scorecardGen Z job seekers are rattling older managers by asking about work-life balance in the first interview
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Gen Z job seekers are rattling older managers by asking about work-life balance in the first interview

Alexandra York,Josée Rose   

Gen Z job seekers are rattling older managers by asking about work-life balance in the first interview
Careers5 min read
  • Many Gen Z job seekers are asking about work-life balance during interviews.
  • Hiring managers are beginning to reckon with new workplace expectations.

Today's workforce is not like anything we've ever seen. Sure, it's multigenerational, but it's also all over the place — from offices to living rooms to beaches in Mallorca.

Expectations around work-life balance have changed significantly in the past three years, forcing everyone to square these new ideas with the day-to-day necessities of getting our jobs done.

For managers from older generations who are now hiring workers, the questions from would-be employees about protecting their time away from work can be frustrating.

Each generation has entered the labor market when different forces were coloring their experience: Gen X started the job hunt after the 1987 stock-market crash. Many millennials waded into their employment searches as the dot-com bubble burst or during the Great Recession more than a decade ago. Gen Zers entered the workforce amid the fallout from COVID-19, which forced many of them to work from home.

The difficulty of the pandemic, in part, encouraged some members of Gen Z to prioritize life just as much as work, and to be clear about those expectations with potential employers.

There wasn't a big focus on work-life balance when many of today's managers started working more than a decade ago. In fact, the more hours you put in, the cooler you seemed. But now that that's changing, some managers are confused or even annoyed, and some younger workers are expecting more.

As two Insider colleagues — a Gen Zer and an older millennial — we decided to explore the work-life-balance question from the beginning of the job process: the interview. It's often thought of as a make-or-break moment, so we wanted to know the answer to two questions: Why do candidates believe it's necessary to ask about work-life balance before they start in a job? And does this question hurt their chances of landing the job?

The answers are nuanced: It depends on the industry (finance, law, and startups don't welcome the question), the experience of the managers, and the job posting.

Gen Zers need to know the industry before asking about work-life balance

Some industries invite questions of work-life balance, according to Gen Zers and hiring managers who spoke with Insider. Others, like investment banking, still require extensive hours in the office or on the computer.

As Gen Zers enter the workforce, they need to educate themselves on the expectations of their industries before inquiring about balance, hiring managers suggested.

"If you were to directly ask, 'Can you describe the work-life balance for analysts at your firm?' I think your application would be denied," Steven Sibley, a clinical assistant professor of finance at Indiana University's Kelley School of Business, said of investment-banking candidates.

He added that interviewers were "trying to get a sense of a candidate's work ethic" by asking questions like, "Are they the type of person who wants to go work 80 hours, 90 hours a week and learn as much as they possibly can in two years? Or are they the type who just wants to make as much money as possible for as little work as possible?"

From his experience, the work-life-balance question instantly puts an applicant in that latter box.

David Jacobowitz is the founder of a snack startup, Nebula Snacks. He's looking for his first hire and said someone looking for work-life balance wasn't the right fit.

"When I'm interviewing and looking for a candidate to take on, the expectation is that this is not a typical 9-to-5," Jacobowitz said, adding that startups might require long hours during a launch or travel to meet with teams in factories or with retailers.

While he's seen many promising Gen Z candidates for the role, many of them have raised questions about tending to their lives outside work, he said.

Hiring managers and companies need to prepare for this question

It's important that interviewers and interviewees know what to expect when these questions arise, Sheila Williams, the managing director of talent acquisition at Deloitte, said.

"We're seeing a greater shift to candidates wanting to align their personal values, goals, purpose with the organization," Williams said, adding that "work-life balance or work-life integration is one of those key areas that often does come up" in the interview — and often it's Gen Zers fearlessly asking the question early in the process.

Williams credits the pandemic with reminding many workers that life continues outside a 9-to-5. While these emerging expectations do include paid time off and ending the day at 5 p.m., what many job seekers are looking for is flexibility, she said. Even in an industry like consulting or tax services, that's possible.

"It shows up in how you staff your teams, how you allow people to manage commitments outside of work, during the workday, how you support mental health or family's mental health," Williams added.

Williams explains this breadth to interviewers so they can best relay the workplace experience to job seekers, she said. To prevent anyone at the company from being put off by the question, Williams and her team educate Deloitte employees on how to navigate the conversations.

"We do train our interviewers to make sure they're equipped to understand the types of questions they're going to receive," she said. "And we really stress, 'Here's what you share about Deloitte, but also be open about your own personal experiences.'"

Should we all get over it?

Mary Cooney, the founder of the professional-development platform Generation IQ, said it's time to move on from this stigma of work-life balance.

She said companies needed to start making this part of their spiel to encourage workers to take the offer.

"I am, frankly, pretty shocked that Gen Zs even have to ask this question," she said. "The whole concept should be in place by now."

Cooney said the movement for work-life balance, while it was never explicitly discussed, was started by Gen Xers — people born from the mid-1960s to about '80 — who wanted to spend more time with family and therefore decided they wouldn't work too late in the evenings or on weekends.

Today, even in industries like banking, which seem fixed on workweeks that are multiples of 40 hours, changes are being made to abide by new worker preferences.

"It's interesting because some banks seem to be adapting to Gen Z's preference for work from home and flexible hours," Sibley of the Kelley School of Business said.

Sibley said that some banks, like Goldman Sachs, had the "Saturday rule," where junior bankers aren't allowed to work between 9 p.m. Friday and 9 a.m. Sunday.

It's not common, though — Wall Street is known for being ultrademanding and unforgiving.

But now Gen Zers are openly asking the questions, Cooney said. And those questions are bringing change.