Throughout history, older generations have had opinions about younger generations’ tastes, morals and work ethics. When I was in college, I remember the elderly cook at the cafeteria where I scrubbed pots and pans constantly complaining that my generation was lazy, good for nothing and listened to terrible music. Since I was working three jobs at the time, I disagreed heartily with her assessment but I kept my thoughts — and my tunes — to myself.

Eventually the younger generations become the leaders. Now, it’s Gen Z and millennials’ turn. Recent research shows these generations have very specific desires and needs when it comes to work — and they’re speaking up and taking action when their needs are not met. 

In my recent column “Workforce on the move,” I cited research that showed that U.S. workers are leaving toxic or rigid work environments in record numbers, and taking jobs with better pay, flexibility and sustainable work levels. A new study by Deloitte drilled down into Gen Z and millennials in particular, and found that these cohorts have work criteria quite distinct from their older counterparts. The requisites of these generations are so different, in fact, that forward-thinking leaders should be creating targeted plans to support them – or prepare to lose them.

The Deloitte research found that Gen Zers (born between 1997 and 2012) and millennials (born between 1981 and 1996) across the globe are even more focused on financial security and work/life balance than their elders. They are also demanding that their employers demonstrate commitment to societal change. 

It’s no surprise that pay and work/life balance are at the top of the priority list for Gen Z and millenials. The pandemic, economic disruption and inflation have hit them hard during formative years, straining their finances and physical and mental health. The 21st Annual Transamerica Retirement Survey of Workers indicated that 59% of Gen Z workers reported their employment situation has been negatively affected — mostly due to cuts in work hours — a percentage greater than even millennials. It’s becoming more common for these groups to take second jobs or side gigs to supplement their incomes. With these stressors, is it any wonder they’re pushing for more flexible and realistic workloads?

Gen Z and millennials also want to see their employers effect positive change in the world, including societal impact, DEI and sustainability. Sustainability is an individual goal to these generations, reports the Deloitte study, with 90% saying reducing their own environmental impact is a priority. Yet, fewer than half of Gen Zers (45%) and millennials (44%) agree business is having a positive impact on society.

The disconnect between Gen Z and millennials’ needs and their current work realities is so great that they are willing to walk away. The Deloitte research indicates that 4 in 10 Gen Zers and nearly a quarter of millennials say they’ll be leaving their jobs in two years – and a third of that group would do that without a job lined up. Research by Lever paints an even more alarming picture, with 65% of Gen Z respondents saying they plan to quit and seek new opportunities within one year or less.

Thank you, Gen Z and millennials. Responding to Gen Z and millennials’ specific needs in a targeted way is imperative to attract and retain these leaders. But providing a living wage, flexible and inclusive cultures, and being a part of a company that cares about positive societal change is important for workers of all ages. In the future, we may all owe a debt of gratitude to Gen Z and millennials for speaking up and demanding the kind of workplace many before them have wanted and deserved. 

I asked local leaders: “How are you changing your organization or culture to support the needs of Gen Z and millennials?”

Tanner Krause, CEO, Kum & Go: Gen Z, millennials … they want the same thing anybody wants: autonomy. People want to be in control of their life. At Kum & Go, we empower our associates to have flexibility in how they manage their calendars. The pandemic expanded our capabilities in hybrid work and we’ve embraced this cultural evolution. Our associates now have more freedom to choose both when and where they work.  
JC Risewick, president and COO, Seneca Cos.: Retaining top talent is a challenge in any environment, let alone a tight labor market. As a skilled trade employer, we have found that we must directly invest in the training and development of trade skills and provide a clear career path for current and prospective talent. These employees want to know there is a future for them, and that their company is willing to invest in their advancement. That is why we have developed our own in-house training programs with dedicated staff so that we can focus on delivering employees the catered career development they are looking for.
April Schmaltz, senior vice president, sales and marketing, Delta Dental of Iowa: Companies need to have a strong culture to balance the needs of all generations in the workforce. At Delta Dental of Iowa, we have built a culture focused on our company values and engaging employees through our company giving. We live our values daily, especially One Team and Leadership at All Levels. These values enable collaboration and empower our team members to take initiative and make decisions to meet the needs of our customers. Giving back to our community is core to our mission at Delta Dental. We find our employees have a sense of pride and belonging when they can participate in opportunities to support the community.

Supporting Gen Z and millennials in the workplace

  • Focus on wellness and flexibility. Consider adding hybrid or flex options and ensure benefits offerings support total well-being. Schmaltz says Delta Dental of Iowa looks at their benefits from a more holistic perspective, encompassing five components: financial, physical, community, emotional and career. 
  • Invest in and develop leaders. Krause points out that since leadership skills are underemphasized in most college programs, it’s requisite on the employer to develop these skills in their newer leaders. Risewick concurs, saying that leaders need to reframe their thinking about the ROI on training and developing team members. 
  • Commit to societal change. Schmaltz emphasizes that not only must your company have a plan for societal change, including sustainability and DEI, but that it is important to involve your workforce directly and demonstrate your commitment. Prioritize opportunities for your team to volunteer locally, showcase how your company supports the community, and evolve your DEI work on an ongoing basis.