scorecardCompanies are 'unbossing' the workplace, and millennial managers are getting axed
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Companies are 'unbossing' the workplace, and millennial managers are getting axed

Lindsay Dodgson   

Companies are 'unbossing' the workplace, and millennial managers are getting axed
Careers5 min read
  • Companies are cutting middle management roles, and millennials are likely to be most affected.
  • Work culture has changed, and some companies see middle managers as obsolete.
Companies are increasingly ditching middle management positions, and it could be millennials who find their jobs are most at risk.

The great "unbossing" has been brought on by several factors, including cost-cutting, Gen Z's distaste for management, remote working, and increased pressure on performance.

The repercussions are that future generations entering the workforce may receive less mentorship while being put under more stress from above.

But it's not just junior employees that could be worse off.

Lara Milward, a neuro-leadership coach with expertise in how workplace culture is changing, told Business Insider it's the 30-somethings who are buying houses, starting to have children, and juggling "career progression and family life" that may find their jobs are suddenly axed.

"It could well be that that's the generation that takes this hit," she said.

Millennial middle managers are at risk

Joe Galvin, the chief research officer of the executive coaching organization Vistage, told BI the unbossing trend has come about due to the normalization of working from home, advances in tech and AI, and generational shifts.

"In the analog era, going back to, let's say, the eighties, you had to communicate manually to be able to align your workforce," he said. "Today, technology has made that all possible. And the behavior change that we saw during the pandemic was an accelerant to that."

In 2021, Steven Baert, then the chief people and organization officer of Novartis, told Gallup that traditional leadership was "becoming redundant." He said the company's goal was to have a workforce that's motivated and encouraged to be effective rather than told what to do.

It's now rare to see the traditional version of a boss who walks around an office and checks in on what all their employees are doing.

"That boss's job has changed tremendously," Galvin said. "How you manage relationships in a more digital environment is much more difficult."

While Galvin said the intent of reducing middle management is to streamline communication between employees and senior executives, the impact could be unfairly balanced.

Middle management positions accounted for almost a third of layoffs in 2023, according to an analysis for Bloomberg — an increase from 20% in 2018.

Analysis from Live Data Technologies also found that manager-level or higher roles made up almost 50% of all layoffs in 2023, a jump of 57.6% compared to five years ago.

As a result, confidence levels of mid-managers have dropped significantly, according to research from Glassdoor.

It just so happens that a lot of middle managers are millennials.

Aged between 28 and 43, millennials are often in their first management positions or on their way to climbing to more senior roles.

They were also hit the hardest during the Great Firing of 2022, making up 94% of laid-off workers.

"Since millennials make up a large portion of middle management, they, along with some Gen X, are most likely to be affected by this trend," Chris Lovell, a careers expert at SoFi Technologies and the founder of Careers by Chris, told BI.

"These are also the generations that were most likely taught to follow a traditional career path: go to school, earn a degree, and climb the corporate ladder."

Work-life balance has changed

Ironically, millennials are "less interested in corporate bureaucracies or hierarchies," Lovell said, which could be part of why middle management roles are being cut.

Data suggests that both millennials and Gen Zers are turning away from management positions, with a lack of trust in senior leadership, a perceived limited financial reward, and a greater focus on a work-life balance and time off.

Many current middle managers are also burned out with their teams being downsized, and an increased workload.

Gen Zers could also be shifting the culture of the workforce, putting more emphasis on their boundaries, their mental health, and wanting more autonomy.

"I think this collides with economies and the way that the world is going, that companies are cutting costs," Milward said.

"If we're thinking about a world of diversity, inclusivity, and including new generations, they are trying to move towards a more flat structure and less of the old-school parent-child sort of relationship."

However, Joel Wolfe, the founder and president of the customer service agency HiredSupport, told BI he believes this attitude from younger generations may be backfiring.

There is pressure on managers to constantly do better than they did the previous quarter, but millennials aren't necessarily performing at that high level. Millennial managers, in Wolfe's opinion, can be "difficult to work with."

"They have fixed schedules and aren't flexible, which is something difficult to adapt to, especially when you are working with different timezones," he said.

Millennials and Gen Zers are increasingly opting out of working overtime and going above and beyond for promotions, instead favoring more time off and leaving work at the door when they go home.

Wolfe said this may make them seem inflexible and thus vulnerable when layoffs happen.

"I prefer employees working when they have some tasks to do," he said. "I don't want them to sit in front of the screen and wait for the clock to strike 5 p.m."

The impact on Zoomers

Shoshanna Davis, the founder of Fairy Job Mother and a consultant who helps young people with their careers, told BI she's not convinced unbossing is a direct response to how younger generations perceive the world of work.

But it is likely to disproportionately affect Gen Zers in their first or second jobs.

"They are new to the world of work, and they do really need managers to help them find the ropes," Davis said. "Ultimately, eliminating this kind of middle management position means less guidance, less coaching, and less mentoring, which I feel like is still desperately needed in a post-COVID world."

Zoomers are already unenthused by management. They are the generation that coined the term "lazy-girl jobs" and strongly believe in the benefits of "quiet quitting."

Will fewer management positions be replaced by higher salaries? Will career progression stagnate for Gen Z, if they have no millennial managers to look up to? What does this mean for the generations after them? Davis isn't sure.

"If it's just truly a way to cut costs, and there's going to be no replacements, then what incentive is there for people to perform at work?" Davis said.

"I don't really see how that's going to pan out."

Correction: May 22, 2024 — An earlier version of this story misstated Steven Baert's current employment and position. He currently works at GE Vernova, not Novartis. His position at Novartis in 2021 was chief people and organization officer, not CEO.