Are Gen Z a bunch of lazy layabouts who refuse to work?
Not in my experience.
We all like to bash on generations that aren’t our own. It’s fun! Millennials laugh at boomers for their leather phone cases that double as wallets. Gen Z say millennials are cringe. Boomers say millennials are whiny wokie-cokies who spent all their money on avocado toast so now can’t buy houses. Millennials accuse Gen Z of being too… cool? Young? Using TikTok? Unfortunately, these accusations just add weight to the ‘millennials are cringe’ theory.
For a while, millennials were the go-to punching bag in the media, inspiring ire from a different politician or columnist every other week. That’s in large part because millennials were the most visible on media. We’re (yes, I’m a millennial, and yes, I’m embarrassed) the internet generation, the first to be able to broadcast our growing up on social media, so there was plenty of material to use.
But now, Gen Z have grown up and they’re the targets. And among the usual topics they’re criticised about - being too woke, dismantling norms, having bad attention spans - work is, of course, a big one; which makes sense, as the older half of Gen Z are now fully embedded in the workforce.
Some of the stereotypes of Gen Z at work: they don’t want to work, they’re difficult to work with, they’re always banging on about mental health, they refuse to ever work late, they’re stubborn, they talk a lot about boundaries, they won’t attend meetings at lunchtime, they do silly email sign-offs (slay), they have pronouns in their bio, and - the big, overarching one - they’re lazy.
The thing about generational stereotyping is that it comes from somewhere… and often parts of it are true. Millennials, for example, can’t afford to buy houses and do indeed like avocado toast (but are those things related?). It’s true that Gen Z talk more about boundaries and stick to those boundaries harder than the generation before them, and it’s true that Gen Z don’t want to do certain types of work. But none of this is down to laziness or a lack of ambition.
The Gen Z people I’ve worked with and managed have not had a lack of ambition. If anything, they’ve been more forthright about their goals than the norm. When I’ve interviewed Gen Z-ers for roles, they’re the ones who have asked about progression from the get-go. In our one-to-ones, they talk about long-term goals and what they want to get out of their current job before moving up or moving on. If they can’t see a way to get further, they want out. Stagnation is not for them.
There have been some Gen Z people I’ve interacted who appear to be the opposite; they talk about not wanting to work at all and make jokes about overthrowing the government. But this isn’t down to laziness, but disillusionment. Those ‘lazy’ Gen Z are the ones spending their weekends at protests and running campaigns. They’ll quiet quit their jobs, but be selling clothes on Vinted to make a profit. They might not want to work their way up a ladder, but they’ll have visions of entrepreneurship.
The stereotypes about Gen Z refusing to join an early meeting or one that takes place over their lunch break are, in my experience, true, but again, that’s not remotely down to laziness. Instead, it’s a recognition that those much-spoken about boundaries are important. They’ve seen the stress and overwhelm experienced by the burnt-out, people-pleasing generation of millennials, who side-hustled and girlbossed their way right into despair. And they’ve seen how pointless it all is. Gen Z have seen that working late and skipping breaks doesn’t get you further; you’ll just be taken for granted, your hard work rewarded with more work and not enough pay, and still at risk of sweeping redundancies. They’ve recognised that productivity is not simply hours worked, but the efficiency of those hours; they know that time away from work matters, and so their boundaries are sacred. They also know that life is not just about work; that work absolutely can be meaningful, but so can other things.
And Gen Z are much less willing to take shit. Again, I wonder if that’s a hangover from the millennial workforce, who were told over over to pay their dues and be grateful for opportunities. Gen Z saw that toiling away is rarely rewarded, and that putting up with unfair working practices and toxic bosses does nothing but make you miserable. Gen Z are very justice-minded (you can see that in their high rates of activism), and that extends to the workplace. They question everything: why do we have to work a five-day week? Why does being a boss entitle someone to shout? Why can’t a junior member of staff bring an idea to the table? They care about a workplace’s values and ethics, and if the workplace isn’t delivering, they’re very willing to either quiet quit or be out of there entirely.
I understand why Gen Z makes other generations bristle. The generations before them think ‘well, I had to go through it, so do they’, and to be fair, the constant questioning of the system can get frustrating when you’re a middle manager who’s just trying to get stuff done. But I think rather than calling Gen Z lazy, getting angry about their boundaries, or resenting them for having it ‘easier’, other generations can learn how to best work with Gen Z, and learn from them, too. We can take the nudge to make our workplaces better, join them in leaving work on time, and consider meaning beyond our 9-5. We can appreciate Gen Z the way they are, making use of their unique qualities within work. We can all be a little bit more Gen Z; munching avocado toast in rented homes we can’t afford, but doing so at 8am, rather than joining a meeting outside of our working hours.
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