There’s a new bogeyman in town. A single figure instilling fear and confusion in the hearts of hiring teams and upper management everywhere. Office cubicles lie deserted, Zoom notifications pinging in their wake. A Gen Z candidate, fresh out of school, strides in for a job interview, undisguised questions about salary progression and diversity policies in tow.
Gen Z is the term used to describe anyone younger than a millennial (Gen Y)—born in 1997 or later. This is the first generation commonly understood to be true blue digital natives. They don’t quite remember living in a world untouched by modern technology and digital connection; the younger of the bunch are born with preloaded accounts on social media platforms, launched and run by their parents often from the moment of conception—whether they like it or not. “I do not envy the pressures this generation faces. I think I’d be a wreck if I were growing up in their time,” says M, a top-level manager at a media company. “But they don’t hold back. Call me old-fashioned—I’m used to candidates who want to put their best foot forward in a job interview. Gen Z candidates want to know what the employer can do for them first. They’re the ones in power.”
M’s perspective, informed by the dozens of interviews she conducts monthly with young candidates, is not an uncommon one. Gen Z jobseekers and workers have been labelled entitled, demanding and deemed simply unfit for the working world. But the question that needs to be asked is this—why would a new generation want to play by the rules of a system it believes is broken?
The art of influence
Like the millennials before them, Gen Z have grown up having the virtues of a college education followed by a traditional nine-to-five extolled to them by every authority figure in their lives. But unlike their predecessors, they’ve seen real, hard evidence of the success an alternative path can bring.
For much of Gen Z, the first pieces of media they choose to consume on their own accord are on platforms like TikTok or YouTube, which are ruled not by production houses and media conglomerates, but young people filming whatever they wish to in their bedrooms. When these same young Internet personalities— whom viewers have strong trust and emotional bonds with—start achieving unspeakable wealth and success at astoundingly young ages, it shifts the goal post permanently, even for their peers with lesser or no Internet presence.
In 2023, over a third of active social media influencers are aged 25 and below. Some of these influencers, especially the ones with following counts in the millions, can bring in up to US$500,000 per sponsored post, meaning that well before they send out an application to a university, their net worth may be in the millions. “It’s hard not to feel the pressure when there are people your age buying a house,” agrees Z, a 25-year-old marketing executive. “You feel that you need to spend every second of your life being productive.”
“Gen Z are sensitive to realities that tend to be swept under the rug—like the issue of unpaid labour”
“Scroll on TikTok for 10 seconds and you’ll find people my age with flourishing side hustles that they maintain alongside regular jobs or school,” says 21-year-old B, a business student at a local university. “In doing so, they often meet a gap in customer needs that big corporations have not been able to.”
The idea of a five-to-nine to follow your nine-to-five may not be new, but Gen Z’s exposure to hyper-capitalist concepts like side hustles and passive income have come as early education in comparison to previous generations. A number of financial literacy studies show that Gen Z is more financially sophisticated than any other generation was at their age. With digitally savviness practically their birth right, this group also has higher rates of cryptocurrency investments—with one in 10 Gen Z adults in the US owning an NFT.
Still, their understanding of the real world, contrary to what some may believe, extends far beyond the technicalities of the metaverse. From a young age, Gen Z have borne first-witness to many a phenomenon that has revealed the real plight of the average worker.
What other generation before them would have watched hundreds of workers livestream the moment they are fired over Zoom with no warning on TikTok? More importantly—how could this not severely disillusion an entire generation on what the world of work has to offer?
I do not dream of labour
The intellectual roots of socialism may date back over two centuries ago, but Gen Z has found their own way to an anticapitalist movement fit for the modern day. Their philosophy is far more pragmatic than an outright rejection of working for money— instead, they question if traditional capitalist structures are truly capable of doing what they claim to.
“I think a generational trait for Gen Z is that we are sensitive to realities that tend to be swept under the rug—like the higher cost of living and issues like unpaid labour,” says H, a 22-year-old art history major at a local university. “We’re more aware of the failings of modern capitalism,” B chimes in. “We’re definitely more disillusioned than previous generations.”
Employers, too, are feeling the effects of this disillusionment. “Finding talent in the current market might be difficult, but I’ve found that it’s even harder building loyalty in a team,” says D, a managing director at a technology firm. “Gen Z now has so many options seemingly at their disposal, in no small part due to social media, that they don’t see the value in sticking it out at one job.”
As per D’s observations, reports over the last few years have clearly shown that millennial and Gen Z workers job-hop at a much greater and quicker rate than previous generations, with many Gen Z employees having worked for three or four different employers in a span of two to three years.
“Loyalty is a two-way street—I expect my employer to be loyal to me as well, but how often does that happen in today’s climate?”
The reasons most commonly attributed to this include an Internet-induced shrinking attention span, or, like D says, an overwhelming surplus of options that makes it hard to choose.
Still, H disagrees. “Hopping from one job to another doesn’t seem practical to me. It limits you from developing greater trust with your co-workers and building expertise. I value being able to establish a relationship with the people I work closely with and I don’t want that to feel transactional.”
Could it be, then, that it’s not the value of workplace loyalty that is changing, but rather its very definition? “For me, loyalty as an employee means staying with the company through its hard times. Loyalty does not mean bearing with obvious injustices or convincing myself that I love my job when I don’t. Loyalty is a two-way street—I expect my employer to be loyal to me as well, but how often does that happen in today’s climate?” asks B.
It’s a good question. Gen Z has quickly learnt from their predecessors. Job-hopping, while frowned upon by most employers, is also the easiest way to get a sizeable raise if you’re in a job without ample increment structures. The waves of lay-offs and unethical practices seen from corporations around the world have only served to solidify the impression that, in the workplace, loyalty seldom pays. Gen Z then asks—why sabotage their futures for a company that wouldn’t hesitate to let them go in the blink of an eye?
B concurs. “Blind loyalty to a company at the expense of your health and happiness does you no good. In the workplace, I believe in loyalty with strings attached.”
World War Z
Statistically, Gen Z is the most diverse generation the world has seen so far. This diversity comes both in the form of race and ethnicity (in the US, 48 percent of Gen Z is non-white) but also in other parameters including sexual identity, neurodiversity and social ideology.
In short, this generation is incredibly open-minded. They are also highly value-driven, especially when choosing their careers. “Genuine inclusivity in a workplace is very, very, very important to me,” says K, a 23-year-old writer in Singapore. “I can’t emphasise this enough—I wouldn’t want to work with people who are racist, homophobic or bigoted in any way.”
H agrees: “Inclusivity, freedom, treating and paying workers fairly—these are all values I hold close to my heart and they influence me when choosing a workplace. I do not want to be stuck in an environment where my identity is not respected and I’m unnecessarily taken advantage of as a young, fresh graduate in an industry.”
Gen Z have hearts for issues bigger than themselves. An able-bodied employee may want to know how committed a workplace is to supporting disabled workers. Mental health—both their own and their collective community’s—also holds a lot of value.
“We all learnt about mental health when we were 13, largely from social media,” says K. This raised consciousness did not save Gen Z from their struggle with a generational mental health crisis, with unprecedented rates of depression and anxiety reported in their cohort.
“I can’t emphasise this enough—I wouldn’t want to work with people who are racist, homophobic or bigoted in any way”
It did, however, prove to them just how important psychological well-being can be. Choosing a job that doesn’t compromise on their mental health is, for most young folk, non-negotiable. Call them snowflakes all you want—at least they’re taking care of themselves.
“It’s not like previous generations didn’t have mental health issues, right?” says R, a 20-year-old intern at a telecommunications company. “They just didn’t have the words or the knowledge to describe what they were feeling. They didn’t know how to get the help they needed. We’re lucky enough to know better, and we see it as our responsibility to take care of ourselves and one another.”
A fiercely protective spirit takes over my younger interviewees when they speak about mental health. It’s evident that they’ve been challenged, time and again, when they voice their concerns about declining mental health rates among young people and the factors that contribute to them. Still, their passion has far from waned.
It should come as no surprise—this is, after all, a generation driven by passion and emotion. Enjoying what they do, or at the very least, not despising it, seems to be a huge priority across the board. This comes not from a rose-tinted view of the world—rather, a firmly nihilistic one that reflects a generational wisdom beyond their years.
K sums it up wryly. “You spend more than half your lifetime at work and you’re surrounded by your co-workers constantly. If you take on a job that seems practical but doesn’t bring you a certain amount of joy, you’re spending all that time being absolutely miserable, and for what? The world could end tomorrow. When are you going to start enjoying your life?”
Illustration Yellow Mushmellow
The sources for this story have been left anonymous to allow them to share their views without fear of repercussion from their present or future employers.
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