Stop giving Gen Z so much credit for shaking up the workplace. Gen X started it 30 years ago

July 18, 2022, 12:30 AM UTC
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Gen Z is a puzzle everyone’s trying to figure out at work. They want it all: Purpose! Work-life balance! Flexibility! And if they don’t get it, they’ll leave the door swinging on their way out.

If that narrative sounds a little tired, it’s likely because you first heard it when millennials entered the workforce 15 years ago. They wanted it all, too, facing criticism for jumping from one job to the next in pursuit of a career they loved that still gave them room to breathe.

So are these workplace priorities actually a generational shift, or merely the typical whims of young workers in their first jobs? The question brings up an age-old debate on the legitimacy of generations. Labels for cohorts have long been used by researchers, demographers, and economists to analyze history and perspectives. But many have argued that generations don’t actually exist except in our imaginations, and research from a decade ago has even found that there aren’t many meaningful generational distinctions in workplace attitudes. 

“[Generations are] not natural laws, they’re just ways we have of understanding things,” says Jeffrey Arnett, psychologist and senior research scholar at Clark University. “They can be useful in some ways. But it’s important not to view them as fixed.”

After all, using broad strokes to paint a picture of a cohort can pigeonhole individuals. But we also shouldn’t just shrug off Gen Z’s behaviors as a folly of youth. The question is nuanced.

Arnett’s research, along with additional insights from workplace experts and decades of studies, point to the answer: Gen Z’s attitudes about work are the result of both generational identity and life stage. Yes, the pandemic accelerated desires past generations set into motion and emboldened Gen Z to speak up about them. But still, these are idealistic 20-somethings who have stars in their eyes, who are also eclipsed by economic crises. Millennials have trod this ground before. And some even argue that this workplace idealism began with Gen X 30 years ago. 

A July 2007 Fortune cover story explored the challenges bosses face trying to manage 20-somethings.

Idealizing passion and flexibility is part of the 20-something life stage, regardless of generation

Today’s idealistic view of work has roots in an economy that began to shift from manufacturing industries to information services and technology in the 1960s, continuing through the next several decades thanks to the rise of automation and a few recessions.

It created a cultural aspiration to find enjoyable work that’s more than just a paycheck, Arnett says: “In that kind of economy, you have a better chance of finding some kind of work that will actually be fun.”

Arnett began studying young adults in the 1990s—Gen Xers beginning their careers during the dot-com bubble. He found that many craved identity-based work: A job that wasn’t just a job, but something they looked forward to when waking up. It was similar to how they viewed love, idealizing a soulmate rather than just a marriage partner. It was a generational shift from how their parents viewed work and love, he says, but one he thought would become the norm for 18- to 25-year-olds in future generations—a life stage he then defined as emerging adulthood.

“Those changes we still have with us today now that we’ve gone from Gen X to millennials and from millennials to Gen Z,” he says.

There’s plenty of research emphasizing how much 20-somethings value enjoyable work—which has variously been defined as “meaning,” “purpose,” or “passion”— to back up Arnett. As cited by Quartz, a 1999 article from the Charlotte Observer reported that Gen X craved fun at work. Millennials took that desire to the next level, a 2017 LinkedIn study found, often picking passion over pay. Now, Gen Z is the generation most likely to say they want better career alignment in their interests and values.

Studies also show a similar track record for another popular young worker priority: flexibility and the work-life balance that comes with it. The same Charlotte Observer article also reported that Gen X wanted flexible schedules. Inc. described millennials as “hell-bent” on flexibility in 2015. Fast forward to the 2020s, and Gen Z is leading the pack with the same demands. 

Arnett finds that the romanticized desire for having a job you’re passionate about wanes as we age. Even in 2017, millennials, the oldest of whom were 36, were already starting to value stability over passion. “In their early 20s, people still dream big,” Arnett says. “People have these ideals, but they eventually have to accommodate themselves to a more accessible reality.” 

The pandemic has made these workplace desires stronger for Gen Z

Since each generation is typically more progressive than the last, the 20-something dreams of purposeful and flexible work have become even more pronounced with each new cohort. That’s especially so with Gen Z, many of whom entered the workforce during the era of remote work and The Great Resignation.

That’s why work-life integration demands are part of a demographic sea change, says Lauren Stiller Rikleen, president at Rikleen Institute for Strategic Leadership and author of You Raised Us, Now Work With Us: Millennials, Career Success, and Building Strong Workplace Teams. Boomers were more focused on surviving in a workforce that lacked guidance and training, she explains, but more workplace support over time has enabled young workers to take their values into the office.

“That means not only the ability to have flexibility around raising a family, but to live a more complete life and think about health and wellness,” Rikleen tells Fortune.

But the generational trendline around some of these work-life changes isn’t happening fast enough for where millennials and Gen Z are today, she says, and Gen Z is more proactive in getting these changes across the line. 

Millennials and Gen Z approached their similar desires differently based on their economic experiences: Graduating into the Great Recession made millennials less inclined to ask for the things they wanted because they just felt lucky to have a job, whereas graduating into the pandemic empowered Gen Z to make autonomous demands.

Gen Z is placing higher priority on pursuing their passions and work-life balance than past generations did at their age after having their career plans upended and experiencing job loss, says Jason Dorsey, Gen Z expert and founder of The Center for Generational Kinetics.

When Gen Z doesn’t work for an employer willing to meet their demands, they have no problem finding a new job. As a result, they have a reputation for being anti-capitalist and anti-work, which may seem at odds with Arnett’s theory of the 20-something’s identity-based work tenet. But herein lies another generational shift: While millennials often view their career as central to their identity, Gen Z feels meaningful work is just one part of who they are.

“Whereas other generations thought that their identity started at 9 a.m. and ended at 5 p.m., Gen Z often feels that their identity starts outside of work,” Dorsey tells Fortune. “That puts less pressure on them to define themselves through their current employment.”

But regardless of life stage or generation, many people have loved the taste of work-life balance the pandemic has given them. Even pre-COVID, Boomers yearned for more unstructured schedules. Arnett believes that older workers would love to choose their own schedules, but that it hasn’t often been possible for them. 

“COVID has really shaken things up,” he says. “It’ll be interesting to see if these younger workers are able to sustain that.”

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