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COVID-19, Millennials, Gen-Z and the future of work - a system change is needed

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez February 15, 2021
The system of ‘work’ was somewhat broken for younger generations already. COVID-19 has reinforced that view in many ways. How will Millennials and Gen-Z shape the future of work?

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(Image by StartupStockPhotos from Pixabay )

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the impact on work has been well documented. A shift to distributed workforces and an increase in the use of digital tech has potentially changed what the future ‘office' might look like for decades to come. However, there has been less analysis on what the pandemic will mean for the systems of work going forward, particularly for Millennial and Gen-Z workers (those born between approximately 1981 and 2012). 

What do I mean by the ‘systems' of work? Well, much of the discourse up until now has focused on the practicalities of getting work done in a distributed way e.g. collaboration tools, virtual training, hiring remotely etc. However, there has been little discussion on how the systems of work will work for younger generations, whom I would argue already had a sense that those systems didn't work for them in the first place. 

The opportunities - or lack thereof - for Millennial and Gen-Z workers have been well documented. Salaries for this age group are 20% down on what their parents (baby boomers) earned during the same period of their lives. The gig economy, which is disproportionately made up of younger workers, offers less security. Education debts have increased. House ownership, which has allowed previous generations to accumulate wealth, is out of reach for the majority. And to top it all off, many have lived through the financial crisis and are now living through a global pandemic. 

In other words, prior to the onset of COVID-19 there was already an awareness that the system of reward for hard work was not tilted in favour of young and aspiring employees. Many of us understood that we had to opt into the system regardless, but there was a definite sense that the system was unfair. The opportunities seemed slim. 

Boomers wonder why so many young people are viewing the ‘influencer' economy as a viable one? Why wouldn't an influencer - as awful as I think the profession is on an ethical level - opt for a quick buck online from corporations seeking cultural relevance, when the alternative has so few redeeming options? 

I should state that this piece is based on research, anecdotal evidence, conversations over the past year and a general sense that the world of work isn't thinking about how to create an environment that is beneficial for the younger generation, which is set to make up over 50% of the workforce by 2025. 

Boomers resisting change

I've seen quite a few examples in recent weeks of people online - of the baby boomer generation - desperately asking when things will ‘return to normal'. For that generation there appears to be more willingness to go back to an office more frequently and that there's a sense that something has been lost from work life in the COVID-19 economy. 

Again, I'd argue that that's partly because the system pre-COVID-19 was one that worked effectively for that generation. Being ‘seen' often provided helpful professional networks and a path up the corporate ladder - even if negative consequences felt from the financial crisis had an impact in the short term. This is coupled with a desire to continue pursuing personal plans (home ownership, work, family, career status) that benefited them within this previous system. 

However, Gen-Z and Millennial employees were already seeking more flexible working arrangements, prior to COVID-19. Study after study has highlighted how this age group sought freedom from a rigid 9 to 5. This initially meant more creative physical workplace environments (co-working, bars, time to pursue social/personal endeavours etc), but has since been replaced by the freedom to work from home and balance their personal lives with their careers. 

There was an awareness that work in many situations wasn't going to provide the long-term benefits and security that the previous generations experienced, so there had to be other benefits to being at work.

There's a couple of caveats here - lots of people in this age group don't live in spacious homes they own and are often sharing their living environments with other professionals working at home. It's unclear how this will play out in the long-term, but it's likely that once again flexibility will be key. Whether that's the ability to work remotely full time from locations that offer cheaper rental opportunities, or the ability to come into an office as and when they choose. In addition I'm mostly talking about corporate work here, as the gig economy and sectors such as hospitality have a whole different set of problems. 

One thing I'm certain of though is that the pandemic has cemented for younger generations that the old way of doing things is not going to be optimal for them going forward. 

Understanding Gen Z and Millennial workers

I won't labour this point, as there is plenty of research out there already, but it's clear that there are key differences between the boomer workforce and Millennials/Gen-Zers (and even between Millennials and Gen-Z). But some of the ones worth remembering are: 

  • Values matter. These younger generations more often than not don't want to work for ‘big evil corp', no matter what the remuneration will be. Diversity, inclusion, climate awareness, sustainability, purpose - all these things are vital.

  • They're online and they're social. These generations have grown up with the internet and interacting online comes naturally to them/us. Video conferencing and online collaboration are second nature, so a shift to distributed work isn't hard if the right tools are available. 

  • Outcomes focused, but a desire for autonomy. Being a cog in the wheel of the big corporate machine often isn't enough for these generations. My sense is that they want to work towards outcomes that matter and be given the autonomy to figure out how to get there. 

  • Personal development and a sense of self. It used to be the case that it was the brand that mattered - ‘I work for X brand that is internationally renowned' was enough kudos to see you through. That's not necessarily true anymore. With the rise of individual profiles on social media, people want to be seen to be relevant in the development of a company/economy and they want to be known for the work they are doing themselves, not just as a company lemming. 

Figuring out a system that works for this generation

I've had numerous Gen-Z and Millennial workers feed back to me that the COVID-19 pandemic has reinforced their view that ‘work' is not as big a part of their identity as other areas of their lives. If work isn't going to be central to supporting their personal lives (again - home ownership, high flying careers), then they are going to treat it as a means to an end. In effect, they see it as a way to support other parts of their identity. 

This will only accelerate as the physical environment of work becomes less of a factor and employees aren't ‘with' their work for X number of hours a week. One person said to me:

WFH has stripped away a massive part of work being my identity. Getting up, getting dressed and commuting made it feel as though my life centered around my job. With WFH the lines are blurred and I've found more time to focus on my life outside of work. I look at my office job now as more of a job than any form of status. 

I look to my job for income now rather than large amounts of fulfilment or life satisfaction. It's still important but not a big priority. 

Another person said: 

I went from being a money hungry recruiter to broke and running a charity, I think it made a lot of people realise the importance in human connection rather than just chasing the next big cheque.

I also can't imagine many people accepting 9-5 Mon-Fri as being the norm now either, we are so accustomed to flexibility

Whilst another added:

Workplace treatment is more important to me than ever - in the past I'd just deal with bad things, but now I refuse to accept mistreatment, etc.

It's also more important to have time to myself. I want to finish work and not think about all the work I have tomorrow.

Why this is important

If this younger generation of workers feels like the systems that have been created before them are not working in their favour, this will have untold consequences on future economies. You can't just rely on people opting in because they have to, for your business to thrive. We've seen what happened when companies assumed that their current position of power is unchallengeable because of ‘history' and continued along with the status quo and ignored digital. 

I'd imagine that a lot of older generations might be reading this, rolling their eyes and thinking this Gen-Z and Millennial lot are self entitled and should just get on with it. I'd counter that those generations should consider that younger workers hold far fewer prospects within the current system and are simply dissatisfied with the options that lie before them. They're figuring out what works for them best given the current options. 

There's no clear answer to this, as the challenge exists beyond an organisation's four walls. The economy itself is structurally set up to broaden inequality across generational/racial/and systemic lines. But what I do know is that Millennials and Gen-Z are keen to put in the work to drive change that they think is necessary and it's better to be part of that change, rather than to hope it doesn't impact you. 

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