Gen Z in the Workforce Part I

Part 1: Understanding Gen Z Philosophies

Last summer, I had the privilege to teach a career management course for the Class of 2023, called The Classroom. The Classroom is a six-week program to help our most recent grads from UCLA transition from the classroom to the workforce. The sessions addressed the benefits of:

  • Returning to the office
  • Managing the stress of finding a job
  • Building resilience after rejection
  • Job search preparation

As any teacher will tell you, I learned a lot from my students. In this three-part series, I will share my observations, experiences and research of Generation Z (ages 26 and under) to help us better understand their impact and how they are impacted by today’s workforce.

I started off skeptical and was pleasantly surprised to find a talented, thoughtful and passionate group of young professionals with trepidation about their future. But while this generation has inspiring intentions, their philosophies may not favor them in the short run.

So why does Gen Z get such a bad rap from the generations that came before them? I suspect it is because their activism and philosophies are often misinterpreted. More often than not, they are not afraid to speak their mind and fight for institutional and societal changes. Whether it’s the proliferation of cancel culture as their weapon of choice to protest bad behavior, or their demand for work-life balance despite having limited work or life experience to balance, or being quick to admonish a company they perceive as toxic or that condones hustle culture, many seem to lack the patience and understanding that every job and every company will have some unpleasantries that come with the territory.

When cancel culture is applied to the workplace, its intent is to hold to account bad behavior. Yet, the tactic has been known to be administered arbitrarily, impulsively and recklessly, sometimes destroying someone's livelihood. There is no grace for contrition, no opportunity to apologize and be forgiven, no chance for redemption or understanding that, at some point, every single one of us has made mistakes and errors in judgment. By creating unattainable standards of perfection, the culture of the workplace is transformed from one of free expression to fear of expression and extreme caution. It’s inevitable that the next generation after Gen Z will also hold them accountable for any transgressions.

There is no doubt that the pandemic forever changed how companies operate, and it completely changed the way we work. The preferred choice for Gen Z is to work remotely. However, unlike previous generations, Gen Z has not had the benefit of experience and tenure to understand how to pivot and manage expectations and deliverables. Most of Gen Z has been deprived of at least two years of in-person work experience and have fallen behind in some of the necessary skills to adapt and succeed in the workplace. That is what makes their stance problematic. Some have yet to attain the credibility and credentials to continue working remotely.

Gen Z's call for improved work-life balance has had both positive and negative reactions. Working remotely during the lockdown has actually improved work-life balance and resulted in additional benefits, like the reprieve from brutal commutes and hurried weekends, cost savings and more family/personal time. On the flip side, starting a new job takes much energy, especially in the first year. One has little control over their workload, directly impacting their work-life balance. We typically learn by osmosis and by modeling the behaviors of those around us, which would be a challenge if one was exclusively working from home. Inevitably, one must spend significant time learning the job, vernacular, databases, names of colleagues, products and the employer's services. These skills are needed to master one's craft and manage one's workload and, more importantly, the boss' expectations. Previous generations have referred to this as “paying your dues” in the workforce before being able to reap some of the benefits, such as more work-life balance.  

This generation has also been known to throw in the towel when the expectations of their employers become too much. In all fairness, they may have seen their Gen X parents pay the price of climbing the corporate ladder; even if it came at their expense. They are not wrong for wanting a healthy and productive environment in which to thrive. Every company strives to provide that environment, but more often than not, they fall short of those ideals. Reasons for dysfunction could be various things, like reorganizations, changes in leadership or even difficult employees that corrupt the environment. The lesson is not to cancel or “quiet quit” your job but to persist through adversity and become a stronger, wiser, more employable person from this experience.

Overall, Gen Z is on to something. We should all strive to create a healthier work environment with flexibility, autonomy and accountability. Most of what they aspire to change will come to pass, but it will require patience, time and diplomacy to get it done. While well-meaning, they are still learning to diplomatically voice their concerns and work through the hierarchy that slows change.

There is more to come. In part II of this series, we will take a deep dive into the well-being of Gen Z. Post-pandemic, there has been a 25% increase in reported cases of depression and anxiety among college-age youth. Moreover, that has directly impacted their confidence, interpersonal relationships, and ability to function personally and professionally. Finally, in part III, we will discuss why this generation is so important and why we should invest our time and energy into their personal and professional development.

How can you help Gen Z? One way is to utilize UCLA ONE, short for Opportunity, Network and Experience. It is the professional networking platform for Bruins. It is a vital resource for Gen Z Bruins to find jobs and internships. You can post vacancies in your organization and offer guidance as an alumni mentor or industry expert. It’s a place where Bruins can help Bruins thrive.

The Career Engineering series features the expert advice of Amy Rueda, a 25-year veteran of executive search, who has placed CEOs and C-suite executives across multiple industries and functional areas. Her passion for leading diversity initiatives that focus on change management and employee engagement is reflected in her portfolio of accomplishments. Amy studied political science and was born and raised in Los Angeles.

Email your career questions to and Amy will try and answer them in next month’s issue of Career Engineering.

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