Workplace Culture

Advice for Gen Z: Demand a Better Workplace Than We Did

You can push for a much better work life than we older fogies have tolerated. And I hope — for all of us — that you will.

My longstanding battle of idealism vs. cynicism continues with Workforce Editorial Director Rick Bell.

When I worked alongside Rick at Workforce for some eight years, we often disagreed about the possibility of creating a better work experience for people.

In his latest “Last Word” essay, he’s back at it. And he’s triggered another hopeful response from me.

Rick’s faux commencement speech to the class of 2018, titled Everything Old Is New Again for Gen Z,” can be summed up simply: Nothing really changes. As a result, members of Gen Z coming out of college should not expect anything different from the work world than what us older folks faced.

“You Gen Zers will experience exactly what your predecessors dealt with at work: difficult and awesome bosses; overbearing and enjoyable co-workers; layoffs, downsizings and offboardings; pay raises, bonuses and pay cuts,” Rick wrote.

Young people, don’t buy the depressing vision he’s selling! Because you can push for a much better work life than we older fogies have tolerated. And I hope — for all of us — that you will.

I’m a Gen Xer. Rick is a youngish baby boomer. Both our generations basically sucked it up as the post-World War II employment deal fell apart. Sure, the bargain of lifetime job security in exchange for loyalty that employers and employees struck in the 1950s and ’60s had its downsides. It could be paternalistic, exclusive and a bit boring. But we boomers and Gen Xers traded in that job stability for work arrangements that have been rife with job insecurity, reduced worker bargaining power, stagnant wages for most employees and — most recently — a lot of involuntary gig jobs.

Ed Frauenheim

Ed Frauenheim

The consequences for workers and society have been big. Precarious employment, combined with other aspects of toxic cultures, like the inability to balance family and work obligations and a lack of autonomy on the job, contribute to an estimated 120,000 premature American deaths each year, according to research by Stanford University professor Jeffrey Pfeffer and his colleagues.

Frustration with unhealthy, demeaning workplaces and the sense that the American dream is fading out of reach surely contributes to the populist movements on the left and right that are part of the country’s polarization in recent years.

In a sense, Rick is right that many Gen Zers are likely to face troubles like layoffs, difficult bosses and pay cuts. These are the effects of heightened corporate power combined with global competition and short-sighted leadership styles. Artificial intelligence also could eliminate a major portion of jobs going forward, leaving many members of Gen Z scrapping for scarce positions in the years ahead.

But there are countervailing trends in the works when it comes to work.

You Gen Zers can look at the millennial generation to see a cohort of people successfully protesting the way things have been done. They have forced organizations to take work-life balance more seriously, to build more meaning into jobs, to provide more feedback and career development.

And unlike when Rick and I first entered the workforce, young people today have tools of transparency at their disposal. You can see into the cultures of prospective employers as never before. Glassdoor ratings, user comments and social media posts by employees provide at least a fuzzy truth about what it’s like to work at different companies.

And you can turn to best-workplace lists published by organizations including mine, Great Place to Work. With our partner Fortune, we produce about two dozen lists of the best workplaces, including the annual ranking of the 100 best companies to work For. Great Place to Work’s certification program also awards a seal of approval to hundreds of companies whose employees have given their workplaces high ratings on our “Trust Index Employee Survey.”

Using these tools, new graduates can choose to apply to companies that are likely to create a positive workplace culture. You can give yourself good odds of avoiding difficult bosses, overbearing co-workers, layoffs and pay cuts.

In Fortune’s “100 Best Companies to Work For,” for example, 87 percent of employees on average say leaders are approachable and easy to talk with, 90 percent say “people care about each other here,” 84 percent believe their company would lay people off only as a last resort, and 78 percent report that people are paid fairly for the work they do.

In part because of best-workplace rankings and growing visibility into company cultures, more and more organizations are making a positive workplace a priority. Not only are businesses aiming for a healthy culture, they increasingly are trying to build an inclusive one. That’s partly thanks to growing evidence that workplaces where everyone experiences a high-trust culture outperform the competition. In our new book, for example, we show that organizations that consistently create a great culture across demographic groups and job levels grow revenue three times faster than less-inclusive rivals.

Rick tells new grads to take the first job offer they get. “You don’t know if there will be a second offer,” he writes.

Don’t let Rick scare you into joining an awful company! Use the tools that didn’t exist when he and I went off bright-eyed to work, and find a job at a great employer that is focusing on creating an excellent workplace experience for every employee. The stakes are high for you individually, and for us as a society. Because every time a young, entry-level worker presses corporate America to be more humane, fairer and more inclusive, everyone benefits.

So Gen Z, please choose idealism over cynicism.

Demand a better workplace than we did.

Ed Frauenheim is a former associate editorial director at Human Capital Media and currently works as senior director of content at Great Place to Work. He is a co-author of “A Great Place to Work For All.” 

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