Even A Recession Won’t Stop Gen Z’s Workforce Disruption

Gen Z isn't afraid to job hop in unfavorable job markets, and employers need to be mindful of their preference for flexible and remote working

gen z, gen z workers, gen z workforce, remote working, working from home, work-life balance

As some uncertainty remains about the economy despite continued jobs growth, many are watching to see how the workforce – and Gen Z – will react. Unprecedented numbers of people quit their jobs in 2021 and 2022, just as the world reopened with new opportunities after pandemic lockdowns. Now, the job market is tight and layoffs are making headlines. Yet growing economic uncertainty shows no sign of dampening the optimism of Gen Zers, who are quick to leave their jobs when they feel dissatisfied. In fact, an Oliver Wyman Forum survey suggests Gen Z's approach to work might outlive any recession.

The generation born between 1997 and 2012 has been challenging traditional assumptions about work, particularly the value of employer loyalty, since they began entering the labor force in scale a few years ago. While economic uncertainty often leads people to prioritize job security over job-seeking, the majority of Gen Zers continue to search for better opportunities. Based on Oliver Wyman's survey of 2,000 US and UK respondents in April 2023, it was revealed that 52% of Gen Zers were seeking new employment opportunities. In contrast, only 39% of workers from other generations expressed a desire to job seek during the same time period. This trend could suggest that Gen Z are more confident about their employability and career prospects than previous generations, even in tough economic times, and don’t want to lower their expectations.

Putting a priority on quality of life

One feature that distinguishes this young generation is the importance they place on work-life balance. They work to live, not the other way around. It’s true that like everyone else, Gen Zers feel the squeeze of inflation and have concerns; 48% are worried about their ability to afford essentials and groceries. Yet it’s notable that compensation lags in second place behind work-life balance as the top area of dissatisfaction for Gen Zers. In fact, their dissatisfaction levels with work-life balance and pay have remained relatively stable between October 2022 and February 2023. This suggests a fairly durable set of priorities. Even if their pay isn’t stretching as far as it used to, they remain focused on maintaining their personal lives.

This different approach to working and living also shows up in Gen Zers approach to side hustles. Over a third of this cohort report having some kind of work outside their main jobs, compared with only 22% of workers of other generations. Technology is a notable differentiator between the side jobs of the past and today, with 40% of Gen Z participating in gigs that can be facilitated through an app such as being an influencer or pet-sitter. Meanwhile, non-Gen Z are 17% more likely than Gen Z to hold a traditional part-time job as their side hustle. The main motivations for their side hustles are to have greater flexibility, to connect with a wider community, or to have multiple income streams. By contrast, only 27% of Gen Z respondents say they take on side hustles to pursue their passion, and just 8% cite planning for a better future. This indicates that Gen Z's focus on side hustles extends beyond passion or future aspirations, aligning more strongly with the immediate financial benefits they provide.

New workplace, new generation, new behavior

As remote work skyrocketed due to COVID-19, people have re-evaluated what they want from their jobs. This didn’t occur in a vacuum. The employer-employee contract had been weakening for years, defined benefit pensions had become a relic of the past for most, and job-hopping had become more commonly accepted in the workplace. The Great Resignation accentuated all these forces as people looked for work that worked for them, not just a paycheck.

This is the working world Gen Zers entered, a place full of opportunity and low on loyalty, where remote and hybrid work is the norm for white-collar workers. Many older, white-collar Gen Zers are Virtual Natives, who started their careers completely virtual and have yet to experience a conventional workplace environment. The resulting flexibility has meaningfully impacted Gen Zers’ expectations, particularly in regard to work-life balance. They have accelerated the trend towards greater balance, following the precedence started by millennials. Flexibility has given them a greater sense of control over managing their work and personal lives. They are unlikely to sacrifice their autonomy easily.

Cultural differences also suggest that Gen Zers’ behavior will persist. Previous generations prioritized job security and financial stability, with mental health, emotional well-being, and a sense of purpose being secondary to careers, if discussed at all. For Gen Zers, conversations and action around wellness and personal fulfillment are top of mind. The pandemic put a spotlight on health and well-being for many, and Gen Zers report higher levels of mental health issues than other generations. Mental health discourse is common on social media, in addition to content showing aspirational career paths that seem gratifying. As attitudes around working and living have evolved, Gen Zers’ distinctive priorities have crystallized.

Our survey data suggests that Gen Z's approach to work reflects fundamental differences in attitudes relative to older generations, and isn’t just a circumstantial reaction to a favorable job market. Given their willingness to leave an employer, organizations need to be mindful of Gen Z's expectations and preferences on issues like flexible and remote working arrangements if they want to attract and retain them in the long term. Organizations also should emphasize well-being and cultivate passion. Initiatives like subsidized fitness or meditation memberships can support multiple facets of employees’ lives and aspirations. Mentorship and advancement opportunities that support overall interests and goals also can go a long way to build loyalty. These approaches won’t work just for Gen Zers – they can be beneficial for all employees.

Dallas Wilson and Sophia Lynn contributed to this article.