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Is it Gen Z, or is it just being in your 20s?

Updated: 5 days ago

As a member of the Gen Z cohort, it’s been quite amusing to see how we’ve been catching some heat in the media in recent weeks. Whether we’re being called “generation sick note” or just downright lazy, there seems to be a lack of understanding of what we’re bringing into the workforce. 


Unlike our parents, we’ve downgraded the status of work in our lives as the be-all-end-all, and we’re simply not here to put up and shut up. Apparently, we’re all about the soft life with our ‘lazy girl jobs’ and making full use of our annual leave. Older generations think we’re quite audacious, switching jobs every year, demanding that companies offer flexible working or have a mental health policy, but are these behaviours just exclusive to our generation?


There’s an argument to say that a lot of what Generation Z is going through is just par for the course when you’re in your twenties — questioning life, longing for a better world, and experimenting. Or whether this is truly a different experience that is going to shape-shift the workplace for good. 


So as it’s global intergenerational week, we’ve taken an unmistakable look at what work expectations are like when people are in their twenties – whether they’re in their twenties today or have been in the workplace for twenty years. 

Let’s debunk some of these new gen theories and see if it’s just us Gen Z'ers being “difficult”.


Setting expectations 


For millennials at TU, getting a job amongst the steep competition after the 2008 recession was a privilege in itself. Studies show that British Millennials are still wearing the economic scars from the 2008 financial crisis and earn about 8% less than Gen X when they were the same age, whilst their US counterparts have managed to close the gap.


Entering the job market during the recessionary environment of 2008-2009 meant being choosy about a job in my twenties wasn’t necessarily an option. With a first-class degree from a good university, I thought I could walk into a grad scheme with ease, however there were fewer jobs and a lot of competition. When I had two offers, I took the one that was lower paid but meant I could build up a career in London. I just felt lucky to have a job and to be able to live at home with my mum for a few years to make the low pay tolerable. (Millennial)
In the lead-up to graduating, I knew I had to find a job to be able to stay in London, as my mum wasn’t here and my stepdad had to get out of London for various reasons. I remember it being super competitive — I applied for so many roles and I still remember how stressful and endless it felt — to the point that I thought I would have to leave the UK. But, eventually, I landed a graduate job. I was just very grateful — and relieved that I could get paid to cover a roof over my head (my rent), food and basics at that time. Everything else was a bonus.  (Millennial)

For others, the expectation was to roll your sleeves up – probably a bit too far up– to gain as much experience as possible to get ahead, no matter the industry.


I felt that I was behind my peer group, I had a lot of ambition and was quickly disillusioned by the level of competition in my chosen field. I chose the life of grafting — taking a job that wasn’t really doing something I loved or felt passionate about, but where I thought I would learn core skills. I was constantly looking for ways to stretch myself and build on my experience set. (Millennial)
In my twenties, my focus was on gaining experience in the workplace and building the foundations for my career. I expected to work hard, learn and put in the hours to be able to do this. Working in this way was also an unwritten expectation, I suppose. (Millennial)
I just wanted a job that I liked more than I disliked (51% was fine), with an employer who didn’t directly compromise my values — and if possible an environment that enabled me to learn something new now and then. (Millennial)

In comparison, our resident “Generation X'ers” had a ‘work hard, play hard’ mentality in their 20s, but finding a job wasn’t as difficult as it was for our Millennial colleagues. 


I began my career in PR in the late 90s, under the (false) impression that if I worked hard enough, I’d get promoted and earn top dollar. After all, that’s the Indian dream, no?
I literally grafted my ass off — in the days before high-speed internet access (!), this meant hours and hours sitting in the office. Early mornings. Late nights. Weekends. You did what you were told. You complained, but never to the big bosses — there was a queue of people eager and ready to fill your shoes if you made a misstep or said the wrong thing. (Cancel culture was definitely a thing even back then). The only benefit is that Addison Lee taxis are charged to client accounts. If I wasn’t in the office, I was out with my colleagues. Certainly a decade of hedonism where work and personal life collided all day every day. 
Stability wasn’t ever a consideration — there were always jobs around and work was plentiful. My biggest drivers were working on amazing brands, doing amazing things, having amazing experiences and earning a decent salary. (Gen X)

While some things remain the same across generations--a decent salary, a career pathway, and opportunities to learn and grow--some things differ.


The flex: a good work/life balance 


Unlike previous generations, Gen-Z doesn’t want to be part of the rat race. 60-hour working weeks, a lack of flexibility in the workplace, and toxic work environments are perceived as automatic red flags — and are being talked about publicly on social media. Coming out of a pandemic, the state of work was redefined for office workers as we were forced to talk to our laptop cameras, and a higher emphasis on well-being and flexibility has become the standard.



To some millennials and Gen X, a work/life balance is a relatively new concept, as it seemed the grind never stopped: 


[A work-life balance was] Completely irrelevant. I — and everyone I knew — combined the two. Work was life. My fridge was empty, and my cupboards were bare. 
That changed marginally when I got married, aged 30, a little more after my first and second children when I was 33 and 35, and only really became a serious consideration after child 3 came along, when I was 39! (Gen X)
I am not sure if I’d ever heard of this term ‘work/life balance’ until later in my 20s when my peers started talking about creating families / buying homes. I spent a lot of time at work from the get-go, Monday-Friday, 9am till late at the office or a client’s office. Initially with a 1h 30m commute (each way) to the opposite side of London, which I managed to squish to under 1h on moving. I’d be so knackered that I’d just get home, eat (maybe) and sleep — on repeat. Weekends were for seeing friends and recharging — possibly a bit of work, depending. (Millennial)
My 20s were about getting my feet on ladders- a career ladder and a property ladder. Balance came in at the weekend, where I definitely had a lot of fun, but the work week was just that. My friends were all doing the same too, so everyone was, to use the expression of the time, ‘chasing it’. (Millennial)
I don’t remember there being a work/life balance — work was life. The days were long in agency life, and I loved it because it meant I was out exploring London and meeting new people every day. It’s only when I got to my early thirties that I realised my flat was just the place I slept, not the place I lived. I lived out and about, and as I get to my late thirties, having more of a balance is important to me. That said, I do think I maybe worked a bit too much in my twenties, but I didn’t know anything different and given I felt lucky to have a job, I don’t see an alternative. (Millennial)

These experiences vary with other millennials and Gen Z who enforce healthy boundaries in their working day and acknowledge that burnout is inevitable when you’re answering to endless demands.  


It comes and goes. In my early twenties, I was easily able to work an extra hour a day and not feel any consequences. In my late twenties (now) I’m much less willing to give my time away for free. I now leave work at work. I’ve never worked weekends or anything later than 6pm. (Millennial)
It initially wasn’t that essential to me. I believed constantly pushing myself and working very hard, for long periods, was the way to go about working. However, after quite a few times burning myself out and getting ill, I notice how important it is to balance it. As the work I do is close to my sense of duty, it can be hard to distance myself from the work I do and stop at times, but it's so essential to have a balance there. (Gen Z)

These days, flexible working and a stable work/life balance are expected as part of a business wellbeing offer to employees. However, this isn’t just exclusive to the ‘under 27’s’ as more than two thirds of Gen-Z’s and millennials opt for more remote/hybrid working.


And millennial parents are making full use of increased flexibility to manage juggling childcare and meeting deadlines. Whilst, this does become quite gendered, with working mothers more likely than fathers to report feeling less able to progress in their careers while working flexibly. The point is, enforcing healthy boundaries at work has become the standard in 2024.


Now, this doesn’t mean the younger generation just want to have a lie-in on Monday mornings. In fact, McKinsey’s recent report on holistic health assesses the differences and nuances across generations and found that those aged 18 to 24 had in fact the lowest holistic health scores. With unprecedented levels of burnout, perhaps this is a reason Gen Z has such a laserlike focus on wellbeing at work. 


What’s it giving?


As the generation that is ‘unprecedentedly rich’ according to the Economist, it’s safe to say that Gen Z has been afforded opportunities that our predecessors haven’t–and are finding ways to thrive. With our trainers and jeans, day in the life TikToks and our new workplace slang, we’ve taken the workplace by storm – even though some employers raise an eyebrow at some of our expectations.


Deandre Brown or the ‘Corporate Baddie’ summaries how we enforce these expectations: 





It seems that the whole ‘adulting’ thing in your twenties is not so different across the generations, as we all seem to have this hustle mentality. However, it seems like time goes on, each new generation that enters the workplace pushes the boundaries a little further.


This X user puts it perfectly: 




 

Although we think we have it harder than our parents do, Gen Z also has a secret weapon that many generations didn’t have – the power of social media. The power of being ‘cancelled’ and the fear of being called out has forced businesses to look internally to make radical changes to work culture. This is not to say that we haven’t had the help of the generations before us with the history of industrial strikes and government lobbying all over the UK. 


If we put it into perspective, every generation could be called lazy or spoilt. In 1817, 80 to 100 hour working weeks were the norm and there was no such thing as annual leave. 


Whilst the prospect of a four-day working week is floating around for some companies in 2024, we must remember that a five-day working week only became a concept in the 1920s.


So yes, there is something about being in your twenties that we all have in common, and we think Gen Z has certainly raised the stakes. However, this doesn’t mean other generations don’t benefit from the new norms at work.

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