Quiet quitting is getting a run for its money with inflation: Gen Z and millennials are really struggling to get the work-life balance they want

Young workers still want work-life balance, but factoring in economic uncertainty, they're working extra to pay the bills.
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Just like Kermit and Miss Piggy’s dynamic, young adults’ relationship with work is, in a word, complicated. While millennials and Gen Zers highly value work-life balance, they’re operating in a high-inflation world where money is tight and stable finances are tough to find. They might not dream of labor, but many must labor even harder than their parents did to afford the same lifestyle, making it difficult for them to actually put their money where their mouth is when it comes to achieving that coveted balance.

So finds Deloitte’s global survey of 22,000 millennial and Gen Z workers, who said work-life balance is the top trait they admire in their peers and their top consideration when choosing an employer, above learning and development and pay. It seems at odds with Deloitte’s other finding: Nearly half (49%) of Gen Zers and 62% of millennials say their job is still central to their sense of identity, second only to their family and friends, but more important than hobbies, music, and exercise. But it may be hard to separate work from identity when you’re working all the time to make ends meet.

“Ultimately, Gen Zs and millennials do value balance, but they are struggling to make it happen,” says Michele Parmelee, Deloitte’s global people and purpose leader, explaining that economic uncertainty isn’t helping. Young adults reported in the survey they worry that worsening economic conditions will set them back in their own work-balance goals.

During the early pandemic, employees, especially younger ones, found themselves in an existential spot that Parmalee says prompted them to rethink the role work plays in their lives. The ensuing #antiwork movement was born out of their discontent with work and capitalism at large, as wages weren’t going far enough to cover the bills. Younger generations were accused of quiet quitting, or taking it easy at their (oft underpaid) job—really, just continuing to do one’s job without going above and beyond.

But in reality, they’re less likely to take it easy when they’re worried about their job stability and bank account. Millennials and Gen Z are both facing true inflation for the first time in their lives, more at risk of being impacted by general economic volatility considering that they are early on in their careers with lower salaries, and have had less of a chance to build as much wealth as older generations.

As recession fears loomed and inflation outpaced wages, many have added second or third gigs to get by, Deloitte found. Meanwhile, others are stayed on the clock past the typical nine-to-five; seven out of 10 respondents said they responded to work emails outside of normal hours at least once a week. Many increasingly want part-time work options to maintain their work-life balance goals, but most said it’s not a feasible option, as they can’t afford the pay cut it would require. 

Executives have been rolling back pandemic perks and flexible schedules in the name of cutting costs and returning to the office, arguing that in-office workers are more productive and would thus improve their bottom lines should a recession come. As younger workers experience a pullback in the work-life balance they were promised at the start of the pandemic, they’ve found themselves stuck in a time where the pendulum is swinging backward.

Some are worried that if the economy worsens, it will make it more difficult for them to ask for flexibility at work and improve their work-life balance; one-third said it will be harder to improve, and 15% say it’ll be impossible. “Employers can help by providing more flexible work environments, both in terms of where and when people work, which will continue to be very attractive to these generations,” Parmalee says.

At the end of the day, younger generations might want more from work, but the current state of the economy isn’t necessarily meeting them in the middle. 

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