Gen Z workers are doing things differently – here’s why

Young employees are slowly changing Australia's workforce.

Young employees are slowly changing Australia's workforce. Photo: Getty

Generation Z is hitting the workforce in a big way – and transforming it as they do so.

While pay is important, research has found people from generation Z (born between 1996 and 2012) also put a major focus on workplace culture, relationships and their mental health when making decisions about their career.

Crucially, the research also found younger workers and their employers have misaligned expectations around flexibility, money and support – leading to dissatisfied employees and high turnover.

On average, gen Z workers earn less, have less stable incomes, and are far less likely to own a home than older generations, the research by HR platform Employment Hero found.

In fact, 95 per cent of gen Z workers earn less than the average national salary of $82,436 – and income actually ranks only second in the priorities of young job hunters.

Instead, the top priority for those in their mid to late-20s is whether a job aligns with their career goals.

University of Sydney Business School professor of management Angela Knox said young employees were looking for a balance between meaningful work that could develop a career, and a decent income.

But insecure jobs and insufficient work hours are rife.

Early careers look different for gen Z

The research shows the majority of gen Z workers report they work only part-time, but that doesn’t mean they can make ends meet on that work alone.

Many have multiple part-time jobs. As many as 9.1 per cent of young workers with a full-time job have a side income.

“That’s something that we’re commonly seeing – [younger workers] don’t have access to enough hours from one job, so they end up working multiple jobs so that they can try to aggregate enough hours through the week to provide them with a decent income,” Dr Knox said.

“Baby boomers … would have had full time jobs [in their early careers] because at that point in time … permanent, full-time work was the standard.”

Dr Knox attributed the difference in early-career experiences between the generations to multiple factors, including government regulation and deregulation, and increased competition due to globalisation.

Bigger focus on mental health

Employment Hero’s study also found that younger workers place a lot of value on workplace culture and relationships, with an emphasis on mental health.

Seventy-five per cent of gen Z workers expect their employer to provide mental health tools or strategies.

Steven Hitchcock, University of Sydney Business School lecturer in work-integrated learning, said this prioritisation came as society a whole became increasingly aware of the importance of taking care of mental health.

The pandemic also helped promote this thinking, particularly for younger people.

“Relative to the overall lifespan [of young people], the pandemic accounts for much more of [a young person’s life],” Dr Hitchcock said.

“For example, if you’re 20 now, when you lived through three years of pandemic, that’s a much larger proportion of your life, than somebody who, say, is 40, or 35, or 50.”

From a business point of view, attention to mental wellbeing could be crucial to retaining employees. Aside from unfulfilled career ambitions and poor pay, an unhealthy workplace culture is one of the top issues accounting for high turnover rates seen in gen Z employment.

Motivations for switching jobs

The report shows more than three-quarters of gen Z workers intend to leave their current job within two years, and almost half plan to leave within one year.

Dr Hitchcock said the pace of job-switches had been rising for almost 20 years.

The fact that changing jobs is one of the easiest ways for workers to take a step up in their career or pay bracket is a key reason.

This means a key way for employers to hold onto existing staff is through more stable jobs, better career opportunities, and higher pay.

And with gen Z’s prominent emphasis on attention to mental wellbeing, work-life balance also plays a big part in their job-satisfaction.

“Gen Z workers, no matter how ambitious, don’t want to be at their desk at 8pm. They don’t want to be working on Christmas Eve. They don’t want to be receiving emails on a Saturday,” the Employment Hero report said.

“Companies that recognise the importance of work/life balance will prove to be popular with gen Z.”

Change is coming … in time

Employment Hero’s report noted the average age for an Australian CEO was 58.

That means, in just over 30 years, gen Z will have climbed the ladder to fill those positions – with their values and goals inevitably shaping the way the labour force works.

The change is natural, but it will take time.

“One of the things that has been documented … at least over the past 100 years, is the fact that young people entering the workforce are consistently pushing for change in the nature of that work,” Dr Hitchcock said.

“One of the things that was historically done in society is that we’ve looked at young people as ‘incomplete adults’ – they don’t quite get it, or they don’t quite know it yet.

“It often is easy for us to look at young people and criticise them for the change that they’re shifting. But I also think it can be a useful exercise for us to pause and reflect and say, ‘Hey, maybe there really is value for all of us in the things that they are suggesting here’.”

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