Gen Z and millennials actually want the same things at work. But Gen Z has the upper hand.

Gen z worker
Gen Z is ready for flexibility. Su Arslanoglu/Getty Images
  • Millennials and Gen Z want the same things at work: flexibility and wellbeing.
  • While millennials have advocated for these things, the Great Recession made them more risk-averse, prioritizing job security.
  • The pandemic and remote work have led Gen Z to demand more change with more boldness.

Gen Z workers have got their millennial bosses shaking in their boots.

So declared the The New York Times’ Emma Goldberg in an article that caught the Internet’s attention last week, which examined the latest in generational workplace culture: Millennials are afraid of Gen Zers, who are confidently and assertively demanding a better work-life balance.

The TikTok generation delegates to their bosses, isn’t shy about asking for mental health days, works less once accomplishing their daily tasks, and sets their own hours, Goldberg wrote. It’s coming as a shock to work-obsessed millennials, whose careers have always seen overworked and structured days.

But here’s the thing: Although millennials and Gen Z may work differently, they want the same things in the workplace. Both generations experience more anxiety and stress than older generations, and both equally prioritize mental-health benefits and work-life balance.

A PwC survey all the way back in 2013 found that millennials wanted to structure their jobs around their daily schedules, exactly the same type of flexibility that Gen Z said they desired in a 2019 study by recruiting platform Yello. According to a 2020 Gallup Poll, millennials and Gen Z both prioritize employers that care about their wellbeing; this was all before The Great Resignation.

The difference is in how the generations approach these priorities at work, which has a lot to do with the economic crises each generation ran into after graduation. Millennials, who entered a dismal labor force broken by the Great Recession, were keen for change but risk-averse.

Gen Z, on the other hand, saw sharper swings in both directions – which included both an even steeper drop into recession, and the fastest jobs recovery on record. It’s so dramatic that job openings and labor shortages are both at historic highs, and they have their pick of work in the most flexible economy in memory.

Millennials just wanted job security when they were in Gen Z’s position

The financial crisis of 2008 sent the oldest millennials stumbling across a blighted labor market, hopping from job to job as they searched for a foothold in their career, all while carrying record levels of student debt. As the economy bounced them around the workforce, millennials gained a reputation as disloyal job hoppers.

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,” told Insider millennials were mislabeled.

“This was about a generation that were having jobs rescinded,” she said. “They were the first to be fired. They were the first to have to be moved from a full-time to a part-time position, or they had no benefits.”

Research has found that entering the workforce during a downturn can harm wage growth, with people who do so earning less for up to 15 years compared with people who graduated during times of prosperity. Instead of springboarding millennials into greater responsibility and higher income potential, early roles launched many into lower-wage trajectories and career uncertainty.

Remote work geriatric millennial
The Great Recession shaped millennials’ experience in the workforce. Justin Paget/Getty Images

Their experience was affected “by different economic conditions and realities” from either boomers or Gen Xers, Ernie Tedeschi, a managing director and policy economist for Evercore ISI, previously told Insider. “This has consequences for individual career prospects and affects their sense of dynamism.”

It all explains a lot about how the generation grew wary of risk, fearful of losing a job and under pressure to catch up financially. That led to the creation of a work-obsessed “hustle culture” and a widespread sense of burnout.

It means that millennials haven’t wanted their work lives to turn out quite like this. Work isn’t an exclusive priority for most of them, the PwC survey found, with 71% of respondents saying it interferes with their personal lives, and a Deloitte study found they value work-life balance above all other work characteristics.

In fact, millennials have been speaking up about work-life balance, Rikleen said, echoing what recruiters told The Washington Post in 2015 about seeing more and more job-seekers request flexibility. These requests fell on deaf ears from a combination of millennials’ cautious post-recession mindset and what one recruiter called an empathy gap between them and boomer supervisors.

The pandemic and remote work gave Gen Z leverage

It would take a pandemic and an even younger crowd to realize what millennials always wanted in the workplace.

The class of 2020 graduated into a paralyzed economy marked by a 14.7% unemployment rate. Younger workers were hit hardest during the coronavirus recession, and 2021 grads had the hardest time finding a job last summer, squeezed by cheaper teen labor on one hand and the millennials with experience to cash in, especially the so-called geriatric millennials who emerged with the most power during the labor shortage.

But the era of remote work gave Gen Z the upper hand in amplifying demands for workplace autonomy, Rikleen said. She added that their lives were turned upside down during an impressionable time.

“They had so much taken away from them in terms of access, you can go on and on with what has been lost,” she said. “That reframes your thinking … you start to think about what’s important to you and how to express [that].”

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The pandemic pushed Gen Z to advocate for a permanently flexible work situation. Maskot/Getty Images

And so, as the Times’ Goldberg wrote, they began questioning pre-pandemic workplace norms like eight-hour shifts or lack of progressive values, much to the chagrin of the millennial managers who are used to doing things their way (just like every generation).

“These younger generations are cracking the code and they’re like, ‘Hey guys, turns out we don’t have to do it like these old people tell us we have to do it,'” Colin Guinn, cofounder of robotics company Hangar Technology, told Goldberg. “‘We can actually do whatever we want and be just as successful.’ And us old people are like, ‘What is going on?'”

It’s part of what Erika Rodriguez called a “slow-up” in a recent opinion piece for the Guardian, as she advocated for an intentional slowdown in productivity with the aim of greater separation from work. This could be taking unofficial breaks or responding to emails only on select weekdays. If that doesn’t fly in a workplace, Gen Z has so far had no qualms about quitting their crappy jobs in favor of a better one, leading the way in what LinkedIn CEO Ryan Roslansky has called a “Great Reshuffle.”

A generational evolution

Millennials paved the way for a change in better flexibility and wellbeing at work, but Gen Z is turning it from a workplace perk to workplace norm. That’s how things go with generations – whenever the youngest cohort emerges in the labor force, and in the world, they always seem more progressive than the last.

“The quest for a workplace that respects boundaries and needs is baked in generationally,” Rikleen said. “That will not change. With each new generation, this will get stronger.”

As Rikleen points out, boomer or Gen X employers also used to express shock about how outspoken millennials were. It only makes sense that as millennials aged into employers themselves, that they too would be taken aback by the boldness of the generation following them. “It’s sort of a natural evolution,” Rikleen said.

To be sure, both millennials and Gen Z are vast generations. The youngest millennials turn 25 this year, closer in age to Gen Z than the oldest of their generation who turns 40, and unlikely to be in a managerial role. And with the oldest Gen Zer turning 24, most of the generation has yet to enter the workforce. This means, Rikleen explains, that we have to think about data on Gen Z workers as emerging data that represents patterns and trends.

But examining workplace transitions as millennials age into more powerful career roles and Gen Z continues to enter the workforce is important in understanding how to build an economy of workers that are happy and productive, especially in a post-pandemic world.

Millennials may be the largest generation right now, but with Gen Z set to become the most populous generation, they’ll one day dominate a workforce that’s going to look a lot different – until Generation C comes along and scares them, too. It’s just how generations – and economics – work.