By Katie Bartlett
If you’re a manager today, you’re likely managing Gen Z workers, and asking yourself: What does Gen Z want at work? As Marketing advisor Chantel Adams says on TikTok, “Simply put, the same things you wanted once upon a time before you decided to surrender.”
Those things include empathy, kind, clear, specific, and sincere feedback, strong and engaged working relationships, a diverse work environment, as well as coaching, mentorship and career development.
Basically, Gen Z wants Radical Candor — a feedback framework based on caring personally and challenging directly that helps managers build strong relationships, develop their teams and create a virtuous cycle of transparent communication rooted in common human decency.
“The best feedback is caring and thoughtful even when it’s negative. When it’s clear that their harshness is because they’re so invested in what I’m doing, it drives me to actually want to implement the feedback.” — Cole Quist
What Gen Z doesn’t want is to perpetuate hustle culture. The Wall Street Journal recently shared a clip from a conversation with Scott Galloway, the author, podcaster, and professor of marketing at NYU Stern School of Business, that included some advice for young people about how to succeed in life.
Galloway’s “You should never be home … Home is for seven hours of sleep and that’s it,” directive unleashed a torrent of rebuke from Gen Z commenters.
Gen Zers perceived the video as “out of touch,” revealing the degree to which Gen Z feels alienated from the worldview and assumptions of generations that came before — one being that Gen Z is difficult to work with, according to a recent survey.
From Gen X “slackers” to “entitled” Millennials, let’s not forget that every generation gets labeled (and is offered unsolicited advice) when they enter the workforce, and Gen Zers are no different.
Who are Gen Z?
Born between the late ’90s and early 2010s, Gen Zers are the first generation to have grown up entirely in the era of smartphones and social media; they came of age during a global pandemic and have been handed an urgent climate crisis that will have profound effects on their lives.
Now, they have earned — or are in the process of earning — their degrees and entering the post-pandemic workforce. Their values, and in turn what they want in the workplace, reflect the world they grew up in.
There is no doubt that Gen Z has been both driven and affected by the increasing awareness of social justice issues. They have been outspoken about racism, sexual harassment, gender identity and climate change. Meanwhile, increasing levels of economic insecurity make upward mobility feel impossible to a generation that is just starting to build their careers.
COVID-19 has only exacerbated these concerns. According to the Pew Research Center, half of the oldest members of Gen Z report that they or someone in their household had lost a job or taken a cut in pay because of the pandemic. This rate was significantly higher than Millenials (40%), Gen Xers (36%) and Baby Boomers (25%) who said the same.
Gen Z at Work: What the Numbers Reveal
All of these factors take their toll. In Cigna International Health’s 2023 survey, 91% of 18–24-year-old workers around the world reported being stressed compared to an average of 84%. The same data shows that even though many of them are just getting started, almost the entirety (98%) of the generation is already burned out.
This sense of ambivalence marks how this generation feels toward their work. A 2022 Gallup survey found that 54% percent of Gen Z feel no desire to engage in their work. And this seems to affect their work relationships, too. The survey also found that most young workers don’t feel a connection to their coworkers, manager or employer.
These negative feelings inevitably translate into a relationship with work that looks markedly different from that of their predecessors. Gen Z doesn’t have the same connection and drive to work found in workers of previous generations.
“Work shouldn’t consume your life or become entirely who you are. You should be able to leave your job at the end of the workday and not feel like it’s pulling you back in outside of your working hours.” — Jamie Smith
A Deloitte study found that 61% of Gen Z consider work to be a significant part of their identity, compared to 86% of their bosses.
The Gen Zers I spoke to confirm this.
“I am very much of the mindset that I should be leaving my work at school at the end of the day. I don’t want to be thinking about it at home or letting it infiltrate my personal life,” Lydia Anderson, a 23-year-old early childhood educator from Philadelphia, says.
“Work shouldn’t consume your life or become entirely who you are. You should be able to leave your job at the end of the workday and not feel like it’s pulling you back in outside of your working hours,” Jamie Smith, a 20-year-old string instrument repairperson from Boston, says.
Entering the workforce for the first time at this moment is not easy. Yet, there are four things that you can do as a boss to connect with your Gen Z employees, making them feel respected, empowered and engaged.
What Does Gen Z Want at Work?
1. Empathy (Not the Ruinous Kind)
“People enter their fields feeling fairly pessimistic because you don’t hear a lot of good news about the world. If other generations could understand that the lack of desire to work is coming from that place instead of a place of selfishness and entitlement, we might be able to start bridging generational gaps,” Cole Quist, a 23-year-old architecture intern working in Vancouver, Canada, says.
As Quist’s comment reflects, empathy is key in mitigating this pessimism. In fact, Gen Z views it as a condition for engagement in the workplace, ranking it as the second most important trait in a boss behind mental health awareness.
“Seeking real connection with the Gen Z employee, understanding their values and what motivates them, will help them integrate into the workplace,” Dr. Paul Napper, a management psychology expert, says.
Asking questions — what they think, how they feel, what’s on their mind — and listening to their answers help employees feel respected, and thus interested in doing their work well.
This is called caring personally about the people who work for you and it’s one of the principles of Radical Candor.
“Let me be clear. I refuse to work with people who can’t be bothered to show basic human decency,” Radical Candor author and co-founder Kim Scott says.
The Deloitte study notes that one in three Gen Zers report not feeling cared for at work and that employee retention is as simple as treating people like human beings.
“Gen Zers who feel cared for at work are 3.3x more likely to look forward to coming to work and are less likely to have plans to leave their job,” the study says.
2. Clear Communication
“When my boss was new, she was very vague and passive when giving instructions. It meant that progress was very slow, and we’d ultimately have to stay late to finish tasks that would have moved faster if we had been given more direction,” Anderson says.
Clarity and openness are also essential in helping Gen Z workers (and indeed all workers) navigate the uncertainty that comes with the post-pandemic job climate. Specifics are important: Knowing exactly what is expected of them allows them to do a better job while learning more in the process.
Gen Z workers also seek to make “a significant contribution” to the workplace, according to Dr. Napper. Without context, tasks can feel meaningless, and explaining the greater purpose or role that their assignments will play in the long-term project or company goals helps Gen Z find connection and excitement in their work.
And combining this clarity and specificity with a sincere, caring attitude also becomes essential to radically candid feedback.
“The best feedback is caring and thoughtful even when it’s negative. When it’s clear that their harshness is because they’re so invested in what I’m doing, it drives me to actually want to implement the feedback,” Quist says.
3. Commitment to Diversity
Almost 50% of Gen Z individuals are “racial or ethnic minorities.” One in six Gen Zers identify as either transgender or queer. And this group expects employers to support and foster their diversity. A recent study found that 83% of Gen Z individuals view an employer’s commitment to diversity and inclusion as a significant factor in job selection.
“We want to feel valued, and we want the work to be equitable. Too often we’re stuck doing the work of a higher-up white person who is unqualified or not doing their work, yet we still get passed over for opportunities to move up.” — Lydia Anderson
Despite these numbers, Harvard Business Review reported that only 5% of Black employees receive executive sponsorship, compared to 20% of white employees. A Black manager is 65% more likely to advance in leadership if they have a sponsor, and is 60% less likely to quit than their peers without sponsors. The advocacy and support that sponsors bring allow Black employees to “reach for risky goals without fear of being fired.”
To fill this gap, Employee Resource Groups, voluntary, employee-led groups for people with a shared characteristic, are becoming increasingly popular, and remain an important tool for underrepresented groups in the workplace.
ERGs allow workers to feel connected and advocate for their needs together, decreasing feelings of isolation in the workplace. And when employees have a space where they can discuss together, suppressed frustrations are less likely to fester, and company-wide issues can be tackled.
“We want to feel valued, and we want the work to be equitable. Too often we’re stuck doing the work of a higher-up white person who is unqualified or not doing their work, yet we still get passed over for opportunities to move up,” Anderson says.
Gender inclusivity also remains an important factor for employees. More than half of Gen Zers support more gender-neutral options on forms and 35% say they know someone who uses they/them pronouns. Gender inclusive policies — gender neutral bathroom and uniform options, using preferred names and pronouns — have become increasingly important to Gen Z, as has evidence that their managers are on their side.
“I work with a lot of people whose first languages are heavily gendered Romance languages so there’s been a difficulty with my [they/them] pronouns. I get tired of explaining how to talk to a trans person myself, so it was really amazing when my boss was willing to do it for me,” Smith says.
And the benefits of these initiatives extend to the company as a whole. A wider range of perspectives and insight leads to new ideas and solutions. The World Economic Forum’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion report found that diverse workforces enjoy 20% more creativity and 19% higher revenue from innovation.
4. Strong Relationships
“Your ability to build trusting, human connections with the people who report directly to you will determine the quality of everything that follows,” Scott notes in Radical Candor. “Relationships, not power, drive you forward.”
Ultimately, building relationships is the key to providing Gen Z with the resources they need to thrive in the workplace.
Asking questions, and learning your employees’ goals and needs creates a culture of openness that will aid in keeping Gen Z — as well as Gen Xers, Millenials and Baby Boomers — engaged and excited to get stuff done at work.
Katie Bartlett is a junior at the University of Pennsylvania studying history and journalism. At Penn, Katie enjoys being a reporter and editor for the Daily Pennsylvanian and tutoring elementary school students in the West Philly public schools. In her free time, Katie can be found hiking or hanging out with her two cats.
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