A Now Hiring sign hangs near the entrance to a Winn-Dixie Supermarket on September 21, 2021 in Hallandale, Florida.
Employers are struggling to find workers. Here's why
02:11 - Source: CNNBusiness

Editor’s Note: Sara Stewart is a film and culture writer who lives in western Pennsylvania. The views expressed here are solely the author’s own. View more opinion articles on CNN.

CNN  — 

Once again the kids are showing us all how to do life better. According to a recent New York Times story, thirtysomething managers are being intimidated by their demanding twentysomething employees. Or, in the language of our generationally-obsessed culture, Gen Z isn’t taking any Millennial crap at work.

As a Gen X’er, I say it’s about time.

Sara Stewart

The Times reports that one 31-year-old chief executive’s colleague was “horrified” when a Gen Z employee assigned the boss a task to complete. Managers at an unnamed retail business were “distressed” by younger workers who requested paid time off for dealing with menstrual cramps or anxiety. And a sex toy company’s founder was surprised when a Gen Z worker asked her what the company planned to do to express support for the Black Lives Matter protests. Humanity, social engagement, a leveling of the corporate hierarchy: These are some of the Gen Z demands throwing their older bosses for a loop.

Whatever you think about the validity of the “Great Resignation,” it’s clear there’s something new going on in our relationship to work. And that shift is largely being driven by younger workers. Raised in a digital era that made it possible for people to speak more openly to, and with, a wider audience, they’re pushing back against a long-held American story about hard work being life’s number one priority.

Though the pandemic has galvanized this movement, it was starting before Covid-19 ever arrived. In 2019, the Harvard Business Review reported on a study that a strong majority of Gen Z respondents had left a job for mental health reasons, with more than half of overall respondents saying they didn’t feel their companies paid adequate attention to mental health care for employees. Zoomers are also technologically better suited than previous generations to master the gig economy or start their own small businesses.

For some of us ancient (read: middle-aged or older) folks, the disruption of the 9-to-5 is something we’ve been struggling to bring into the mainstream with little success for most of our careers. Ferris Bueller told my generation that “life moves pretty fast – if you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” I took this Zen-of-John Hughes mantra to heart.

I like work; I’ve been incredibly lucky to be able to write for a living. But in every office job I had, I longed for better work-life balance. I rarely needed a full workday to do a full day’s work, so why did I have to stay? As one Gen Z’er asks a potential employer in that Times story, if you do the work in five hours instead of eight, why can’t you leave?

That’s not the way the corporate world has ever worked before, though. I’ve been chastised for not spending more hours at my desk. I’ve felt out of touch for not chatting more with co-workers, preferring to finish my assignments so I could flee the office. I’ve been fired for not being punctual in the mornings, regardless of my work performance overall.

Then in the early aughts, I found an unlikely role model for my low-key rebelliousness: President George W. Bush. Although I detested everything about his politics, the man maintained an admirable and vocal dedication to what we’d now call wellness.

The media back then had a field day with his schedule, which included an ironclad time period reserved for working out around noon: “A midday workout or run – he doesn’t want his 7 1/2 -minute mile to slip – is not debatable.”

What a revelation! I began to feel less apologetic about my own habit of escaping to the gym during the day, a sanity-saving practice I kept up for the duration of my office life.

In 2008, I wrote about a pair of women who set out to revolutionize the working world with a new philosophy they called the Results-Only Work Environment. The authors, who both had corporate backgrounds, believed empowering workers to make their own schedules and work from home at their own discretion would improve productivity and, obviously, morale.

It seemed, to this journalist anyway, the most obvious solution to our deeply toxic work culture. But that revolution never really materialized; the big trend, instead, became the open-plan office, which only intensified the idea that workers should become some sort of unified organism, always on, always together.

Today, despite the Gen Z agitators, the dawning awareness that work doesn’t have to be all-consuming is still clearly lost on a lot of older, more entrenched workers. Especially the ones in power. A recent tone-deaf article in the Wall Street Journal exhorted managers to help workers recapture the supposed magic of spending inordinate amounts of time at the office. The writer and media relations firm owner Ed Zitron broke down the article in a great rant: “If you want to see an example of someone who is pro-boss, anti-worker and genuinely speaking from a place of industrial evil, it’s this article – all of this stuff is to intentionally manipulate people to come back to the office for no actual reason.”

I’m sure I’m not the only fortysomething watching the mass exodus from awful jobs with a growing sense of glee. Per a longstanding cliché about Gen X and slacking, mostly what my peers ended up doing was rolling our eyes and grumbling and pretending to put in the time while wasting a lot of it online.

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    Still, I took slight umbrage at this observation from a meditation company president: “Her company culture has relaxed even more, she added, since the departure of her oldest employee, who was 48. ‘Now everyone feels safe to be a little more weird.’” Way harsh. This 48-year-old would likely have embraced the opportunity to be weird had it seemed like a viable, staying-employed option. As it was, until quite recently, you had to keep your weirdness pretty close to the vest.

    Today, everything’s up for grabs. Nobody knows what the future of work will look like. All we know is it will be determined by a demographic that understands they can rewrite job culture if they really want to. As the Gen Z activist Greta Thunberg said about climate, but which feels increasingly applicable to just about everything else, “We can’t save the world by playing by the rules. Because the rules have to be changed. Everything needs to change. And it has to start today.”