Managers have spent the past few years airing their frustrations about their Gen Z workers, lamenting that they’ve been leading the pack in the Great Resignation, quiet quitting, and flexible work demands unheard of in pre-pandemic times. But there’s a lot more to the situation than the seemingly apathetic and disloyal young worker meets the eye.
Gen Z workers are “caught in a whammy between COVID and ChatGPT,” Melissa Swift, transformation leader at consulting firm Mercer, recently told the Financial Times. Graduating into the pandemic, she said, left them “in the wilderness.” At the time, the unemployment rate was the highest it had been since the Great Depression, leaving new grads struggling to gain a foothold in their careers.
While the unemployment rate has since rebounded (it hit the lowest it’s been since the 1970s last year) and the generation was able to get back on the career path, many Gen Zers have only worked in a remote world; their vastly different entry points have created a deep disconnect, resulting in a lack of mentorship opportunities, mismatched expectations, and even more granular things like difficulties deciphering tone and context over Slack.
It doesn’t help that artificial intelligence like ChatGPT threatens to undermine many entry-level tasks and roles—that upends much of the work early career professionals used to do as they learned the tricks of the trade, Swift said. No wonder about 40% of workers who are familiar with ChatGPT are concerned the chatbot will replace their jobs completely, per a March 2023 Harris poll.
As a result of these compounding factors, Swift said Gen Z has developed a slate of “unusual needs” of extra support and deeper mentorship, setting them apart from any prior generation of workers. It’s created a perfect storm for discordance with their tired managers, she added. Indeed, Gen X and millennial managers are facing historic levels of burnout, which has left them with vanishingly little free time to train their direct reports, much less take a full audit of what their early workplace experience looks and feels like.
That’s a shame, because they actually have a lot in common with their Gen Z reports. Gen Xers, who began their careers during the dot-com bubble often leaned towards work that aligned with their values, much like Gen Z is doing now. It marked a generational shift in how we view work that remain with us in the present, Jeffrey Arnett, a psychologist and senior research scholar at Clark University, told Fortune’s Hillary Hoffower. That means Gen Z’s attitude toward work isn’t just shaped by generational identity and their experiences, but by their life stage.
But middle managers are missing a critical moment to recognize and relate to such common gripes because their hands are full trying to manage persistent labor shortages raise demands during high inflation and raise demands during high inflation, all while implementing the C-suite’s return-to-office mandates.
The ensuing burnout is having ripple effects: Nearly half (46%) of middle managers say it’s likely they’ll quit their jobs within a year because of work-related stress, according to a 3,400-person survey by the Workforce Institute at UKG.
“The chronic anxiety that comes from working through one global crisis after another is wearing on employees,” Jarik Conrad, executive director of The Workforce Institute, said at the time. “Being overwhelmed consumes human energy and impacts retention, performance, innovation, and culture.”
Indeed, middle managers often serve as an organization’s “shock absorber,” equally impacted by—and responsible for—the newest workers’ needs and the most senior workers’ demands. The O.C. Tanner Institute’s 2023 Global Culture report found that bosses consistently report worse work experiences than that of their direct reports.
While a pay bump wouldn’t hurt the matter, higher salaries don’t compensate for a lack of appreciation, Gary Beckstand, O.C. Tanner’s VP, wrote for Fortune. “Non-monetary recognition is essential,” he said. “It creates a lasting impact when it’s personal, sincere, and tied to one’s efforts or achievements.” Middle managers are often asked to recognize each of their team members’ unique contributions, Beckstand went on. They, too, “should be on the receiving end of thoughtful recognition.”
That’s an idea Gen Z can get behind; for all the hand-wringing over their insistence on bucking tradition, they actually want to go into the office—and receive that recognition, mentorship, connection, and hands-on education—more than anyone. Who knows; maybe over an in-person coffee, those young workers and their older bosses will get talking and realize they have more in common than they could’ve guessed.