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Gen Z may be on track to kill middle management

Lindsay Dodgson,Sawdah Bhaimiya   

Gen Z may be on track to kill middle management
  • Young workers are turning their backs on being managers, seeing no benefit to climbing the ladder.
  • They would rather earn more at their current level, or wait it out and go for senior roles later on.

When Wendy was promoted to a management position, she almost immediately regretted it.

While she had more freedom in her job as a graphic designer, she was also picking up a lot of slack due to several other positions being cut, and was doing way more work for no extra money.

Wendy, who is 28 and who isn't sharing her surname to keep her identity anonymous to her workplace, told Business Insider the apparent promotion was pitched to her as an opportunity. She agreed at the time, but now thinks she was naive about what she was really being offered.

"In my head I was like, great, awesome, this is a step up, it'll look good on my resume, and blah, blah, blah," she said. "But then when I really thought about it, I'm doing way more, I'm not even getting paid more, and I just feel like I'm stressing myself out more than I have to."

The "stress and anxiety" she was experiencing was at an "unnecessary" level, Wendy said.

"It just didn't make any sense to me," she said. "I would rather go back to doing what I was doing for less stress and just getting paid for what I was doing."

Wendy's story isn't unique. Like many young workers — millennials and Gen Zers — Wendy realized management wasn't for her.

Millennials like her are becoming something of a cautionary tale for Gen Zers just entering the workforce.

Vivian Lynn, a young millennial who works at Amazon and makes career content on her TikTok, for example, told BI that while she put all her energy into her career straight after college, she now sees so many people stuck in middle management positions for over five years. It makes her think she would just feel stagnant.

"You look up to the people who are managing you or just your mentors, and I feel like the juice is not worth the squeeze," she said. "Especially in corporate America."

These generations are forming a new culture of work where their comfort is paramount and climbing the corporate ladder isn't a priority. In TikTok videos, many discuss their lack of trust in senior leadership, the limited financial reward of management, and their greater focus on a work-life balance and time off.

The result could be that the amount of people putting themselves forward for incremental middle management roles dwindles, with young workers focusing on other pursuits, or waiting longer to go for more senior titles when they become available.

It may even be that Gen Z kills off middle management for good.

Success looks different to Gen Z

Ben Voyer, an ESCP Business School professor and founder of the Gen Z Observatory, told BI that his research showed that "success takes many more different forms" for Gen Z workers.

"There's a real disconnection between succeeding and it being work-based for previous generation and what Gen Z sees as success, which is a much more, better rounded, 360 [degree] form of success," he explained.

"In other words, it's really not just about getting very fast to the top of the company, but it's rather about being able to achieve work-life balance and being able to have a good job, and also making meaningful contributions outside of your job."

One recent survey of 1,000 US workers by software company Visier even found that less than half — 38% — said they want to become managers, BI reported.

Meanwhile, 73% of workers are willing to take a pay cut or step down from their current position to pursue a more fulfilling career path, a recent survey by Resource Solutions found.

Michelle P. King, Netflix's former director of diversity and inclusion and an award-winning academic and author, told BI that Gen Z are looking at their managers and thinking: "I don't aspire to be that."

"It's not just what they're doing, it's actually how they're doing it that's turning people off and I think the major reason why is that the way managers manage actually breaks trust," King said.

She explained that although people are being paid which holds up one end of the bargain at work, their experience of work isn't so great. Most people's "primary needs at work are not being met" by managers, she said.

"The reason they probably don't aspire to the manager role is because, why should they? " she said. "They work in a workplace where they don't trust the people they're working for."

Middle management is a 'tough spot'

Wendy said seeing so many people discuss their work lives, and what they expected and no longer tolerated from a job on social media was eye opening.

"It makes me feel a little bit more valid, or seen, because then it makes me think to myself, OK, I'm not being crazy," she said. "What's happening to me is not me being dramatic or crazy or overthinking it."

Morgan Sanner, who is a Gen Z founder of her own resume writing company, is one such social media poster. She speaks about career progression and this generational shift away from management in detail on her TikTok account.

She told BI young workers in her generation tend to be "purpose driven" — something they think a lot of middle management positions may not provide.

"When they can't find a reason that they're do something or they're realizing that their work isn't actually impacting anyone, they're not interested in it," Sanner said. "And unfortunately that is kind of what the middle manager role has become."

Middle management can also be a "tough spot" to be in, Sanner said, because they're seen as roles that are provided only moderate benefits.

"It seems like the employees like to blame the middle managers, and the leadership likes to blame middle managers," she said. "They don't really get that much of a say in the decisions that they're making."

Voyer emphasized that "the problem with traditional middle management is that it's just a waiting room for what most people hope will be an even higher C-suite position."

He added: "Middle management is when you start having the burden of managing people, but you don't really have the big reward. So in terms of working out whether it's worth it, this is where a lot of Gen Z would rather be directly at the top."

He pointed out that a lot of his Gen Z students are looking to entrepreneurship to solve this issue, and hope to start their own businesses where they can actually make a meaningful contribution.

AI might play a role

Sanner thinks AI might make some middle management roles redundant. Having worked with people in middle management positions, she can recall times where she thought to herself some of their work days seemed like a waste of time.

"Some of the stuff they were doing, I was like, man, there's got to be a better way to do this," she said.

Voyer agrees with this view saying that one possible outcome of Gen Z rejecting middle management roles is that it "will be good for the AI revolution," and change what kind of jobs are in demand.

"A lot of people are claiming that one of the risks of AI at work is the disappearance of middle management jobs," he explained. "You'll need very high [level] people who know how to navigate all these tools and so on."

A survey by the American Staffing Association conducted by Harris Poll of 2,000 adults in the US in August found that 44% of those in managerial or professional roles feel that automation could easily replace their jobs.

Meanwhile, a report by Pew Research Center in July found that jobs in high-paying fields that require a bachelor's degree or more as well as analytical skills are more exposed and at risk to AI.

Working smarter, not harder

A common critique of young workers entering the workforce with this opinion is that they are lazy or unambitious. After all, they coined the term "lazy girl jobs" and have emphasized the benefits of "quiet quitting."

This impression is wrong, though, Sanner said, with many Gen Zers and millennials having side hustles or second jobs.

They're not work-shy, it just happens to be the place they're putting all their extra energy isn't necessarily their 9-5.

"Sometimes it comes off that they're entitled and lazy when really they're just trying to fix a process that might be broken," Sanner said.

Sanner herself, for example, has always been "super career driven," doing five internships during her undergraduate degree, then getting her master's. But even she has become disillusioned to the idea of working at a company for three decades, getting a small step up every few years, then retiring.

"The traditional advice of work really hard in your twenties and they'll pay off later down the line is not something that these generations are interested in," she said. "I work really hard for 30 years, then I can relax. That's a little too long. A little too much of an investment."

King also agreed that Gen Z rejecting middle management is not because they're work-averse or lazy. Instead it's because leadership roles haven't adapted to modern times and so they're so "no thanks," to what they're seeing.

"The reality is that the view of managers today is very much that old school, 1950s transactional command and control manager where you're telling others what to do and doing work yourself," she said.

"Today people don't need to be told what to do. They need managers who can manage how people work."

This includes providing mentorship, coaching, feedback, delegating, and helping people to collaborate and solve problems together.

"The problem is most managers aren't."

Ironically, millennials and Gen Z would be great managers

Lynn said she thinks the shift away from management is a generational thing. Her older colleagues, for example, don't seem to be of the same opinion, and appear more content with the status quo.

It is a bit of a shame if younger workers don't become managers, she added, because the millennial who she works for right now is one of the best she's had.

"They're very unserious in a good way. They call it as it is and they don't take everything so seriously," she said. "It's just very refreshing to have a manager who gets it."

Looking at her own career progression, though, she's not sure she'll follow suit. She once had aspirations to be a senior director. Now, she's not so convinced.

"It's not that I don't have ambition anymore, but I do just feel like I have ambition to optimize other parts of my life and I want to prioritize that," she said.

"And I think we're lucky to realize that so young."