How a global pandemic is affecting the lives and work priorities of Millennials and Gen Z

By Claire Madden


For our Millennials (born 1980-1994) and Gen Z (born 1995-2009), the ripple effects of COVID-19 are already having a profound impact on their ways of living. Lifestyle satisfaction and their ‘enjoyment’ of the social aspects of work have always been seen as ‘essential’ in both online and offline contexts. Under the backdrop of a global pandemic, social needs are being rivalled by more basis survival needs. The question now becoming - how can we maximise engagement from these generations in a context where their priorities and needs are shifting in today's changing landscape?

Occasionally in history there are global events of such immense and far-reaching impact that they fundamentally reshape the worldview and outlook of a generation.  We saw this with the Great Depression and World War II shaping the Builders Generation.  While the current pandemic is still unfolding, the effects may be lasting and profound in shaping the perspective of our emerging generations.  As the global community is collectively grappling with what COVID-19 means for each of us, I have been asking Millennials and Gen Zs how it is affecting them personally, and what impact they see it having on their generations in the longer term.


For a generation who have grown up with the ‘immediate’ (think Google searches, 24 hour news cycles, music streaming, and constant social media updates), the far reaching impacts of COVID-19 may adjust their career perspective to focus more on longer term positioning than shorter term enjoyment.


The Builders Generation (born 1945 and before) who grew up during the Great Depression and World War II had different priorities when it came to work. Following them, Baby Boomers (currently making up approximately a quarter of the workforce and holding many leadership positions), have adopted a similar work ethic and remember that in the early days of their careers, they were grateful to have a job, and prepared to do repetitive, manual work as part of earning their stripes.


Two major emerging impacts of the COVID-19 global pandemic on Generation Z have been revealed to be finding the right balance in flexible working and a shifting mindset from having a ‘job opportunity’ to ‘job security’. Perhaps this Generation will one day be known as Generation Coronials when we talk to workplaces finding the right balance.


1.    Finding the balance: Flexi-working and Face-to-Face

When the Millennial generation, also known as Gen Y (born 1980-1994), entered the workforce they challenged the status quo by pushing for more work-life balance and flexi-working conditions, sending many organisations into a spin. 


With Gen Z (born 1995-2009) now the emerging cohort of workers, their work priorities and demands have continued to challenge the parameters of what work is and how it can be done. With many entering the workforce empowered and tech-savvy, these generations have brought much needed skills to the table, yet also been a pain point for some in the older generations who have found their “entitled” attitude to work frustrating.


Having grown up with access to education, entertainment and employment opportunities from their devices, Gen Z have inherently seen work as something that in many cases can be done from anywhere, at any time. The global pandemic has accelerated this flexi-working for many industries where previously there may have been some resistance to staff working remotely.


Whilst younger generations have pressed for flexi-working arrangements, it’s important to recognise that they also place a high value on the social, relational, collaborative side of workplaces and what they have to offer.  The full swing to remote working for many has been felt as a step too far for many who desire a balance of remote flexi-working alongside collaborative, face-to-face co-working with colleagues to facilitate sustained work motivation.

2.    I just need a job: The shift from job opportunity to job security

Over the last few years I have conducted a lot of interviews with Gen Zs and asked them “what will matter to you in your career?”  Repeatedly, the top priorities I have heard are that they want to enjoy work, have friendly colleagues, have flexibility and variety in their job role, and have a sense of purpose and ongoing growth.


They have created opportunities that have come with significant digital disruption to jobs, and have not been afraid to embrace the gig economy and casualisation of the workforce.

Many young people have enjoyed the benefits of increased connectivity and have a ‘side hustle’ earning them money. Flexibility, fun and fulfilment have mattered more than job security and permanence in a ‘boring’ job. However, in the present situation a number of Gen Zs are beginning to form rather different expectations of work. As many Gen Zs have had casual jobs and worked in hospitality, entertainment and event industries, they have been among the first to lose their jobs with the shutdown rules and restrictions.


“For my degree, finance was what I enjoyed. But now I’ll have to take any work I can.” Harry,

b.1998


“I think I will most certainly be more grateful for my job because of this. This has all made me realise that I take my jobs for granted. However having a job I enjoy is really important to me, so I won’t be looking to compromise on that.  The overall result I think is that our generation will be WAY more grateful for the jobs we will have when this is all over.” Brooke,

b.2000


Enjoying work, having a shared purpose and feeling like they can make a worthwhile contribution will continue to matter to Gen Zs through their careers. However the global pandemic has brought into focus far more immediate needs for our Gen Zs – the needs for survival and job security - therefore making these more fundamental needs more of an immediate priority than their other desires.


Perhaps the economic impacts of COVID-19 will rebalance the priorities of Gen Zs in this space.  Although they have been raised in an environment saturated with ‘options’ and have grown accustomed to constant stimulation, they will place more value on the security of a permanent job role over less secure ‘fun’ roles that may have previously captured their attention.

Want to find out how to build multi-generational teams? Sign up to Claire’s webinar on Thursday 29 October, here.

Claire Madden is a leading voice internationally on Generation Z. As an author, social researcher, keynote speaker, and media commentator, Claire is in high demand as an expert in interpreting social trends, demographics, and implications of generational change.

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