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What Gen Z Can Teach Us About Work

We can and should demand more from our workplaces.

Key points

  • Increased psychological safety helps cultivate a stronger sense of belonging in the workplace.
  • Gen Z employees maintain workplace priorities that they often will not sacrifice.
  • Gen Z’s ideal workplaces mirror many tenets of psychologically healthy workplace models for all workers.
Angela Patterson
The author with her sister, Hannah.
Source: Angela Patterson

“I don’t want to do something every day that doesn’t make me happy,” my sister Hannah told me in a phone conversation recently. “My work has to do that: It has to fit me. If it weren’t, then I’d apply and apply until I found a place that did. I don’t want to be loyal to a place that isn’t loyal to me.”

As an older Gen Zer at age 23, this statement is not lip service for her; it’s lived experience. Hannah’s first job after graduation went from an enthusiastic yes to a hard no after two weeks: She walked. She then became a middle-school art teacher, loving the work but not the school dynamics. Looking to make another move, she eyed a position at another middle school and emailed the principal directly to tell them what a great fit she’d be. A bold move (and one both our father and I agreed we’d never have taken), but it paid off–and she loves her new workplace.

“Personally, I’m not really a big people person, but at my former school, the other teachers would walk down the hall and intentionally avoid making eye contact. They were not interested in being friends. The leaders only talked to me in a way that felt condescending,” Hannah said. “Now I work with some of the friendliest people. The leaders talk to me like a person. They check on me, make jokes, and want to get to know me. Teaching is not easy, so when someone comes to your room at the end of the day, it’s nice when your first thought isn’t hurrying so you can get to your car and leave; you want to connect with them. I genuinely like spending time with (the people I work with).”

Although I am 18 years her senior and have different mothers, Hannah and I are remarkably alike. We could pass for twins (at least fraternal ones). We love learning, and both fancy ourselves good cooks and better writers. Yet, we couldn’t have more dissimilar expectations regarding our work lives.

As an elder Millennial, I’ve always considered my history of amazing bosses and work besties a result of divine grace and dumb luck; it was never something I thought to require of my work life, much less assume that I could. As Hannah told me this story, I replied that I was proud of her for seeking her ideal environment, but silently I envied that 23-year-old Angela had never dared to do the same.

Springtide Research Institute (which studies the inner and outer lives of people 13-25) collected data on Gen Z’s attitudes and found this generation works to live, not live to work. Work is an integrated asset to their lives, not simply a means to an end, and therefore should reflect who they are as people. Also, they want:

  • The organizations they join to reflect their personal values.
  • Leaders who care and create space for authenticity. They want to feel invested in–and when they do, they invest back.
  • Work that makes a difference in the world or helps them pursue a passion or calling. The meaning doesn’t always come from individual tasks but from knowing they contribute to an overall goal. They’re likely to do extra work when they believe in what they’re doing.
  • Space for growth, including regular feedback. This growth influences their sense of identity, so growing as a person means growing at work.
  • Connections that are authentic, not just transactional.

Gen Z’s ideal workplace mirrors many tenets of a psychologically healthy workplace for all workers. Leaders showing care and concern for employees is a hallmark of psychological safety. Increased psychological safety helps to cultivate a stronger sense of belonging–a core human need that, if gone unmet, can lead to depression and lowered self-esteem.

Gen Z isn’t demanding an environment that simply makes them more comfortable but instead insisting on working in a place that makes them better people. Hannah told me she’s getting to do work that she feels makes an impact and enjoys the people with which she’s doing it. She asked me, “So why didn’t you and Dad ask for the same?”

It may seem that we older folk never thought to claim this work utopia for ourselves because we were taught to be married to our work or conditioned to put a big paycheck before our comfort. Yet, the research shows otherwise.

Psychologist Jean Twenge found that generations value work-life balance and leisure time similarly when they are young, and it shifts as they age. Therefore, any changes we see are the result of each generation building on the one before it. It's been argued that Millennials were/are ‘‘the most high-maintenance workforce in the history of the world, but would probably be the most productive."

If Twenge is correct, Gen Z could be ushering us into an era of work that makes us healthier humans–and it’s not too late for the rest of us to jump on board.


Kennedy, J.T. & Jain-Link, P. (2021, June 21). What does it take to build a culture of belonging? Harvard Business Review.…

May, D.R., Gilson, R.L., & Harter, L.M. (2004). The psychological conditions of meaningfulness, safety and availability and the engagement of the human spirit at work. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 77(1), 11–37. http://dx.doi. org/10.1348/096317904322915892

Thau, S., Aquino, K., Poortvliet, P. M. (2007). Self-defeating behaviors in organizations: The relationship between thwarted belonging and interpersonal work behaviors. Journal of Applied Psychology, 92(3), 840-847. DOI:10.1037/0021-9010.92.3.840

Tulgan, B. (2009). Not everyone gets a trophy: How to manage Generation Y. New York: Jossey-Bass.

Twenge, J.M. (2010). A review of the empirical evidence on generational differences in work attitudes. Journal of Business and Psychology, 25, 201–210. DOI 10.1007/s10869-010-9165-6

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