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Gen Z and a New Relationship to Work

(Justin Paget/Getty Images)

In the long term, it is likely that the workplace will diversify and, in turn, settle into four or five different buckets on a continuum from traditional and non-traditional, with less representation at the extremes.”

In “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” Joan Didion, reporting on late 1960s San Francisco hippie culture, wrote:

“Anybody who thinks this is all about drugs has his head in a bag. It’s a social movement, quintessentially romantic, the kind that recurs in times of real social crisis. The themes are always the same. A return to innocence. The invocation of an earlier authority and control. The mysteries of the blood. An itch for the transcendental, for purification. Right there you’ve got the ways that romanticism historically ends up in trouble, lends itself to authoritarianism.”

Attitudes toward work were similarly shifting. The free love, psychedelic-driven “tune in, turn on, and drop out” credo was a reaction to Cold War-era conformism and overt repression (such as McCarthyism). People were questioning the status quo in ways we would arguably not see again until the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and the political upheavals with which it coincided. Combined with widespread teleconferencing, the pandemic proved that virtual work was at least ready for beta testing, if not prime time. However, as with distance learning and telemedicine, we are still determining where it works and where it falls short. 

There is serious doubt today surrounding the notion that education and hard work will lead to financial success; people graduating with undergraduate and graduate degrees find themselves uncertain about how to make a living. They are often also in chronic debt. The FIRE movement (Financial Independence, Retire Early) reflects an effort to wise up and free oneself from the shackles of the past. While some may hear this as “old wine in new bottles,” complaining that each generation finds its own names for the same old thing, others believe that fundamental changes are afoot.

Fast Forward

As a New York psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who grew up in the 1970s with an eye for the sociological, I have been attuned to how the pendulum of culture swings hither and yon. Things which seem state of the art may indeed be new, or they may be repetitions of the past: variations on a theme, with old and new elements. Human beings tend to adopt polarized views. It is psychologically simpler, easier on the decision-making circuits, and more appealing for those inclined to pick a side.

However, binary thinking has limits. John Keats mused in 1817

“[S]everal things dovetailed in my mind, & at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in Literature and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously—I mean Negative Capability, that is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason…” [Emphasis original]

For Generation Z (and those to come after), things are irreversibly different from the late 1960s; in some ways, though, they bear a resemblance. The differences stem from the explosive impact of technology. From the Cambrian explosion of personal computers; to the emergence of the Internet, social media, and smartphones; to the current birthing of artificial intelligence (AI) and the transformative impact of machine learning and Big Data, we live in a time of uncertainty, marked by changes rivaling those of the Industrial Revolution.

We are seeing a turn toward greater awareness of mental health after the “Pandemic Years.” American culture, in particular, is being pulled apart at the seams. Generations growing up in these times know this in their bones, but the words to describe what they feel are not there yet. 

The macro culture shapes individual identity now more than ever, as social media and interconnectivity bring us as close to total strangers around the world as to physically proximate friends and families. This creates opportunities for greater global awareness, while also amplifying the echo chambers that further drive us apart by falsely convincing us that what we want to believe is the only possible reality.

Individual Autonomy and Workplace Flexibility

So what about the workplace? In their 2023 book Working with Gen Z, authors Santor Nishizaki and James DellaNeve report that nearly 70% of Gen Z workers surveyed would like to work remotely at least half the time. They are optimistic about the future, and 87% may want to start their own business at some point, departing from conventional workplace expectations. While it is difficult to draw conclusions based on relatively short-term trends, far-sighted leaders need to plan for multiple contingencies while also addressing immediate needs and creating a comfortable and productive work environment.

Will it be a conventional, in-person, and nine-to-five arrangement? A work-yourself-to-the-bone, relationship-building model? A minimalist, paycheck-to-paycheck, subsistence approach? A hybrid which balances Gen Z’s needs for both high-touch and being left alone? A utopian future in which technology emancipates humanity to follow our passions? A dystopian future in which we descend into purposeless hedonism, courtesy of AI?

Preparing for the most likely arrangements, which accommodate a hybrid work environment with more flexibility while also maintaining productivity and supporting work-life balance, is where the majority of effort should be directed. Companies can also decide to set stricter limits (some have), requiring staff to return to full in-person work, if that is what works best for them. Staff may leave, but those who remain will be better aligned with the company culture. Regardless of the work setting, it is crucial to support staff where they are. 

In the long term, it is likely that the workplace will diversify and, in turn, settle into four or five different buckets on a continuum from traditional and non-traditional, with less representation at the extremes. This “modular responsive” approach provides a way to match employees with the employers who are best for them, a mutually responsive set-up rather than one that primarily benefits the employer. At first, this will be more spontaneous rather than planned in advance.

We will see different work models emerge, and workers will migrate from job to job (we are already seeing these shifts) until they find the correct fit. This is a stochastic model, a semi-random sorting. Later, as the experiment proceeds, we are likely to witness greater structure as the marketplace settles into patterns. In this iteration, workers will have a better sense of what they want, and job searches (likely AI-supported) will help people find the right match—perhaps in a manner more similar to applying to colleges than the current job search model. 

Some versions of the workplace will accordingly shift away from being only a way to make a living, toward a more developmental experience, with educational, personal, and professional development opportunities. Employees will have more say in their own work experience (within limits), while also expecting more from the workplace in terms of guidance and egalitarianism.

As human development extends deeper into adulthood, as the lifespan gets longer and more people benefit from greater resources, the workplace eventually will morph into a way of life, supporting work-life balance with an eye on what happens both within formal work hours (if there are any), and outside. What is unlikely to change is that the economics will have to work for both businesses and employees. The balance of power between labor and ownership will continue to be important, even for companies where everyone is an owner.

Grant H. Brenner MD is a board-certified psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, and therapist. He is the author or co-author of four books, including his latest, Making Your Crazy Work For You: From Trauma and Isolation to Self-Acceptance and Love. 

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