This is Gen Z & Quiet Quitting Is Not The Problem

 Gen Z (or the Zoomers, as I still vehemently feel they should be called as it is both accurate and fairly clever, a tough balance to achieve) is anyone who is aged 10-25. Much has been written lately about Gen Z “quiet quitting”, so much so that I promised myself I wouldn’t jump in with commentary. Quiet quitting is not a problem, it’s a symptom. We have to understand the underlying problem if we are going to make it better. 

Except we’re missing something.

Embracing Gen Z

Gen Z is a unique and wonderful generation, as all are. They have been shaped by their tumultuous formative years in ways we will continue to see for decades to come.

Early signs show they are more risk-adverse, more self-directed, making different choices when it comes to education, and have a different view of what it means to craft a career, even when compared to the Millennials.

Yet amidst all those wonderful and important distinctions, it is important to remember that they also share similarities with other generations. Research has shown that across ages, we have similar needs for things like autonomy and connection. 

Autonomy & Connection

That need for autonomy, or independence,  is why the more flexible work environment appeals to all generations, not just younger ones.

Where it gets complex is when we dig into how those generations define autonomy, or what would make them feel they have it, thus the continuing struggle to determine what sort of approach to flexible work is going to be best. 

But it’s that need for connection that I think we’ve forgotten about-something all ages need, but that takes on particular importance at the life and career stage Gen Z is hitting right now. Remember that the very oldest of this generation was only 23 when we all went into lockdown. That means very few Gen Zs of working age has ever experienced a pre-pandemic workplace.

It’s Not All About Productivity, People

The data seems convincing that we are able to be productive in a hybrid or remote workplace, and that’s where much of the focus and interest has been. If we can gain greater autonomy and keep up our productivity, where’s the downside?

The downside is we lost connection.

And for Gen Z, that need for connection is particularly important because they are at the very beginning of their careers. This is a time when professional and personal networks are being created. Gen Z is seeking out mentors, climbing a steep learning curve on their first jobs. Perhaps most importantly, they are figuring out what it means to be a working adult with a sense of belonging. 

They are trying to form their professional identity, and there’s a screen in the way. 

Think about it:

You land your first career job and rather than moving to a trendy Chicago apartment and learn to navigate the El, you’re living in your childhood bedroom logging into work from the desk where you used to do your geometry homework.

In lieu of days of onboarding and cheesy team-building exercises with their cohort, they got a box of lane swag and a few Zoom sessions of orientation.

(Think it doesn’t matter? 63% of Gen Zs say they would rather be onboarded in person, with just 13% preferring remote.)

Want to make a good impression on your boss? There is no such thing as coming in early or staying late. You just log on to your Teams meeting on time.

No popping your head into your colleague’s office to ask a quick question without scheduling a zoom appointment. In some cases, a simple Slack message to instead is all you need. 

Forget about grabbing drinks after work because the people that started at the same time as you don’t come in on Wednesdays and Thursdays, they come in on Mondays and Tuesdays. And so on.

Enter Genetlligence: Pushing Beyond Gen Z Stereotypes

But these are Gen Zs, you will argue! The most tech-savvy of all! They don’t need these things! Yet if we push past stereotypes and dig deeper into the data, we will find that’s just wrong.

Gen Z, counter to many stereotypes, has consistently shown a preference for face-to-face communication, even before being forced to complete their education or internships via Zoom.

According to a Skynova survey:

  • 61% of Gen Z workers said it was challenging to make friends when they worked fully remote
  • 39% of the same respondents found it difficult to find a mentor and network with other professionals 
  • Nearly a quarter of the Gen Z workers surveyed also said they were struggling to acquire new skills.
  • 58% of Gen Z workers are planning to leave their remote job in the next year, and most of them said they wanted hybrid or in-person positions. 

We assumed because they were so tech savvy that Gen Z would thrive working from home, and that it would be our older generations that would struggle.

Yet surveys consistently showed that was wrong too: Gen Z reported the LOWEST levels of satisfaction ( and highest levels of burnout) working from home during the pandemic, followed by Millennials, Gen X, and then the Baby Boomers.

According to a Gallup State of the Workplace Report, the pandemic affected younger workers’ careers more negatively in 2020 than older workers. Younger employees (those under 40) also experienced more stress and anger, lower employee engagement, and lower well-being than older workers.

It wasn’t a lack of comfort with technology that was the issue.

It was a lack of connection at a life and career stage when it is incredibly important, particularly when it comes to developing both motivation and loyalty to an organization.

That brings us back to “quiet quitting”. This is where it starts to become obvious that quiet quitting isn’t the problem, it is a symptom of a larger problem.

Here’s where I’ll drop some organizational psychology research into the mix. There are all kinds of insights in our field that explain why sometimes people just come to work and do the bare minimum, but much of it comes down to employee engagement. 

Quiet Quitting is the Symptom. Here’s the source.

“Employee engagement is the holy grail for every business leader. It’s described in a variety of ways but generally defined as when employees fully invest emotionally, mentally, and physically so they focus on achieving the organization’s objectives”

– Pangarkar and Kirkwood (2013)

This is what those quiet quitting Gen Zs are missing, right? They’re coming to work, but apparently not invested in doing more than the bare minimum to keep their jobs. It’s easy to blame them, but more accurate to look at the work environments they have suddenly been given as they start their professional lives.

In their article for Sloan Management review, Kumar and Pansari talk about the key elements that make up employee engagement. Employee engagement is the result of 5 things, and I would argue starting a career behind a screen is killing at least 4 of them.

Here are the elements included in their Employee Engagement Scorecard, a common way to measure engagement:

  1. Satisfaction: the positive reaction employees have to their overall job circumstances. (this is measured by items like “I feel good about working here” and “I feel close to people at work”). The more satisfied an employee is, the less likely they are to miss work and the more committed they feel to their job and company, which strengthens performance.
  2. Identification:  the emotional state in which employees identify as part of the workforce. (“This organization is like a family to me” and “Working here gives me a sense of pride”). This is strengthened by things like individual mentorship and strong, unique organizational culture, both of which are much tougher to experience remotely.
  3. Commitment: Strongly related to employee identification, commitment induces employees to do more than what’s in their job descriptions (the opposite of quiet quitting). It develops over time and is an outcome of shared experiences. (“This organization has a great deal of personal meaning to me”). 
  4. Loyalty: This is a positive attitude about the organization, which can motivate employees to do more than expected and which can trickle down to have positive effects on the employees’ work”I’m content to spend the rest of my career at this organization”
  5. Performance: The increases in work productivity and quality. (“I believe I can continue to improve and succeed in this organization”)

Employee engagement matters for all ages and generations.

As a 45-year-old, I need those elements as much as a 25-year-old.
Consider where I am in my life and career stage.  The fact that I was well established in my career before the pandemic changed work as we know it, I already had many of those elements established. This allowed me to weather changes more successfully without them diluting my commitment or loyalty.
Whereas a 45-year-old who had just started a new career or job might feel more like a 25-year-old in terms of engagement. This is why we can’t talk about these generational issues in a simple or surface-level way. 
The more fragile or new the ties, the easier they are to break. 
I’ll bring my employee engagement class to a close. But don’t just point the finger at Gen Z for phoning it in. Take a closer look at what your organization is doing to build the employee experience for Gen Z.
Engagement can be rebuilt, but only if we recognize the need for it. We can stop quiet quitting, but only if we understand where it’s really coming from. 
Autonomy matters and all ages can benefit from having options and flexibility in where and how we work. But connection matters too, and companies are going to need to rethink what that means. They need to understand how our new reality may be interfering with the engagement of those who need it most.