Is Gen Z the anti-ambition generation?

We’re told Gen Zers are the harbingers of the UK’s engagement crisis, poised to bring down businesses with their anti-work attitudes. But is there any truth to the claims?

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Written and reviewed by:
Helena Young

Scan any business news site in the UK right now and you’ll spot a recurring theme – the ‘problem’ of Gen Z. Chief among the accusations, managers say Gen Zers (those aged 16-24) are lazy. They don’t want to work, and they expect too much from employers.

These allegations have historically always been lobbied at young people. The debate’s origins can be traced right back to the great-thinker himself, Aristotle, who whined way back in 300 BC that “the young people of today think of nothing but themselves.”

This time, however, there might be cause for complaint. The “anti-ambition generation”  appears to be reflective of a wider shift towards new ways of working post-COVID. For many young people, this era has set the tone for their first foray into a career.

We spoke to various HR experts, managers, and Gen Zers to ask why the rise of the anti-work movement is being driven by today’s young people – and how employers can win them back.

What is the anti-work movement?

Employee engagement in the UK is currently in a dire state. Staff have been forced to contend with a fall in real wages amid a cost of living crisis, while businesses have simultaneously struggled with cash management.

Many sectors have experienced a mass exodus as staff pack up and switch careers, searching for more adaptable job roles. This has accelerated an already surging staff turnover rate.

Adding to this has been the challenge of heightened staff burnout, which has seen waves of workers throwing in the towel. The result? Research shows that our workforce now ranks among the lowest in Europe for employee engagement.

Naturally, the matter has seeped into social media. And here, it’s picked up traction, as employees wonder aloud what the point is to their career. Experts have dubbed the phenomena ‘the anti-work movement’.

This is not a drill

Not so long ago, anti-work sentiments were voiced privately – it’s what the water cooler and post-work pub were made for. But, the world of social media has seen the movement quickly become public, as young people proselytise alternative options to the daily grind.

The group has largely found its home on TikTok – Gen Zers’ app of choice – and their messages have spiked management worries. Over the past few months, the sheer volume of trending anti-work topics have led some commentators to dub the platform ‘QuitTok’.

Terms like ‘quiet quitting’ (doing the bare minimum at work) ‘lazy girl jobs’ (roles that require little effort or enthusiasm) and ‘career cushioning’ (lining up a Plan B job) have cropped up everywhere as workers sow the seeds of discontent for their colleagues to swallow.

Ed Johnson is CEO and co-founder of career progression and mentoring platform, PushFar. He says QuitTok’s popularity is no surprise. “Gen Z has grown up in a digital era where they feel more comfortable voicing their thoughts and opinions through social media,” he notes.

Youth is wasted on the cost of living

One reason why the anti-work movement has resonated so strongly with younger audiences could be financial.

Real wages have taken a significant tumble due to the rate of inflation, which peaked at 11.1% in October – the highest rate since 1981. Research shows that young people have been the most financially hard-hit by the current downturn.

Alice Martin is a Gen Z employee at a global marketing company based in London. Martin tells Startups she thinks young people have adopted anti-work beliefs due to “a growing awareness that for many people hard work does not necessarily equal financial stability.

“We see lots of very hard working people that get paid unfairly as well as people achieving success through non-meritocratic means. I think that makes a lot of young people a little jaded about the point of working.”

What do managers think?

The culture clash between Gen Z workers and their older colleagues has been the cause of some workplace conflict in recent years.

Younger people have ripped up the office rule book and set about establishing new boundaries on workplace behaviour. One example is a differing attitude to workwear, which has ushered in a relaxed uniform inspired by the pandemic style of ‘Zoom pyjamas’.

More extreme are the questions around their commitment to a job. One survey found that 71% of 16-25 year olds said they want to work as a freelancer, with 36% stating that their ultimate career goal is to be their own boss.

As the majority of Gen Z seek a more ad-hoc working style, it seems they are deliberately rejecting the typical 9-5 working pattern. It’s no wonder managers are concerned about how this might impact their dedication to their current role.

But does being anti-work necessarily lead to being anti-ambition? We asked two managers, who both employ Gen Z workers, to give us their views.

“Their work ethic is an issue”

Some managers have struggled to reconcile Gen Z’s flexible approach to a career with their previous definition of what constitutes ‘professionalism’ in the workplace.

Emma Hull supervises two Gen Z workers at Foundation, a digital marketing company. Hull reports: “One of the biggest issues that I’ve faced as a Gen Z manager is work ethic. Coming straight out of university into a fairly flexible working life thanks to the pandemic means that their lazy mornings are yet to shift.”

According to Hull, younger employees also expect to be recognised for their work efforts immediately, compared to colleagues from other generations.

“They’re very much used to being rewarded for their effort, rather than hitting their goals,” she elaborates. “Leaving at 5.30pm as opposed to 5pm also makes them feel as though they’ve gone the extra mile.”

Alex Watt is another Gen Z employee who works at a tech company. He posits a reasoning for Hull’s experiences. As it becomes increasingly unaffordable to own a home, there is a growing pressure on young people to overperform and start saving from the get-go.

“Job competition is increasing to the level where ‘graduate’ roles often require employment experience,” he notes. “The majority are also in London, forcing young people to think about a big move just to secure a good job. The anti-work movement offers a radical alternative.”

“They know their worth”

Understandably, hiked expectations amongst Gen Z workers for higher starting salaries has not gone down well with every business. In fact, their demands have seen many UK recruiters press pause on hiring uni leavers.

Alternatively, some bosses are choosing to embrace the wind change. People like David Clare, Managing Director at Monarchs PR agency. Clare admires the Gen Z willingness to ask for salary increases and other workplace benefits.

“Perhaps Gen X and Millennials were advised to ‘keep your head down’ and to not ‘rock the boat’,” he comments. “Gen Z have been empowered to stand up for what they think is right.”

“In the workplace, this translates to sticking to contracted working hours, flagging high workload, and managing up. Knowing your worth, valuing your time, and taking care of your own mental wellbeing are things to encourage, not complain about.”

How to win back Gen Z

Research from PushFar, developed in partnership with Sheridan Worldwide, has revealed that there has been a 134% increase in Gen Z switching their job roles relative to before the pandemic. That’s compared to a 24% increase in millennials.

Whether you think Gen Z anti-workers are audacious or activists, this statistic should be a warning to small business owners.

By 2025, 27% of the workforce will be Gen Z. Ignoring their demands now will only shoot employers in the foot further down the line. So how can managers meet Zoomers in the middle, and ensure they are poised to attract and retain emerging talent?

Install flexible working (and keep it)

The idea of flexible working has firmly taken hold for UK businesses. The government has even made it a day one legal right via the Flexible Working Bill.

But many employers are now stepping on the brakes. In recent months, pushback from large companies like Meta, centred around the policy of home working, has ignited a fierce return-to-office debate.

Startups recently surveyed 500 UK employees to get their attitudes to a four-day week. Generationally, a four-day week was found to be most attractive to Gen Z employees. Some 58% would switch jobs for the perk (compared to an average of 50% across all other

In this context, there is a real threat that forcing staff to return to the office could further alienate young workers. Firms should embrace flexible working policies, such as a hybrid work policy to ensure their offering is up-to-date with Gen Z needs.

Variety is key here. Offering multiple arrangements will win you more favour with staff by empowering them to choose the package that best suits their lifestyle and / or preferred work style.

Make it your mission

Post-pandemic, UK employees had time to reflect. Many awoke from years of lockdown feeling newly-motivated to find a career path that contributes to the betterment of society and themselves. Across all sectors, there has been a discernible trend towards meaningful work.

Gen Z are particular proponents of the cause. A report by BBMG and Global Scan found that Gen Z is 15% more likely to say they want to make a difference by “doing meaningful work through their career”.

Martin backs these findings. Specifically, she says the climate emergency has definitely had an influence over the anti-work trend’s grip over younger employees.

“Sometimes I’m not even sure if we will all live that long and even if we do, it’s going to look very different,” she says. “I feel inclined to make the most of my life now and create a healthy work-life balance, instead of working extra hard now for future-me to enjoy.”

Firms should take time to define specific branding materials that can help Gen Z talent to understand the company’s purpose. For example, mission statements or a list of company values.

Inclusive workplace culture

Organisational culture has undergone a major adjustment in the years since the pandemic. COVID-19 impacted women and underrepresented groups disproportionately, bringing a renewed focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) to the boardroom table.

Younger employees in particular want to feel they can bring their authentic selves to work. According to a recent Monster survey, 83% of Gen Z candidates think a company’s commitment to DEI is important when choosing an employer.

Policies like reducing alcohol at work events, or taking steps to promote neurodiversity, are two examples of how the shift is manifesting in workplaces up and down the UK.

An extension of this step change is that Gen Z colleagues also want to feel equally valued at work. Perhaps this disconnect is exacerbating the divide. Workers feel their opinions on work should hold equal weight to leadership teams, frustrating managers.

Sam Smith is the founder and former CEO of finnCap Group. Smith suggests that bosses take time to understand the motivations behind the anti-work trend.

“Giving people the forum to give feedback without judgement that their opinions are negative or ‘anti-work’ is more likely to help engage and invigorate employees than labelling a whole generation as the source of a problem,” she cautions.

Are we entering a post-work era?

Anti-ambitious, anti-work – these labels are repeatedly being lobbed at Gen Z workers. But on closer inspection, the manifesto aims of today’s young workers (flexible working, greater inclusivity) reflect a cultural change in mood that has been growing since COVID.

At the time, much was said about the ‘new normal’ for organisations. No-one really knew what this vague term described, and the idea was quickly dropped once restrictions were lifted. Now, it seems Gen Z has taken over script-writing duties.

Reimagining what the modern working world looks like, Gen Z workers could be viewed as early adopters of an emerging, post-work era. Amid the rapid rollout of AI, this period may challenge the very idea of ‘work ethic’, and instead prioritise nonwork activities.

That brave new world is still a long way off – if it arrives at all. But companies should take note now, if they want to turn anti-work sentiments into a strategic opportunity.

“Sometimes, changes in attitudes and working norms can be beneficial for improving a business overall,” Smith concludes. “For leaders, it’s all about turning potentially difficult approaches to work such as the ‘anti-work movement’ into powerful learnings.”

Next up: read about 50+ employee benefits and perks that you can use to attract fresh talent from across all generations.

Written by:
Helena Young
Helena is Lead Writer at Startups. As resident people and premises expert, she's an authority on topics such as business energy, office and coworking spaces, and project management software. With a background in PR and marketing, Helena also manages the Startups 100 Index and is passionate about giving early-stage startups a platform to boost their brands. From interviewing Wetherspoon's boss Tim Martin to spotting data-led working from home trends, her insight has been featured by major trade publications including the ICAEW, and news outlets like the BBC, ITV News, Daily Express, and HuffPost UK.

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