Brattish. Know-it-alls. Undisciplined. Exhausting and difficult. These are the latest unflattering onslaught of words that have been attributed to Gen Z and their performance at the workplace.
There’s a kind of an eye-rolling reflex and clicking of the tongue when this term is mentioned to some people from the previous generations. Gen Z, the ones born in the late 2000s are classified or rather just slumped into the ‘TikTok’ category, which to many millennials and those before them, indicates laziness and overconfidence.
Recently, an American survey of 1,344 managers and business leaders by ResumeBuilder said 74 per cent of managers find Gen Z harder to work with than other generations, while 49 per cent said they found Gen Z difficult to work with all or most of the time. A manager told Entrepreneur.com, “They think they're better than you, smarter than you, more capable than you, and they will tell you to your face."
It’s almost a war between generations.
‘Gen Z wants to skip a few steps first’
Nicki Wilson, a Dubai-based Human Resources manager, has noticed a recent shift in mentality with a lot of the Gen Z now entering the workforce. “I often see young people coming in energetically ready for work, then after a few months they start to dwindle in attitude and productivity,” she says. Speaking from experience, she notes that the majority of Gen Z desire a quick progression, regular salary increases and all the perks. “Even when they have a great environment or progression they often want even more. I, as a millennial, had to work my way up, which is what most people would understand, but it’s as if Gen Z want to skip a few steps first,” she says.
Wilson observes that most of them get overwhelmed with responsibility, which leads to fragile mental health. There’s also a pervasive air of boredom, when they don’t receive advancements quickly. “I am conscious of the trending topics of exhaustion and burnout, so you are left in a catch 22 as what do Gen Z really want? As an employer you cannot be paranoid of all the terms,” she explains.
Wilson adds that the current generation is “heavily influenced” by social media and also have the convenience of everything being available to them. “Even Chat GPT [AI] will write things for you, if you are at a loss for things to say. An overstimulated society can mean that employers now must think of different ways to incentivise their employees. Saying this though there must be a fine line,” she adds.
Sixty-eight-year-old Mala Dey from Abu Dhabi, a former school teacher, heartily agrees with the sentiment, “I understand people getting exhausted with work, but kids these days barely do anything before they start complaining. Then they switch jobs and complain again. They have a short attention span and are just ready to walk out the door when things go slightly wrong.”
Gen Z hits back: Don’t stereotype us
The younger generation does take umbrage at these terms and labels, as evident from the million TikTok videos. They claim that the older generations just don’t understand them. Video after video, Gen Z talks about the "suffocating" culture at their workplaces, and complain about the lack of guidance. "I know workplaces where people have just let us be, been condescending because we're interns and forgotten about us. How are we supposed to learn? If you ask questions and protest, we become the problem," says 23-year-old Mira Ray, a college student in Abu Dhabi. "People come with fixed perceptions about the younger generation, and just make assumptions about them and think they know better, and we belong to some 'TikTok' generation," says Amy Law, a twenty-four year old college student who recently finished her first internship.
Twenty-year old Lily Hunter, intern at the Dubai-based British Business Group is frustrated with the “stereotyping” of her generation. “Many of us are diligent hard workers, defying misconceptions with our dedications and ambition. We like to be busy, that is how we learn. The generational divide, between those who value traditional learning through listening and those who prefer hands-on work, has led to the stereotypes of Gen Z.”
Many of us are diligent hard workers, defying misconceptions with our dedications and ambition. We like to be busy, that is how we learn. The generational divide, between those who value traditional learning through listening and those who prefer hands-on work, has led to the stereotypes of Gen Z
Regarding the adjectives of being too ‘entitled’ and ‘challenging’, Hunter argues, “We were taught to adapt to whatever situation arises, whether that is Covid-19 or the fast-paced curriculum, we are never at a constant.” A little perplexed at the idea that the generation is just difficult at the workplace, she argues that they’ve been taught to voice their opinions, be it in a situation or otherwise. The stereotypes have risen not from Gen Z’s actions, but from the previous generations misunderstandings about the work ethic and desire to learn, adds Hunter.
‘Every generation has their own map of the world’
You can’t just label an entire generation, says Dan Bolton, CEO and founder of Echo, Dubai-based creative management agency. Mentioning that he hires mostly millennials and Gen Z, he emphasises, “Every generation has their own complexities and nuances, and it’s all about understanding them and communication. The generation before the millennials, grew up in an environment where expectations were different. Most of them found a job and didn’t change it throughout the course of their life.” They didn’t see any other option, because quite possibly, career options were far more limited then.
The consumption of media has also evolved with the times, adds Bolton. The older generation relied on print, the millennials saw the development of Google and YouTube. He explains that his generation, the millennials, were growing up seeing gradual changes in technology and the workforce. “Gen Z was born with technology all around them, and have so much more choice, capital and opportunities than we had, let alone what my parents had,” says Bolton.
Every generation has their own complexities and nuances, and it’s all about understanding them and communication. The generation before the millennials, grew up in an environment where expectations were different. Most of them found a job and didn’t change it throughout the course of their life.
Gen Z think they can and should have it all, says Adam Zargar, a Dubai-based leadership coach, wellness expert and mentor. “They should have the well-paid career, the frequent travel, the flexibility in their days, and the ownership in how they manage their role and above all full trust,” he says. Zargar doesn’t believe they can just be written off as ‘lazy’, as he feels that every generation has their own map of the world. “It is simply a different mentality of work and life. Each can and should learn from each other to make it work better. Focusing on each ideal having value is important to make things flow better,” he says.
Regarding the tags of being ‘know-it-alls’ and being ‘challenging’ to work with, Zargar answers, “I believe that each time a new generation comes in, there is a feeling that they think they are better, smarter. With any change, worry and uncertainty and distrust can build up and it’s easier to stereotype. I think it’s essential to change our thoughts and see the new generation as someone to learn from.” Zargar also adds that the old adage of ‘working your way up’ and staying in the same company is not as common, as many want to start their own business. And, most have the option of doing so, as well.
A disconnect with the workplace after the pandemic?
It’s important to see the social and cultural context that Gen Z has grown up in too. The demographic has also been moulded by the changing environment, including the Covid-19 pandemic, which saw people working remotely for over two years, if not more. People grew used to working at home, rather than having the energy of coming to office, leading to a physical disconnection from the workplace itself.
“Gen Z have only been in the work force around the time and after the pandemic,” says Zargar. “They are used to the hybrid role or work from home so most don’t have the physical relationship with their bosses,” he explains. The lack of personal time with bosses and employees has also fueled a sense of disconnect and misunderstandings. This is why most of them feel a lack of empathy from their bosses and why most Gen Z feel uncared for.
On the other hand, Wilson feels that the pandemic had somehow fostered the idea in most Gen Z individuals that they could be paid to stay at home forever. “Perhaps that’s a sweeping statement, but it would have affected many and their mindsets. Other issues arose through the pandemic like issues with social interaction, home comforts and almost like a lack of desire to have that get up and go,” she says. “This was also the age, where every social media channel in your face is saying how you could triple your money. Attitudes swiftly changed to thinking it was super easy to be rich and all you had to do was just stay at home,” she explains.
Gen Z and the conversations on mental health
In the past two years, the terms ‘quiet-quitting’ became a trend, with Gen Z proclaiming on TikTok, that they had no intention of just working themselves to the bone. One TikToker named Hunter Ka’imi had shared a video and said, “I’m not going to put in a sixty-hour work week and pull myself up by my bootstraps for a job that does not care about me as a person.”
On the other hand, surveys, some conducted by Gallup, an American advisory and Analytics Company, found that the complaints of burnout and exhaustion, were mostly coming from the younger generation.
Is it ‘giving up’ or has the new generation opened the door to conversations on mental health and well-being at the workplace? Instead of the term ‘addressing’, Bolton believes that Gen Z has “exposed” the world to the questionable conditions at many workplaces. Zargar refers to it as a “hard stand” and says, “They are in fact being confident enough to take a stand, if they feel their leaders or organisation does not meet their values and needs or they don’t see the greater impact.”
Gen Z has also grown up in a time when discussions regarding mental health and having a more balanced approach to work is paramount, says Zargar. Owing to the social media boom, they hear more about it through popular discussions. “They are aware and active in this conversation. More people are talking and breaking this stigma and suggesting ways to combat anxiety and stress. They also talk about how being ‘happier or fulfilled’ creates impact, and is more important than wealth for wealth’s sake,” he says.
Wilson acknowledges that it’s quite possible that toxic workplaces weren’t so strongly highlighted before as they are now. She feels there has been a more gradual shift in employees desire for a better culture, and it’s not just Gen Z speaking here. “They want something more than just salary. One solution I have found is to allow employees to have their own side hustles so they can experience the difficulties of running businesses whilst still being employed,” she says.
Words for the wise
While Gen Z has the powerful dynamism, Bolton has some words for them. “They need to be ready for failures down the road, if they want to build a long-lasting career. They need to have some amount of consistency and dedication to what they’re doing, and a stronger attention span,” he says. Education and preparedness just don’t come from schools, it also has to come from the previous generation.
Regarding the workplace, Zargar doesn’t think it’s just the matter of ‘generations’, but people instead. “I think the only problem they face in the workplace is distrust. We all need to be open to learning and think how we can have a win-win. Things will settle down, if we are open to understanding that each person has strengths and when we as leaders can understand and utilise this, wonderful things will happen,” he adds.
I think the only problem Gen Z face in the workplace is distrust. We all need to be open to learning and think how we can have a win-win. Things will settle down, if we are open to understanding that each person has strengths and when we as leaders can understand and utilise this, wonderful things will happen
Zargar explains that they can excel if trusted to work on independent projects, and if they’re encouraged to think beyond their job description, which will help them stay engaged and loyal.
They also need to tone down and track their involvement with technology, according to Wilson. “Having a grounded workplace that is patient with the workforce adapting to the ‘real world’ can truly allow for many to flourish and if they do want to leave for more money and working one day a week… well, let them.”