A few years ago, I was up for an editing job and met with the person who was about to leave the position. She interrupted herself as she was telling me about the mechanics of the work and asked if she could tell me truth. She told me I wouldn’t last three months. “They’re going to destroy you,” she said.
Who would destroy me? My bosses? The elderly subscribers? The Hollywood players I’d be covering?
No, she said. My staff.
It’s not that the millennials wouldn’t work. They’d just do whatever work they wanted regardless of what I assigned. Then they’d wait for me to say or post something they’d consider inappropriate and destroy me with it.
So last October, when the New York Times ran an article entitled “The 37-Year-Olds Are Afraid of the 23-Year-Olds Who Work for Them”—about how entitled millennials are unable to manage their even-more-entitled Gen Z workers—I and all my Gen X friends excitedly passed it around Facebook, a place we knew neither millennials nor Gen Zers would see.
It had scenes of Gen Z employees assigning work to their bosses, including their CEOs. It cited—in two different places—employees asking for paid leave for menstrual cramps. It had one of my favorite lines ever in an article: “Ms. Rodriguez’s cofounder at Unbound, which sells vibrators, called to say that their social media manager, a younger employee, wanted to know what the company planned to do to support the [Black Lives Matter] protests.” Though, in the Gen Zers’ defense, it must be really hard not to tell the founder of a sex-toy company to go fuck herself.
The Times piece also cited my 2013 Time magazine cover story about millennials, whom I called the Me, Me, Me Generation. To which many millennials responded with angry emails explaining how the story didn’t pertain to them, explaining all the details about them that made them different.
To revel in millennial comeuppance, I called Jean Twenge, the San Diego State University psychology professor who gave me the idea for my Time cover. In the years since we first talked, she’d gone on to write 2017’s iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy—and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood—and What That Means for the Rest of Us. And she told me, to my dismay, that the New York Times piece didn’t match what studies were finding about Gen Z. She said that iGen—a term she’s still pushing instead of Gen Z—doesn’t feel nearly as entitled as the millennials.
“There’s this really stark change between millennials and Gen Z on a huge list of things. Narcissism is down. Thinking of yourself as above average is down. Life satisfaction is down. Happiness is down,” she explained. “They’re sad. And they doubt themselves. Depression has doubled among teens.”
The change between these two generations, she went on, happened quickly and before the pandemic. “I think it’s the phone,” she said, repeating her theory from her book about the pressures of social media and a lack of face-to-face communication. “I don’t know how much you followed Facebook’s internal documents, but . . . mic drop.”
This is a generation that has sex later, drinks later, drives later. In 1991, 53 percent of high schoolers had gotten laid. In 2017, only 39 percent had. I’d go with this as the reason they’re depressed, but I’ll trust Twenge on the phone theory.
But they’re not a pain in the ass at work. Managers say that while Gen Zers are new on the workforce and have spent half that time working from home, they already understand office hierarchy. Sometimes it just doesn’t seem like that to older people because office communication has changed. By which I mean Slack.
“I could look at an email and see it’s from the VP of whatever, so I knew I needed to take it seriously,” says Elizabeth Brownsen, the Gen X senior director of operations for Riot Games, the video game company that makes League of Legends. “Now when I get a Slack, the title isn’t obvious.” While Zoomers seem comfortable getting @’ed and emoji’ed hundreds of times a day, it’s taking older workers some getting used to. These days, reminding your boss to respond to something is not quite like mimeographing a Jerry Maguire memo and putting it in the pneumatic tube to the C-suite mailboxes. Besides, your boss isn’t in some corner office. She’s eating a salad out of a plastic container right near you in the open seating plan.
Gen Z is also more professional than millennials. Brownsen talked to millennials about appropriate work outfits. “I had to have conversations about how there are different versions of ‘dress up’—as in ‘dress up for a club’ and ‘dress up for work.’ ” She had to remind them that ‘nice’ doesn’t have to do with price. “I have not had to have that conversation with Gen Z.”
One of the observations the New York Times article got right is that members of Gen Z are bringing politics to work. But not in the virtue signaling millennial way of monitoring the company’s Instagram reaction to the liberal outrage du jour. Instead, at an interview, Gen Zers ask more about the company’s values than they do about their benefits. Hooli, the Google-like company on Silicon Valley, could get away with a bromide such as “Making the World a Better Place” when hiring millennials. Now it’d have to explain how its search algorithm is correcting for a lack of diversity in image searches. Becky Bush, a millennial TikTok influencer who mentors Gen Z under the name “Career Becky”—the second best name to show you don’t care about getting laid after “HIV Hank”—scored her best 1.7 million views by offering “four amazing questions at the end of every job interview.” Number three? “What are the company values?”
The weirdest thing about Gen Z is how into titles it is. Gen Zers might be working for a two-year-old startup, but they treat their rank as if they were British expeditionary officers in the Raj. “I have heard stories from other teams where they were told we have to add ‘associate’ or ‘senior’ or ‘group’ to a title,” says Brownsen. “I said, ‘Is there a collection of people? Or does ‘group director’ just sound bigger than ‘director’? Is there a group there?”
It’s partly because of LinkedIn and company websites, where titles are the currency of the realm. But it’s also because Gen Z longs for structure. A promotion, Gen Zers figure, is based on how long you’re at a company, just like graduating to another grade. “Up to this point, there have been handbooks literally handed to them as freshmen in high school and freshmen in college. There’s been scaffolding for them. Great companies are putting training programs in place and adjusting to that,” says Brownsen.
Chelsea Grayson, former CEO of American Apparel and True Religion, who now sits on the boards of Xponential Fitness, Spark Networks, iHerb, and the UCLA English Department, made a YouTube show called From the Office of the CEO. “I did it for Gen Z because Gen Zs crave the traditional training and mentoring that we all got at the beginning of our careers as 50-year-olds but dropped because of budget and because millennials shunned a lot of that stuff,” she says. “The term ‘lily padding’ was created on the millennial prototype: I’m going to be here for two years and then start my own company. Gen Zers see the power that comes from sitting in a boardroom.”
As obsessed as Gen Z is about titles, they view the rest of their identity more fluidly. It’s the postrace, postgender, postsexuality generation. Grayson was consulting for a sex-toy company and observed that one item was listed on the site as being “for someone either born with a vulva or made one.” When she got home, she reported this to her daughter, who goes to UCLA. “She and her friends were out by the pool, and I said, ‘Look at this dope shit I heard.’ And they were so offended. ‘Why would you have to put a label on anything? Why can’t you put it on a website and let everyone figure it out on their own? They fundamentally believe we’re all just spectrumized and we’ll figure it out on our own.” Between this story and the one in the New York Times, it seems that a huge portion of Gen Zers work for sex-toy companies.
Gen Z is also, as Twenge has written, anxious. And eager to talk about it. Gen Zers will tell you that they’re too stressed to work that day, citing mental health as if it were food poisoning. “I’ve dealt with my share of employees with mental-health issues—things that I would take to my personal support network. They expect work to be a support network,” says Christopher Kao, who works in Atlanta as the director of global product operations at 17Live, a live-streaming company. “They say, ‘Support me in my endeavors whether it has to do with work or not.’ Once you understand that, you can start ‘engaging’ and ‘dialoging’ and give an education about what we can provide: ‘If you want to talk about this personal stuff with me, we can; but I can’t do much because I’m not your family.’ ”
To reduce stress, some companies have started No Meetings Friday. Blend, a financial services company based in San Francisco, issues four or five office-wide “mental health” holidays a year when they feel employees are getting stressed out. “It’s important that you manage Gen Z a bit differently. You don’t just manage for work, but you manage for energy. Twenty years ago, your one-on-ones would be, ‘Have you done x, y, z? No? When will you have them done?’ ” says Gautam Srivastava, the head of people at Blend. “Now it’s, ‘What’s going on in your life? Are there parents you’re helping?’ Your conversation has to be much wider.”
Which Srivastava has grown to like. All those sick days we took when we got dumped, faking elaborate illnesses like we were Ferris Bueller? Or worse yet, didn’t take, and brought everyone else down in the office who saw us making Constant Comment tea in the kitchen? “It was too embarrassing to me at the beginning of my career to talk about how stressed I felt because it would be seen as weakness. You’d have to not talk about it. You’d have to disguise it. That’s not true anymore, and I have the younger generations to thank,” he says.
Why is Gen Z less narcissistic, harder working, and more open than millennials? Was it the #MeToo movement? Trans rights? Climate change?
No, it’s because they weren’t raised by boomers. I can’t imagine how millennials survived being exposed to that much narcissism in their formative years.
Stay on top of the latest in L.A. news, food, and culture. Sign up for our newsletters today.