Gen Z workers should be proud of being ‘snowflakes’ rather than martyrs

There’s nothing older generations enjoy more than complaining about the young. Their childhoods are too coddled and full of non-dangerous toys, then they get to school where they are not beaten with sticks and therefore do not build character, then they go to university where they bully statues and either have too much or not enough sex.

Now, as millennials have aged into their uncool middle-manager era, and Gen Z enter the workforce, they have inspired a number of books and articles and speeches about how kids these days don’t know the value of a hard day’s work.

As many columnists, business book authors, and upper managers would often have it, the younger set are simply terrible workers. They ask for too much, they do too little, they do not respect hierarchies, they don’t want to pay their dues, they say “like” too much, they have tattoos on their arms, they’re always looking at their phones, and they quit their jobs instead of miserably sticking it out. Snowflakes!

This was what a friend of mine was once called by her own uncle, in fact, when she decided to quit a job just a few weeks in, because the boss was horrible and abusive. He was also drunk at work much of the time. Why would leaving such a job draw such an insult, suggesting she should have toughed it out in a terrible situation? She was, to his mind, entitled and too sensitive.

But it isn’t actually true that young people work less hard than their elders. And even if it were – why shouldn’t we aspire to a future with less work?

Last year, a New York Times headline declared that “The 37-year-olds are afraid of the 23-year-olds who work for them”. It gestured to a division between anxious, conscientious millennials, many of whom had entered the workplace in the shadow of the 2008 crash; and their Gen Z counterparts, who feel comfortable “delegating to their boss”.

The Harvard Business Review has similarly written about the “work martydom” of millennials, citing American studies that find young people feel more shame about taking time off for holidays and are more likely to forfeit unused vacation days. The author Malcolm Harris describes millennials not as overly rebellious but rather as “servile, anxious [and] afraid”. In a precarious economy marked by historic inequality, the importance of getting and maintaining a good job is more acute than ever. And for those who entered the workforce after the double whammy of the recession and the invention of the iPhone, we are never really able to not be at work.

Nevertheless, young people are critiqued for their attempts to set boundaries at work. One young woman in the New York Times piece about Gen Z workers shocked her bosses by asking if she could leave work after finishing her tasks for the day, rather than sticking around in the name of the traditional 9 to 5. Maybe she’s on to something.

For the millions who have quit their jobs in the “great resignation”, the pandemic and a tight labour market have made once radical propositions – such as not sticking out a miserable job – feel more possible. Why put up with abuse, discrimination and poor pay when you could just go get another job?

While the pandemic has opened up such possibilities, it also laid bare the extreme divides between those workers who could work from home and those who had to show up and risk their lives. It showed how many businesses were willing to put their employees at risk in the name of profits, and how many privileged people were unwilling to sacrifice their creature comforts for another person’s safety.

At both ends of this divided economy of work, though, we are seeing a newly invigorated labour movement – even in the generally union-unfriendly United States – and young people are playing a central role. A 2018 Pew Research survey found that American adults under 30 are the only group in which a larger share hold a favourable view of labour unions than feel the same way about corporations. The United Auto Workers union wrote in 2019 about the momentum of unionisation in unexpected places – at nonprofits, coffee shops, and digital media outfits. Meanwhile, workers at places like Amazon fulfilment centres are also seeking to form unions for the first time.

Wherever you find them, though, workers who demand better conditions meet with similar-sounding scrutiny. They are told that they are asking for too much, and that they should be grateful, that actually a company is like a family and they are better off without a union, which would just get in between the company and the employees.

This is what I was told in my previous digital media job when we attempted (and failed) to gain union recognition. This is also exactly what Amazon warehouse workers were told when they attempted to form a union in Alabama.

In my own experience, I saw the ways in which problems at work could be pinned on employees’ lack of character, fortitude and work ethic, rather than structural faults of the company. We brought up concerns about pay gaps along gender and racial lines, lack of transparency in raises and promotions and lack of support for mental health. In response, we were given subscriptions to an app to sort out our mental health, but were expected to do it on our own time.

If management can successfully dismiss employees’ demands as those of spoiled, narcissistic young people – of snowflakes – then they may save themselves the trouble and the cost of creating a fair workplace. But the problem of modern work is not that young people lack character. Their only crime is a disinclination to make themselves miserable in the name of making the rich richer. Is that so unreasonable?

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