A new survey shows young workers hate their jobs — and employers should be really worried
Young workers are now as disengaged as burned-out boomers
Young workers may not possess the experience or wisdom of their older colleagues. But they've always had one advantage in the workplace: their enthusiasm. Unattached and kid-free, they're willing to burn the midnight oil. They have yet to grow bored or disgruntled. They're full of hopes and dreams — and the naivete to drink the company Kool-Aid. That's why they've traditionally been more involved in and excited about their jobs than their graying counterparts.
But since the pandemic hit, there's been a startling shift. From 2019 to 2022, according to Gallup surveys, the share of people under 35 who reported being engaged with their jobs dropped from 37% to 33% — the lowest level since 2011. At the same time, the share who reported being "actively disengaged" rose to 17% from 12%. This rise in workplace disenchantment has been so powerful that it has virtually eliminated the old-young engagement gap. Gen Zers and young millennials, in other words, have soured on work just as much as everyone else.
This is very bad for companies. Low engagement is linked to higher job turnover and reduced profits; Gallup estimates it costs the global economy $7.8 trillion a year in lost productivity. It's also bad for young workers. If they were simply stepping away from their jobs and finding fulfillment elsewhere, that might be OK. But it's far deeper than that.
If you drill down on the specific components of engagement measured by Gallup, you find that workers in their 20s and early 30s report a plummeting sense of:
- feeling cared about
- having someone who encourages their development
- having opportunities to learn and grow
- having a best friend at work
- believing that their opinions count
All of this points to a single, troubling conclusion: Something about today's workplace is failing our youngest workers.
Why? No one knows for sure. But I have a few hypotheses — and a few ideas about what companies can do better, for both their young staffers and their own bottom lines. "If employees aren't engaged, there is likely something about the way their work is designed that's not optimal," says Caitlin Duffy, a research director at Gartner, a consulting firm. "If you can optimize that, then you'll be unlocking all of their potential — as opposed to constraining it by legacy assumptions or processes or things that just don't fit anymore."
First, the factors contributing to the growing workplace disgruntlement of younger generations:
1. Work from home
Jim Harter, the chief scientist for Gallup's workplace-management practice, thinks a big factor is the pandemic-era shift to remote and hybrid work. We might think of Gen Z as the most flexible generation, but as I reported last year, they're actually the least likely to prefer a fully remote schedule. Only 24% of those in their 20s want to work from home all full time, compared with 41% of those in their 50s and early 60s. Which makes sense: People straight out of school typically depend on work for their social lives more than older workers, and they want and need more mentorship and guidance from their managers and more-experienced colleagues. But as the five components I cited earlier indicate, young workers aren't getting that as much from remote and hybrid work. And as a result, work has gotten less fun and less educational for them.
2. The Slack effect
A lot of the tips I picked up as a cub reporter didn't come from formal instruction. It was often accidental, like when I overheard the older reporters sitting next to me debate the newsworthiness of their scoops with their editors. In a remote world, those opportunities have begun to disappear, as face-to-face conversations (which allow for educational eavesdropping) are replaced by Slack messages (which don't).
But the problem runs even deeper than that. In one study, researchers examined the effects of a hybrid schedule at a large company in China that randomly divided its staff into two groups: one that had the option to work from home twice a week, and another that had to come into the office all the time. In the hybrid group, the researchers found, workers sent more messages than their full-time office counterparts — even on days they were actually in the office. Once you start using digital messaging tools, as the pandemic forced so many of us to do, it becomes the preferred way of communicating, even when you're back in the office. We're all Slacking coworkers who sit 5 feet away, instead of going over to talk to them — and that's making it harder for early-career employees to learn by osmosis, even in an office.
3. Unclear norms and expectations
Something else that workers used to pick up informally were the norms and expectations that make up a company's culture. That's much harder to do in remote and hybrid settings, making the experience of joining a new organization more stressful for everyone. And the uncertainty is extra tough for those coming straight out of school, with little knowledge of any professional workplace. When Gartner asked people what was preventing them from going into the office, Gen Zers were more likely than other generations to cite social anxiety.
"It's understandable because in a hybrid world, they can't observe the norms that govern how other employees operate in that shared office space," Duffy says. "Not knowing the norms for the workplace, in terms of conduct or getting work done, can lead to increased anxiety. It also can lead to employees spending time on how to do the work, instead of doing the work itself."
4. Post-pandemic stress disorder
COVID was tough on all of us, but the forced isolation of the pandemic was especially harmful for young people. In June 2021, a McKinsey survey found, Gen Zers were 1.5 times as likely as the average respondent to say they were depressed or anxious. And the stresses of the pandemic come on top of a mental-health crisis among young people that predated COVID.
"I think people are trying to sweep the pandemic under the rug, but what we've all been through has consequences," says Lindsey Pollak, a consultant who is the author of "The Remix: How to Lead and Succeed in the Multigenerational Workplace." "People who had their education or the beginning of their career disrupted, it's going to take a while for them to recover from that."
So how do companies fix this? It's clear that CEOs across the US are aware of the problem. But many of them have resorted to a truly dumb solution: requiring everyone to return to the office. JPMorgan has been enforcing office attendance via badge swipes, and Meta accompanied its recent announcement of 10,000 layoffs with a thinly veiled threat that employees should "find more opportunities to work with your colleagues in person." Both companies cite their young employees as a primary motivation for getting everyone back to their cubicles.
Ironically, though, experts say that forcing young workers to return to the office will only make things worse. Data from Gartner suggests companies that make office attendance optional have a 10% higher engagement rate among Gen Zers than those that require it. And 65% say that their willingness to stay in their jobs hinges partly on whether they can work flexibly. Gallup has also seen some of the biggest drops in engagement among employees who are required to come into the office even though their jobs can be performed remotely. Remote work might pose challenges for young workers, but many of them still prefer a hybrid schedule of their own choosing — and stripping them of that option isn't exactly a recipe for boosting engagement.
"Rigid return-to-office requirements are a big mistake," says Duffy, the Gartner researcher. "We tend to see that actually decreases performance and intent to stay and increases fatigue."
So how can companies raise the engagement of their youngest employees? Here are four suggestions, based on my conversations with the experts:
1. Make coming into the office worthwhile
When it comes to engagement, carrots work better than sticks. The fact that so many people aren't going in to the office says more about the office than it does about them. To boost attendance, companies need to improve the office experience. Reorganize the workplace to create more space for people to collaborate and socialize. Organize more happy hours. Pay for parking and subway fares. Allow people to arrive later, and leave earlier, to avoid rush-hour commutes. In short, inspire people of all ages to work in the office because they actually want to — and help facilitate the social interactions and mentorship that young people are otherwise missing.
2. Spell everything out
Remember that thing about work from home making it harder to pick up on workplace norms and expectations? There's a pretty simple solution to that: Spell them out. When is it OK to decline a meeting invitation? Are you expected to respond to emails on a Saturday night? How polished does a first draft of a memo need to be? Pollak, the consultant, told me about a client who complained that their Gen Z employees were "abusing" the company's vacation policy. When Pollak asked what the policy was, the client said it was to take "a reasonable amount" of time off. In a workplace composed only of old white men, that kind of ambiguity might fly — but not in one with a mix of generations (as well as genders and races and cultural backgrounds) who have different interpretations of what "reasonable" means. "You can't make those assumptions anymore," Pollak says. "It's about clarity and avoiding assumptions."
3. Meaningful 1:1s
Harter, the Gallup researcher, has his own advice for companies: Nurture better managers. As I recently reported, many businesses are running in the opposite direction, getting rid of their middle managers. But these are the very people who can help young workers feel more seen and motivated in their jobs. Sure, the transition to remote and hybrid work has obliterated the old method of management — bumping into employees by the coffee machine and asking about their weekend. But even from a distance, it's still possible for managers to learn what motivates their employees, stay in tune with their ups and downs, and step in early when they start to struggle. Managers just have to be intentional about it — setting up weekly one-on-ones — instead of depending on accidental run-ins at the office. The low engagement of young employees isn't so much about remote work as it is about "how managers are managing them in this new world of work," Harter says. "Whether managers give employees meaningful feedback once a week has multiples more importance than where people are sitting."
4. Give employees a say
I'm generally skeptical of generational differences, but one thing that's struck me about my Gen Z colleagues is how outspoken they are compared with the way I was in my early 20s. (I'm 36, which, for the purposes of this story, makes me old.) Pollak ascribes this to Gen Z growing up with social media. "They're more self-empowered to have a voice," she says. In the old days, she continues, "you would've had to write a letter to the editor or an op-ed to have a national or global voice — now you just have to send a tweet." Companies would do well to keep that in mind, creating opportunities for employees — especially younger ones — to voice their opinions, ask questions, and provide input on all aspects of the business. Senior executives should host frequent all-hands meetings, and HR departments should conduct regular employee surveys. The catch is, executives actually have to listen to the feedback, answer the questions, and take action as a result. Otherwise it's just for show, and engagement will continue to suffer.
I imagine that CEOs, most of whom are baby boomers and Gen Xers, might lodge two objections to my suggestions. The first is: We can't just favor Gen Z.
I'm not suggesting that managers record TikTok dances or use more emojis. (Just to spell out the cultural expectations here: please don't.) My suggestions are targeted to shore up engagement among young workers, but they'd actually be good for everyone. Spelling out workplace norms, for instance, wouldn't just help befuddled 22-year-olds but would also help all the women and people of color and recent immigrants who are currently forced to guess the unwritten rules — and then second-guess those guesses when they don't get the results they hoped.
The second objection I can imagine is: Well, that's a lot of work. Which is true — doing all these things right isn't easy. It's hard for a big, entrenched company to change its ways. So far, though, executives are mostly reverting to their tired old playbooks, like forcing their staff to come back to the office. And when that hasn't worked, they complain that young people are lazy and don't want to work anymore.
They can't see that what worked before just won't work today. The plummeting engagement among young workers, traditionally the most enthusiastic and energetic, is a cry for help — a sign that employers need to find new ways to involve, motivate, mentor, and inspire a new generation of employees. If CEOs are unwilling to do the hard work of adapting their organizations to the new world shaped by the pandemic, it's not their Gen Z and millennial staff who are lazy — it's them.
Aki Ito is a senior correspondent at Insider.
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