Everyone’s talking about Andi Owen. During a recorded virtual town hall last month, a clip of the MillerKnoll CEO went viral, in which she’s seen calmly addressing concern over whether workers would receive a bonus. Abruptly, the scales of Owen’s composure begin to tip, and her temper flares: “You can visit Pity City, but you can’t live there. So, people, leave Pity City! Let’s get it done.”
In the ensuing days, two conflicting mindsets emerged that seem to illuminate a greater generational workplace divide.
Social media sentiment among younger people is uneasy—are bosses of Generation Z workers everywhere secretly chiding them, too, for their seemingly unrealistic (if not infuriating) expectations? Meanwhile, tenured workers in Owen’s age group cheer her on: “Good for her! I also wish young people would just DO THEIR JOBS,” they tweet and trill.
Gen Z workers, more than the millennial demographic cohort preceding them, seem to be particularly head-scratching for older workers—earning a reputation for their unwillingness to work and their high, “woke” demands.
Gen Z, idiomatically known as the “Zoomers” that precede Generation Alpha, can be clocked by birth years in the mid-to-late 1990s, ending in the early 2010s. (Most are also the children of Gen X).
While millennials popularized workplace expectations around fun and increased work/life integration, Gen Z seems to have creative aspirations that are more independent and financially driven—they expect strongsalaries, hefty raises and work that’s soldered to their unique sense of purpose. They are demanding to be compensated for their perceived value early. Or they’ll walk.
We shouldn’t be surprised, of course. The cost of a four-year education has doubled in the United States since 1992, yet average entry-level salaries have stayed about the same.
As a result, students graduating with that four-year degree are earning about 23% less than they expect out of college. The long-unexamined, inflexible work week is their challenge to be met.
While traveling last week, my Uber driver, who was 24, told me he’d left his job as a forensic examiner to drive for Uber because it pays him three times as much annually, and he drives only four hours per day (making early-morning airport runs only), leaving him the remainder of his day to work on the launch of his own business, which he’ll open this August. I told him he was smart.
And yet, I caught my Gen X self giving advice later that day about the value of gritting through a few things we don’t love to earn the credibility and gravitas to demand the things that we do from our employers. That’s also smart. And I realize, perhaps, anathema for our newest workplace cohort—evoking ideas of the asbestos (nee: glass) ceiling, in which younger workers look up the ladder, and say, “Ew. No thanks.”
So, how might we better merge our experience and expectations for the greatest good?
◗ First, let’s measure what matters. The best proxy for your people’s value is their measured ability to produce the results their job requires, not the amount of face time in the office or the number of performed keystrokes. I recently met a young woman who confessed to setting a small piece of quartz on her space bar to circumvent her boss’s backlash that comes when her Microsoft Teams dot isn’t green.
If you’re trying to hack old-world lead indicators of success to make sure these kids are working, stop. It breeds mistrust at best. Begin to better engage Gen Z workers by explicitly measuring their impact.
◗ Second, what do you pay your office for? The winning present-day answer: meaningful connection. If you run a flexible work environment, make sure you’re calling people into the office for intentional face time.
If you are asking people to take off their sweatpants, commute and come in just so they can send emails from a different (less-convenient) location, stop. Only 9% of workers are anticipated to be fully onsite this year, with 59% hybrid. Younger generations make up most of these groups.
◗ Maximize in-person time: Allow Gen Z to eavesdrop (remember the way we all learned?), shadow, tackle special projects and collaborate face to face. They need to be shown, not just told. Doing is more important than saying, anyway.
For the last 15 years, organizations have tended to favor new hires who are driven and entrepreneurial. But as economies slow, the trend swings toward an expectation for people to fall in line, stabilize and “get it done,” as Owen put it. Behaviorally, these are at odds. You can’t put your eagles in a cage and expect them not to lose their feathers.
Still, Owen’s backlash illuminates the recurring and predictable generational cycle, in which none of us is immune to the confines of our programming.
If Owen wants folks to leave Pity City, she’ll need to build a more magnetic alternative. For Gen Z, “Work-Work-Work World” probably won’t be it.•
Haskett is a leadership consultant at Advisa, a Carmel-based leadership consultancy.