What Gen Z Wants From Leaders

Like every younger generation, this one is testing tradition. But listening can spark new ideas for a healthier workplace.

Recent research shows that Generation Z is starting to show some sway in how workplaces operate. The insurance group Zurich found that by 2025, Gen Z (those born roughly between the mid-90s and early 2010s) will account for 27 percent of the global workforce, and Edelman found that 93 percent of employees are influenced by their coworkers in their 20s

But what sort of things are they influencing, exactly? Much of it has to do with technology: 62 percent of Gen Z and millennials think that AI will have a positive influence on their work and want to see it integrated more often, compared to just 38 percent of Boomers who feel that way. But much of what Gen Zers focus on involves work-life balance—more than half of Gen Zers in a recent Microsoft survey said they prioritize “health and well-being over work,” which means a lot of conversations around hybrid offices, flexible schedules, and other meaningful wellness benefits.

It’s no surprise that there’s pushback against familiar workplace standards—and that Zers get some eyerolls for it. Every rising generation gets accused of selfishness and refusal to get with the program. Boomers were “hippies” for resisting the rigidity of the Organization Man; Gen Xers were “slackers” for distrusting corporate buzzwords and uniformity; Millennials were “narcissists” for privileging fluid social connections over rigid team structures. So the fact that Gen Zers get dismissed as lazy isn’t surprising.

63 percent of Gen Zers say they prefer timely constructive feedback throughout the year.

But as with previous generations, there are some differences between what Gen Zers are pushing back against, why, and what can help. Part of the challenge is that many in that cohort see themselves closed off from the typical rewards of work. Australian business scholar Adam Kay recently told Financial Review that “soaring housing prices and stagnant wages mean that ‘social contract’ has…broken down, encouraging many Gen Z employees to fight for better work conditions to make up for that.”

For association leaders managing their own staffs and helping the industries they serve attract a new generation of workers, providing Zers with confidence in their career will be increasingly essential. A mix of perks and flexibility helps, of course, but a key factor, experts say, will be more open communication about concerns and needs. Pulse surveys and annual reviews aren’t enough: Research by EY has found that nearly all (97 percent) of Gen Zers are receptive to feedback, and 63 percent say they prefer “timely constructive feedback throughout the year.”

And the feedback shouldn’t just be criticism, or suggestions about professional development; leaders will have to be curious about what will make their employees feel more engaged. ““[Leaders must] stop and get curious, and ask their people what’s going on,” Kay said.

There are risks here, and no guarantees. Gen Zers aren’t the only cohort a leader has to manage, and it can be a skittish group; one report found that Gen Zers tend to stay at a job for only about two years. How managers will work with individual employees will depend from person to person. But as a group, they’re signaling their concerns about what makes for an effective, equitable, and productive workplace. It’s worth the effort to listen. 


Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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