in life. One study found that health, fitness, and spending quality time with family have emerged as key priorities for Gen Z, replacing pre-COVID priorities of having a successful career and making a lot of money.

Given this shift, it’s no surprise that millennial and Gen Z workers are among those clamoring for a hybrid approach after the pandemic. Nearly all (90%) of these employees do not want to return to the office full-time, and for companies who don’t offer flexible arrangements the consequences could be significant. A May survey for Bloomberg News found that 49% of millennials and Gen Z would consider quitting if their employers weren’t flexible about remote work. Part of the reason for this, as I’ll describe next, is their desire to regain control of their mental health.

They want support for their mental health, and they won’t accept high levels of workplace burnout and stress.

Even well before the pandemic, mental health was a top priority for younger generations. A 2019 study, for example, discovered that half of millennials and 75% of Gen Z workers have left jobs for mental health reasons. However, COVID-19 exacerbated many of the underlying factors causing mental health issues for these workers. Research from my firm Workplace Intelligence and Oracle confirms that compared to older generations, younger generations have struggled the most over the past year, with Gen Z and millennials working harder, feeling more stressed, and experiencing the most burnout.

While the worst of the pandemic may be behind us, Deloitte’s latest study on millennial and Gen Z expectations found that 41% of millennials and 46% of Gen Zs still feel stressed all or most of the time. Their report also highlighted that 4 out of 10 respondents say their employers don’t have policies in place to help support their mental health. Companies, therefore, need to continue their efforts in this space if they want to keep their workforce healthy and avoid losing their top talent.

Jen Fisher, Deloitte Chief Well-being Officer and author of Work Better Together: How to Cultivate Strong Relationships to Maximize Well-Being and Boost Bottom Lines, agrees with this assessment. “The pandemic put a spotlight on mental health, but the results of the Deloitte Global 2021 Millennial and Gen Z Survey show that there is a lot more work that needs to be done in the workplace to reduce stigma, increase awareness, and provide greater mental health support,” she notes. “As employees go back to the office or move to a hybrid work model, leaders that put mental health at the top of their agenda will better position their people and their organization to thrive during this transition.”

Their expectations around corporate responsibility are as high as ever, but they worry that employers are only focused on the pandemic.

Millennials and Gen Z have long been known for their activism around a wide range of issues, from protecting the environment to promoting greater diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) at work and in society. Not surprisingly, their priorities shifted slightly this year. Deloitte found that healthcare / disease prevention edged out other issues to take the top spot in their list of concerns — but by just 1%.

While less than 14% of millennials and Gen Z expect post-pandemic declines in corporate social responsibility, the outlook is still far from ideal — fewer than half see business as a force for good in society and many worry that businesses are abandoning their efforts in certain areas. For example, 60% of these young workers fear that businesses will deprioritize their commitment to reversing climate change and improving the environment as they deal with ongoing issues around the pandemic.

At the same time, George Floyd’s murder, the Black Lives Matter movement, and other sociopolitical events reignited these generations’ desire to work for a company that prioritizes DE&I. Research from Glassdoor revealed that 76% of employees and job seekers believe a diverse workforce is important when evaluating companies and job offers, and 37% wouldn’t apply to a company that had negative satisfaction ratings among people of color.

Not ready to adapt? Then don’t be surprised if your millennial and Gen Z team members seek out employment elsewhere.

I’ve highlighted several statistics that underscore just how willing these young workers are to leave an employer that isn’t meeting their needs and expectations. In fact, Deloitte’s research shows that overall job loyalty among these generations peaked in 2020, prior to pandemic. Now, over one-third (36%) of millennials and over half (53%) of Gen Zs expect to leave their employer within the next two years.

It’s safe to say that we’re at a critical turning point for businesses and employees alike. The events of the past year have provided a strong impetus for broader workplace and societal change, but it’s up to employers to drive that change forward. Those that do will reap the benefits of attracting and retaining not just millennials and Gen Z, but all generations of talent.