Carrie Viohl, the co-owner of The Square, a restaurant in Moultrie, Georgia, manages a team of Gen Zers (those born between 1997 and 2012, the oldest of whom are just entering the workforce). But she wasn’t optimistic about hiring them at first. “Restaurant life is hard. It’s demanding work. We went through hundreds of employees in the first year of the restaurant — people would show up and not even finish their shift,” she tells Thrive Global. Initially, she believed the worst stereotypes about Gen Z, including a greater propensity to ghost employers, and wouldn’t consider bringing them aboard. “I thought they’d be even worse than the people we’d been hiring,” she says. But when she finally did, she realized some facts she hadn’t foreseen.
Some of the emerging criticisms lobbed at Gen Z — they’re non-resilient, extremely anxious, addicted to screens, perpetually stressed, and hyper-sensitive — are, in fact, supported by several studies, books, surveys, and news reports, including Thrive Global’s own Thrive on Campus, which investigates the complicated reasons college students today are suffering the highest rates of anxiety and depression in history — so much so their schools’ mental health facilities can’t accommodate their needs. As Gen Z enters the workforce, employers are scrambling to address their mental health needs, which cost the global economy $1 trillion annually, according to the World Health Organization. In fact, the quest to create a culture sensitive to their vulnerabilities so resonated with employers that a Wall Street Journal article on the topic, “The Most Anxious Generation Goes to Work,” went viral earlier this year.
While there’s some truth to those less-than-flattering assessments, Viohl says that once she started employing Gen Zers, a far richer story took shape. “I’ve found that they take pride in their work, are eager to get it done right, and are self-starting and innovative,” she says, pointing to a business partnership one teenage employee created on her own to get fresh flowers delivered to the restaurant weekly. “We said, ‘If you can arrange that, go ahead and do it.’ And she did.”
“I heard somebody talking badly about Gen Z the other day and I thought, ‘Have you ever been around them? Because they’re phenomenal,’” Viohl says.
Several surveys support Viohl’s optimistic view. While they may be battling the highest rates of anxiety and depression we’ve ever seen, they also seem to embody qualities we can all get behind — and in many cases, should. Gen Z values meaning and purpose over compensation, diversity and inclusion in the workforce, entrepreneurialism (one CEO I spoke with called them the “’Shark Tank’ generation”), work-life balance, and they continually seek to learn and grow within and beyond their organizations.
Thrive Global sat down with a dozen employers — from restaurateurs to CEOs to media executives — to hone in on the core strengths (and yes, weaknesses too) of the generation the Pew Research Center calls “the most diverse and best educated generation yet,” to help you better understand and collaborate with this rising group of workers.
They value meaning over money
Seventy-four percent of Gen Zers said work should have a larger purpose than salary, according to a Monster.com survey. Case in point: San Francisco-based Cara Brennan Allamano, the SVP of Human Resources at Udemy, an online learning platform, asked a new hire why he left his old company for this role, and he said: “‘That [other] company was good for my wallet, but Udemy is good for my life,’” she recalls. Similarly, Taha Bawa, the co-founder of Goodwall, a professional development network for young people, tells Thrive, “Some of my employees have forsaken other opportunities that were better remunerated to join us because of our purpose.”
Roberta Katz, Ph.D., a researcher at Stanford University who studies Gen Z and is co-authoring a book on them, explains why their quest for meaning and purpose outweighs other considerations. “This group, from a very early age, was being exposed to a lot of human suffering,” she tells Thrive. Having grown up amid chronic mass shootings, two wars, the Great Recession, and an inescapable and disturbing 24/7 news cycle has made them acutely aware of the precariousness of life, and may give them an urgency to make each moment count, she says. “Their desire to make a difference may also stem from witnessing the complex problems facing society today through the overwhelming amount of news and information they are exposed to, and wanting to help solve those problems,” Corey Seemiller, the co-author of Generation Z Leads: A Guide for Developing the Leadership Capacity of Generation Z Students, told Thrive.
They may have a hard time with mundane tasks
While studies indicate that when a company’s values align with an employee’s, burnout is less likely and productivity increases, the negative drawback of Gen Z’s hunger for purpose is that they’re often less inclined (or, at least, less enthusiastic) to do grunt work, Shantelle Dedicke, President and Chief Creative Officer at Frances Roy, a destination marketing agency, says. “I’ve found that they’re not looking to do busywork, but it’s the more mundane, organizational things that set you up for success,” Dedicke tells Thrive. One way to maneuver their need to feel purposeful and impactful at all times is by contextualizing how their work ladders up to the bigger initiatives of the company, says Jeannie Kim, the editorial director of The Muse, a career platform. “It’s important for managers to explain to their direct reports how what they’re doing, even this little piece, syncs with the company’s larger goals,” she tells Thrive.
They insist on diversity and inclusion
That quest for meaning and purpose also informs this group’s commitment to social justice and diversity. Nearly half (48 percent) of Gen Zers are ethnic or racial minorities, and 62 percent of them see increased diversity as a societal gain — and they expect employers to think the same.
“Given the vast diversity of Gen Z, and likelihood that they have many friends and family members who possess different identities than they do, it makes sense that they want themselves and their loved ones to feel included and welcome, as well as have equal and equitable access to services and resources,” Seemiller says.
Fredda Hurwitz, the Chief Strategy & Marketing Officer at RedPeg Marketing, a branding engagement agency in D.C., experienced firsthand how swiftly Gen Zers will call out a lack of representation. “A couple of weeks ago, an employee of ours was working on a pitch for a beer brand. Every picture used to bring the deck to life was a white person. He called it out and we changed it,” she says. The week before, the same employee pointed out that the way the company was amassing data risked racial profiling, which made them rethink how they gather information.
Diversity and inclusion doesn’t only pertain to race and ethnicity — Gen Zers are also likely to chafe against negative attitudes towards LGBTQ people (48 percent think same-sex marriage is good for society) and those who opt out of binary gender constructs (six in 10 think administrative forms should offer other gender options than just male or female). For older generations, adjusting to a world where categories have been overthrown or revamped is tricky. One Gen X media executive Thrive spoke with described how a young person she hired transitioned from female to male during her tenure, and the executive failed numerous times to ascribe him the proper pronouns. “I felt terrible and apologized numerous times, but I struggled to make the adjustment in my mind because I hired him as a woman,” she says.
“As an employer, this is a new thing we have to deal with from an H.R. perspective, especially as it relates to older staff, but I’ve noticed that there is a lot more gender fluidity — employees choosing pronouns like ‘they’ and ‘them’ or ones that don’t align with their assigned gender,” Rose Previte, the owner of restaurants Maydān and Compass Rose in Washington, D.C., tells Thrive. “And this power to self-determine requires greater sensitivity,”
Side-hustles and entrepreneurialism are their answer to the precariousness of jobs
Another way members of Gen Z seek inner fulfillment and purpose is by pursuing passion projects. “I’ve found that the side hustle, the side gig is what drives them,” Dedicke says, noting that her agency, Frances Roy, was comprised of a 50 percent Gen Z staff last year. “Two of them have successfully launched their own podcasts. Another started his own apparel line and another opened an organic apothecary business,” she says. Northern Arizona-based workplace analyst Laura Handrick says she almost permanently lost one of her Gen Zers to his side hustle, but then he returned on the condition that his job be rejiggered to accommodate his music gigs. “We agreed he could work on his own schedule and only as much as he can manage, because he’s good at his job and delivers,” she says. Because so many of Handrick’s Gen Z employees have side projects, the company recently established a policy that roughly states: “You need to keep your manager informed of what you’re doing and don’t do anything that’s a conflict of interest or competes with our business. Otherwise, all good,” she says.
Seemiller, who has conducted research and written three books on Gen Z, attributes their side hustling to the sense that they can lose their day job at any time. Witnessing the worst economic crisis in 2008 since the Great Depression, she says, has reinforced the need to multiply and diversify income streams. “They saw the Great Recession hit their families. In one way, it may seem like a paradox that they would want to take the risk of being in the freelance economy, but at the same time, there’s this sense of control about freelancing, like, ‘Nobody else can fire me. Nobody else can let me go.’”
They expect their bosses to help them grow
Whether or not they’re working a side hustle or founding companies, Gen Zers expect to continually be developing in whatever role they’ve landed. The Muse surveyed 8,000 Gen Z employees and found that learning and growth opportunities ranked number one among their concerns, behind work-life balance (second) and compensation (third). To that end, they seek out regular feedback to ensure they’re moving on an upward trajectory. “I literally just had an employee ask for a sit-down — there are a lot more requests like these on the management side — to talk about her development and where she’s going in the company,” D.C. restaurateur Rose Previte says. “One woman, as she was quitting, said, ‘I want to know how I did because you didn’t really give me a lot of feedback,’” Previte recalls.
They figure out how to do things on their own
The positive side of those regular check-ins is that Gen Zers are constantly seeking to evolve their skill sets and take on new projects. As full-fledged digital natives — one interviewee calls them “the Google Generation,” — they’re thoroughly unintimidated by what they don’t know, especially when it comes to technology. “I had two employees who literally knew nothing about Photoshop. Neither were designers, and they just found trainings online and learned it because we needed to build promotional materials on the night our designers were busy,” Goodwall’s Bawa recalls. Restaurant owner Viohl adds, “They don’t ever say, ‘I don’t know how to do that.’ They go and figure it out.”
They question established approaches
The Muse’s Jeannie Kim has noticed that her underlings don’t want to be told, ‘This is how you do things,’ but rather guided into finding their own way to accomplish the task at hand. Gen Z researcher Seemiller calls them intrapreneurialists: “They expect employers to treat employees like entrepreneurs by giving them such great autonomy over a project that it feels like their own,” she says.
But steer clear of micromanaging them. Viohl recalls, “One kid said to my husband, whom everyone at the restaurant calls Sarg, ‘Sarg, I have a different way of washing dishes and I want to try my method out.’ And he said, ‘Go for it. Let’s see how it works and at the end of the night we’ll see if it was better.’”
They feel they should be promoted quickly
The expectation lassoed around those regular check-ins, along with this generation’s eagerness to learn new skills and conquer big projects, is that they’ll quickly move up the ranks. More than 75 percent of Gen Zers think they should be promoted in their first year on the job. RedPeg’s Fredda Hurwitz wonders if the immediacy of everything in their lives bears on the expectation that they’ll quickly climb the workplace ladder.
Digital technology has allowed them to receive feedback (Likes, comments, etc.) instantaneously. “It takes a little bit of flexibility to get your head around the immediacy of their needs as a manager, but seems to extend from the fact that everything they want, need to know, or are curious about, is at the touch of a button in less than 30 seconds,” Hurwitz says.
In their eager ascent, some managers said their Gen Z staffers will try to circumvent the “nos” lobbed at them. “If my husband tells one of the staff ‘no,’ a lot of times they come back to him and say, ‘Okay, but what if we do it this way,’ and he’ll actually think about it,” Viohl says.
They prioritize work-life balance — and their mental health
While they’re looking to quickly scale their professional lives, Gen Zers are approaching their mental well-being with just as much gusto.
According to the Pew Research Center, 70 percent of teens today see depression and anxiety as the biggest problem among their peers — and the APA says 54 percent of Gen Zers reported feeling stressed or anxious in the previous month. To accommodate their emotional struggles, employers are starting to create corporate cultures that enable this generation of workers to address their psychological needs, either by allowing them to take an hour off for therapy appointments, or cutting them slack when they need to take a mental health day.
“We have a few members of our team who accepted their positions at our company with the understanding that we’ll need to make allowances for them to leave the office for their weekly or bi-weekly appointments with their psychologists,” Annika Welander, partner and managing director of Someoddpilot, a creative agency in Chicago, tells Thrive. The company supports their youngest employees’ efforts to address their psychological well-being, and hopes to normalize it for the rest of their staff, she says.
They expect flexibility in their work hours
Laura Handrick, the Arizona-based workplace analyst, points out that Gen Zers are casual and comfortable with requesting time off or work from home for personal reasons — in fact, they don’t request time off so much as take it. “This week, we had workers Slack us about working from home due to apartment building maintenance, and others who didn’t feel well. They’ll say little more than ‘WFH, not feeling well’. And that’s fine with us — we don’t ask if it’s a mental health or a physical issue.”
Part of this expected flexibility stems from how deeply Gen Zers prioritize family and friends, Katelyn Gainer, a communication manager at the Adoption Network Cleveland in Ohio who’s managed several Gen Zers, tells Thrive. “I’ve often had them say, ‘Hey, I have this family function or I have this family vacation.’ I recently had an intern ask to take off for her sister’s soccer game!” she laughs. Dedicke reflects on a recent experience she found equally comical. “We’d finished a project at 4:00 p.m., and I remember coming out of my office and there was no one there. I was like, ‘Where the hell is everybody?’ They felt they were done and they just got up and left,” she marvels, noting that as a Gen Xer, she never would have left the workplace without checking in with her boss. “Like, ‘Hey, I was thinking of going… Is there anything else you need?’”
“Our research finds that relationships play a pivotal role in what motivates Gen Z,” Seemiller confirms. She adds that they view work as “fluid,” and as such adaptable to both their professional aspirations and personal lives.
The underlying impetus for everything Gen Zers do seems to extend from a profound wish to make a meaningful impact, Seemiller says — whether it’s by working a side hustle, fast-tracking their rise at a purpose-driven company, rallying for social justice, or being a supportive friend and family member to their loved ones. Sure, Gen Zers’ ways might take some getting used to by older generations, but those efforts can pay off substantially, both in reducing tensions between generations at work, and in getting the best out of this promising and passionate group. As Rose Previte puts it, “These are the humans we want.”
Stay up to date or catch-up on all our podcasts with Arianna Huffington here.