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What Will It Take to Make Gen-Z Happy at Work?

A shift in workplace power dynamics has companies struggling to balance their youngest employees’ expectations against the needs of their businesses.
The generation that came of age with a cell phone in their palms brimming with success stories of TikTok stars who rake in hundreds of thousands of dollars on viral videos don’t expect to drudge away at an entry level job for years before their next promotion.
The generation that came of age with a cell phone in their palms brimming with success stories of TikTok stars who rake in hundreds of thousands of dollars on viral videos don’t expect to drudge away at an entry level job for years before their next promotion. (Shutterstock)

Key insights

  • Early career professionals are demanding – and often receiving – salaries that are 30 percent higher than typical for their experience level.
  • Companies with values-driven HR policies that prioritise culture, employee wellness and flexibility can create long-term buy-in with Gen Z.
  • Fashion firms should be cautious not to promote a point of view that doesn’t align with the real experiences of most of their employees.

Bubble Skincare founder and chief executive Shai Eisenman has dedicated her entire business to her “favourite” cohort, Gen-Z. But while she’s had success selling her line to young people, hiring them hasn’t been as easy.

Eisenman is looking to add roughly 10 employees to her team of 30, and staying on top of the youth perspective would be helpful as her brand takes on larger competitors in the teen skin care market like Neutrogena and Clean & Clear. Finding the right Gen-Z workers to fill those roles is a lengthy process.

“One of the challenges we’re facing is just the fact that they lack patience,” Eisenman said. “And they also need to learn — there’s a lot of things in life that takes actually spending the hours and working — and I think sometimes they want to get things right here and now.”

Eisenman’s concerns are shared by many employers in a range of industries who say they are contending with applicants whose salary demands don’t match their experience level, as well as new expectations for flexibility and remote work. This is especially challenging in the youth-obsessed fashion and beauty industries where young talent plays a crucial role in areas like marketing and brand-building.

Gen-Z is hardly the first generation to be accused of impatience upon entering the workforce. Millennials, too, were stereotyped as needy and disloyal in the early 2000s. Today, it’s that cohort’s workaholic attitude that many early 20-something employees say they’re rebelling against.

The difference this time around is that where many millennials were desperate to hold onto any job they could find in the wake of the Great Recession, Gen-Z has considerable leverage over potential employers. A perfect storm of events, including the pandemic, a labour shortage and a backlash against Silicon Valley’s “always working” mentality, has put some teeth behind junior employees’ demands.

The dilemma facing many employers is how to strike a balance between their youngest employees’ needs — whether it’s more progressive human resources policies or a better work-life balance — and what best serves the bottom line.

“A lot of these [Gen-Z] elements aren’t [consistent] with the traditional retail model,” said David Ritter, managing director at Alvarez & Marsal Consumer and Retail Group. “That doesn’t mean they can’t work though. It’s just harder.”

Decoding What Gen-Z Really Wants

The simplistic read on Gen-Z is that the generation that idolises teen YouTube and TikTok stars expects to skip right over the drudgery of entry-level jobs on their way to fame and fortune. But, experts say, senior leaders should not assume a desire for upward mobility automatically translates into demands for an immediate promotion or outsized starting wages.

“What people in this category are looking for is very clear career progression,” said Craig Rowley, a senior client partner at the business consultancy Korn Ferry. “So, if you’re a junior merchandiser or buyer, the question is, ‘How fast can I become a full buyer?’ They want to understand why it takes two or three or four years to move up.”

In consumer surveys, members of Gen-Z say they are values-driven when it comes to their purchases. The same could be said for their careers. One-third of people between the ages of 18 and 24 years old would take a pay cut if it meant their jobs contribute meaningfully to society, an April study by human resource consulting firm Randstad found.

“Culture has always been there and a lot of candidates have always asked, ‘What’s their company culture?’” said Paula Reid, president of the executive search firm Reid & Co. “But now it’s driving the decision — people want to work for companies that align with their values.”

Workers across all generations are asking for — and receiving — new perks that help them create better work-life balance and have more flexibility. But younger professionals — Gen-Z especially — are by far the most vocal when it comes to voicing those demands and walking away if they’re not met.

Fashion companies need to prioritise their internal culture and employee wellness in response to these shifts, Reid said. But the rhetoric needs to match the reality.

“The fashion industry is notorious for working long, hard hours,” Reid said. “If you’re now saying you’re wellness-driven and supporting the mental health of your employees but it’s a cultural norm for everyone to work 12 hours a day — that’s not living that value. Figure out who you are as a company — not who you want to be — and screen against that.”

Gen-Z, more so than any other cohort, values authenticity and are particularly averse to being sold anything — much less an ideal than runs counter to reality.

To ensure it’s courting candidates who fit the brand’s “DNA,” Bubble — whose workforce currently comprises 30 percent Gen-Z — now takes three to six months to fill a junior-level role compared to one to two months in the past. The goal is to find employees who are results-driven “without the need of micromanagement,” she said.

“It’s in our DNA to be super relevant for Gen-Zers and that’s why we get a lot of applications from [them] but the general path that we chose to take is that if the demands are not reasonable, it’s not right for us,” Eisenman said.

Money Matters

In March, US employers had 11.5 million job openings, while there were 5 million people looking for work, a gap not seen since the US Bureau of Labour Statistics started collecting the data in December 2000. Many early-career professionals in a range of industries are demanding and receiving salaries that are 20 to 30 percent higher than is typical for their experience level, said Rowley.

In this environment, and more so as inflation reaches unprecedented levels, such financial expectations aren’t necessarily unreasonable — and may be long overdue in some cases — but there are long-term implications on both sides, he said.

For instance, companies doling out higher salaries to entry-level hires will have to address wage inequities between those employees and veteran members of their workforce and manage any fallout and resentment among these groups.

“You have to think about how you’re going to ensure you’re being fair to the people who are at your company while landing the talent that you need from the outside,” said Reid.

Across retail, companies are sounding caution on softening demand and a potential recession, said Ritter. If that happens, early-career professionals who bartered for higher salaries and promotions in the current economy — or jumped from brand to brand — could be among the most vulnerable to job cuts, Rowley said. The onus is on companies to nurture young talent and manage their expectations in a manner that’s mutually beneficial for the long-term, experts say.

“Companies need to recognise the impatience this group has and know that it’s just part of being 20 something and that they have options that, frankly, when I was 20 something I didn’t have,” Rowley said. “If you can paint a picture to a young person about what their career is likely to be and how they’re going to get there, it makes all [the difference].”

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Further Reading

As companies from Macy’s to Target scramble to hire thousands of workers for a holiday shopping boom, they’ll need to figure out how to strike the right balance between pay and perks.

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