EVERY GENERATION faces a skeptical reception in the labor force. Baby boomers were called self-centered, Gen X was lazy, and millennials were considered entitled. For Gen Z, it’s the same — but different. When I was at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, last week, there was the normal buzz about economic conditions and climate change. But everyone I spoke with mainly wanted to talk about something else: How the pandemic has changed the labor market, and especially how it has affected Gen Z.
Young people have never entered the labor force with more power — unemployment is low and the demand for labor is high — and they are exercising that power by changing workplace norms. The good times may not last, though, and Gen Z could wind up being the ones who pay the bigger price.
The Davos crowd focused on how hard it is to get people back into the office, and how even some of those who do come to work are “quiet quitting,” or doing the absolute minimum on the job. Citigroup Chief Executive Officer Jane Fraser said some people need retraining or coaching to return to their pre-pandemic productivity. There was also a lot of talk of rudeness, such as people getting far along in the interview process and then ghosting the company. It’s being seen at all ages and skill levels, but it seems to be most pronounced among people under 30 in high-skill service jobs, like banking, tech, or consulting.
What’s more, all the bosses felt like they had to put up with all the rudeness and low productivity because if there was one complaint heard more often than how awful workers are today, it was how scarce they have become. The labor market sounds a lot like the Woody Allen joke: The food is terrible and there is so little of it.
What struck me as extraordinary is that this change in the workforce is happening globally. Business leaders from the US to Germany to Japan all had the same complaints. In the past there were huge cultural differences in how people approached their jobs; for example, Japanese workers tended to favor large companies and stayed their entire career. No more. According to Japanese executives, their young staffers have one foot out the door, too, if they can find them to hire.
Does this mean the world is getting smaller, with young workers everywhere taking inspiration from TikTok videos about lying flat or quiet quitting? Are we seeing a cultural change in workplace norms brought on by Gen Z, many of whom started their careers working remotely?
There is a long history of technological change causing sudden changes in how we approach work. The industrial revolution resulted in people leaving their farms and home-based shops to commute to a factory for a set number of hours each day. This change caused lots of unease and complaints from employers, too. Economic historian Joel Mokyr says that factories initially hired women and children because they were more compliant and adaptable. Technology may be changing work culture again, making people less attached and invested in their employers. In the last period of technological upheaval, employers eventually got their way. We learned to show up on time, conform to workplace rules, and take orders from a supervisor. Perhaps employees are hoping this time will be different.
That may depend on how the economy goes. Every developed market just experienced the same economic shock from the pandemic and its aftermath. It may have created the current labor shortages that are giving workers more power, though it’s not clear why this is happening in every country. In the US, labor force participation fell and there is less legal immigration, so there are fewer workers. But that’s not true everywhere. In some countries more people are working than before the pandemic.
Another explanation is that there is more demand for labor. Many countries already had historically low unemployment. People came out of the pandemic with lots of savings and a desire to consume lots of goods and services. Businesses suddenly needed to increase their hiring; tech firms bulked up their hiring during and right after the pandemic. But odds are this won’t last as central banks increase interest rates to fight inflation. Some of the firms that over hired are starting to lay off workers.
If the labor market turns, workers’ market power will evaporate and people of all ages will need to get their act together, come to the office, be respectful during the hiring process, and do more than the bare minimum when at work. Younger workers should be mindful that they are often the first to be let go since they have fewer skills and less experience — all the more so if they are rarely in the office and their bosses don’t know them that well.
Longer term, the odds are not in workers’ favor. Even white-collar jobs will have to compete with technology. That means high-touch, uniquely human skills will be worth a premium — being personable and amiable, contributing to office culture and building a reputation as a valued colleague will be more important than ever.
So heed me, Gen Z: Now is not the time to ghost that job interview. Careers are long and so are institutional memories.
Phoning it in at work not only means you miss the opportunity to develop skills that make you more employable and harder to fire, you also miss out on building the relationships that technology can’t disrupt. The pandemic aftermath may have given workers more power for now, but young staffers with decades of employment ahead should be thinking about what happens when that inevitably changes.