Generation Un-Grind

Now that hustle culture has crashed and burnt us all out, how are young people viewing their future work?

Generation Un-Grind
Every day I'm NOT hustling. Design by Stacy Getz.

A year into the pandemic, it seemed like everybody was giving up on work. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, a record 4.5 million people quit their jobs in November 2021. Compare that to 3.3 million in November 2020. If headlines are to be believed, it’s because young people aren’t willing to pay their dues in entry-level, low-paid jobs like the rest of us did.

“Young People Are Leaving their Jobs in Record Numbers,” shouted TIME magazine in October 2021. “Gen Z Workers Demand Flexibility,” a Washington Post article pronounced in August 2022. “Why Gen Z Doesn’t Want to Work for You,” Forbes explained in August 2021.

But is the so-called Great Resignation really an indicator of growing disinterest in hard work, among young people specifically? Or is it a larger cultural shift in the way we’ve all come to view what work means?

Look at it this way: Similar complaints of young workers not wanting to, well, work have occupied headlines for decades—likely since the printing press went mainstream. Several years ago, instead of Generation Z, it was entitled, whiny Millennials. Before that, it was angry, grungy Gen X. Flower children of the ’60s and ’70s were supposedly more concerned with protesting their patriotic duty than working. And so on. The youngest generations are always maligned for what seems like poor work ethic in the eyes of their elders.

But in each case, the argument can be made that young people weren’t lazy but simply rejected the dysfunctional work standards others accepted as the norm. This could be what we’re seeing today—that the latest entrants into the workforce aren’t so much anti-work as they are unwilling to burn themselves out for a job. Perhaps then, young people have the healthiest outlook yet on what the future of work looks like.

The Work-Life Tightrope

First things first: While young people are thinking about and behaving at work in ways that often differ from their older colleagues, that doesn’t mean the young’uns are the catalysts behind the Great Resignation. As it turns out, workers at least a decade into their careers earned that badge.

According to a study from workforce analytics company Visier, employees between 30 and 45 years old have quit their jobs more than any other age group in the last few years. Their biggest reasons, per Pew Research Center: low pay, few opportunities for advancement, and feeling disrespected at work.

Moreover, a Wired article from November 2021 claimed the term “Great Resignation,” while catchy, misses the why of it all: The pandemic forced people away from the offices and into their heads, where they reckoned with the fact that they were over-stressed, over-worked, and completely burnt out. Add to that the demands of family and caretaking and household management, and it’s no wonder mid-career employees quit in droves. All of us, no matter our age, were primed to be disenchanted with work.

That’s not to say that the headlines are lies and Gen Z’ers are eager to work themselves into oblivion. Hooria Jazaieri, assistant professor of management at Santa Clara’s Leavey School of Business, says the biggest shift she’s seen in her students are they’re now more interested in having a work-life balance than previous generations. “Rather than living to work so that they can acquire a bunch of things, Gen Z seems to be working to acquire resources to fund what they like to do outside of work, which includes experiences rather than things,” she says.

Goodbye hustle culture; ta-ta lean-in girl bosses; ciao rise-and-grinders. Perhaps our society’s one-sided love affair with workaholism has run its course.

What does that mean for business? Jazaieri posits. “While the future of work is still to work hard while you’re at the office, you likely won’t see those vacation days stacking up or going unused. You likely will see Slack messages going unread over the weekends.”

So it’s not that the latest iteration of worker has become lazier or less inclined to work. It’s that they’re no longer willing to work jobs that don’t work for them. Or, they’re not keen to bend over backward for jobs that don’t return the favor. Goodbye hustle culture; ta-ta lean-in girl bosses; ciao rise-and-grinders. Perhaps our society’s one-sided love affair with workaholism has run its course.

Take, for example, “quiet quitting.” Albeit a misnomer, the term was popularized during the pandemic referring to employees doing exactly what’s required of them according to their job description—no more, no less. (See also: work-to-rule and acting your wage.) No more giving 110%. No more staying late and coming in weekends. While some may bemoan quiet quitting as the downfall of productivity, others are applauding the end of something that’s caused so much burnout.

Young workers are also following the trend that Millennials started of switching jobs fairly frequently, Jazaieri says. “They’re looking for a sense of community with others in the organization.” That means they want to feel a sense of membership or belonging, as well as what Jazaieri calls positive regard: The idea “that they can be themselves at work so people can really know them and for people to accept who they are,” she says. Employees also want to have a sense of influence and responsibility, even if they’re just starting out.

Alain Gamas ’22 says he knew going into college that he wanted to do something he was proud of and passionate about. He’d always liked numbers, so he double-majored in finance and economics. “I love that macro image of the world, and looking at things in the big picture, and the theory of why things happen, and why the world moves,” he says. After graduation, Gamas landed a dream gig in Apple’s finance development program, which rotates fellows to new teams within the company’s finance department over the course of two years.

Gamas acknowledges that he’s in the minority of people his age landing their dream jobs just after graduation. But he’s not too worried about friends and peers who haven’t, yet. “We used to think of work as: You go into a corporate world—and people used to be pretty loyal—you made a career out of one company, and you stayed there for 30, 40, 50 years until you can finally retire. And now that’s not the case,” he says. “Today, it’s like, if your manager isn’t treating you right, it’s as easy as saying, ‘Bye! I’m just going to go find another job.’”

To be fair, statistically, the average worker in the U.S. typically stays at a job only for about five years. It’s been that way since 1983, according to a 2018 report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But it’s worth noting that young people like Gamas consistently recite this myth that older workers are more loyal to their employers; it says something about the way the latest generation of workers conceive of the 50-some years they’ll spend on the job, or jobs.

And while Gamas has peers who have rejected job offers because they didn’t fit within their dreams (an unfathomable concept to this Millennial writer who graduated during the Great Recession), he knows plenty more who took a job to pay rent. “I know three people that graduated in January [2021] who’ve already been through two jobs… their mentality going in was, ‘I’ll just be here as long as I need to be,’” he says with a shrug.

It sometimes feels to Gamas like his generation is getting judged because the older generations “think we switch too much or want too much or demand too much. But really, we just have more options than ever before, we’re more connected in this age of information,” he says. “Maybe that’s unfair compared to how older generations had to get their start but I think we can all benefit from feeling empowered to demand what we think we deserve.”

Working Hard or Hardly Working?

What one calls entitled, another calls knowing your worth. And it can’t be understated how radically the pandemic changed the concept of work for all of us and how much value we place in what we do versus who and how we are.

“The needs of individuals, families, and communities have changed, and as such, employees want to work for organizations that acknowledge these changing needs,” says Chris Harris, assistant director for career development with SCU’s Career Center. Current and recently-graduated students, he says, are becoming more aware and intentional about aligning their values with those of potential employers. “Mental health and wellness initiatives, diversity and inclusion initiatives, flexible/remote work options, and company culture are all influencing where recent graduates are headed.”

It’s a job seeker’s market, according to Career Center staff, which means employers are now the ones with the onus to prove they’re a place worth working for. “We are seeing great competition for early talent from employers with a 246% increase in employers engaged in career fairs during the last academic year,” says Melissa Thiriez, Career Center director of employer relations and partnerships. “Employers that want to stand out must lead with a positive candidate experience, relationship building, and clear values proposition (e.g. Are they mission driven? Are they a people-first or customer-first company? etc.).”

Ugh Mug
“There are changes both to what we want out of work and what we are willing to give to our workplaces. What some are calling ‘quiet quitting’ is really just people knowing their worth and demanding work-life balance. Coming out of the pandemic, hustle culture just isn’t that appealing anymore,” says Dylan Houle, executive director of the Career Center.

Early-in-career job-seekers are especially adept—thanks to social media savviness—at figuring out what an organization’s values are. “My students are very good at calling out and recognizing performative actions of an organization,” says Assistant Professor Esther Sackett in the Department of Management & Entrepreneurship at the Leavey School of Business. “So if they’re posting things on Instagram or Twitter but the actual follow-through is not there, that accountability is something that people are looking for.”

In addition to learning about a company’s values, Sackett says another huge factor in preparing to start a career is learning about yourself. How will you best operate within a business and a job?

So Sackett works with her students to hone their interpersonal skills such as working effectively on a team and communicating needs effectively to a supervisor.

“How can you ask the right questions or seek out the support you need from other parts of the organization no matter what level you’re at,” says Sackett, who is launching a new course this coming spring quarter called Flourishing at Work focused on topics like identity, meaning, values, and social relationships at work. “Self-awareness is a really big component of what we teach.”

Of course, these are still young people we are talking about and the transition between adolescence and/or college and a first job is rarely a smooth one. Gen Z may be more self-aware and better prepared to stand up for themselves within the once-rigid and oft-oppressive structures of corporations than previous generations, but they’re not omniscient wunderkinds. (At least not all of them.)

Where’s the Passion?

When considering quiet quitting, the demand for work-life balance, the bopping around from job to job, it can be easy to dismiss today’s workers as being less driven by career passions and dreams than their predecessors. But that’s not really the case. Newly minted college graduates just have more time to achieve things than they used to: They’re getting married later, starting families later, buying homes later, retiring later. Just a few decades ago, one had—maybe—five years to dedicate themselves fully to their jobs before they “settled down.” As of 2021, the average age to marry was 30 for men and 28 for women, up from 26 and 25 in 2001.

“If you’re in your early 20s, it may be the right time to focus much more of your attention on building your career. It’s the right time to do it,” says Professor Jerrold Shapiro in the School of Education and Counseling Psychology. It’s the time to ask yourself “how do I develop my craft in ways I didn’t learn in school? How do I develop beyond that? … Once you have a family, that’s going to be much harder.”

One of the issues with young people having more time to find and develop a passion for work, is that, in exchange, they may face prolonged periods of imbalance. In life, everyone goes through a series of life stages, says Shapiro, who focuses much of his research on periods of transition, “and with each stage comes new challenges. There’s always tension between the need for freedom and the need for security.” Too much security can lead to a fear of stagnation, while too much freedom can elicit fear of abandonment; much of one’s life is working to maintain balance between the two.

Graduating and finding your first job is a huge transition. “All of a sudden, your world has changed… Going into the workplace, you’re no longer dealing with grade inflation. No one cares what your GPA was. All they care about is, are you producing? Are you a good person to work with?” Shapiro explains. “And if I’m used to listening to a professor, then taking a test or writing an essay in terms of what that professor expects of me and getting an A (or heaven forbid, an A-minus), that’s all gone. And now I have to adjust to a whole new homeostasis, which is very anxiety-provoking.”

Moreover, consider today’s constant comparison game on social media. There’s so much pressure to perform well online in order to appear as good as or better than peers: I have to be great at work; I have to be great at relationships; I have to take the best vacation; I have to be incredible at my hobbies. “How do you learn to live within yourself and your own capabilities and what brings you happiness and joy and pleasure and success and creativity?” Shapiro asks.

It’s an intensely challenging time for anyone learning what it is to work—even extremely well-adjusted people like Chloe Stedman ’22. “Yeah, it’s overwhelming,” she says with a laugh. Stedman majored in business management and French, with a minor in English literature, and started work this past September as a behavioral technician working one-on-one with a middle schooler in her hometown of Seattle.

“I don’t know if I ever had a very clear vision of what I’d be doing after graduation. I still don’t really,” she says. “[In high school] I just thought college was so far off in the distance, and then I was there and then it was over so quickly. I just didn’t have the chance to breathe, really, and of course a little hitch in the whole process was the pandemic.” The world shut down just before Stedman’s junior year—a pivotal time for college students to find internships with potential future employers.

[She] is capable of working hard. And she’ll likely do well wherever her career takes her. But, as people twice her age are just now beginning to realize: Work ain’t everything.

But Stedman is giving herself a lot of breathing room, now that she’s back living with her parents and starting a job that, while fulfilling in many ways, does not fit the ideal of where she “should have” landed with a business degree. It’s tough, of course, and there’s a lot of relearning on both her and her parents’ parts on how to cohabitate peacefully. “But also, I’m just trying to remember that going forward for the rest of my life, I will only have less and less time with my family,” she says.

It’s a beautiful and incredibly grounded sentiment from a 23-year-old eager to launch. Yes, Stedman is capable of working hard. And she’ll likely do well wherever her career takes her. But, as people twice her age are just now beginning to realize: Work ain’t everything. “I’m hopeful. There’s so much to come,” she says. “I’ve just accepted that I don’t exactly know what will happen, and that’s OK.”

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