Disengaged, indifferent, deluded? Why young workers have an image problem

Not that long ago, Mark Zuckerberg logged in to a Q&A session with his staff that I would very much like to have seen.

Specifically, I wish I had witnessed the Facebook founder’s face when an employee in Chicago named Gary asked if the extra days off that were brought in during the pandemic would continue in 2023.

Zuckerberg looked “visibly frustrated” by this question, according to an account of the meeting on The Verge news site.

He had just explained the economy was probably tanking. TikTok was a competitive menace and he’d had to freeze hiring for some jobs.

So no, Gary in Chicago, the extra holidays would not last and nor would the days of pampering employees. People had to work harder and Zuckerberg didn’t care if some decided to quit. “Realistically, there are probably a bunch of people at the company who shouldn’t be here,” he said.

Now, I have no idea how old Gary is, but considering the average age of a Facebook employee has been about 28, I doubt he saw the first moon walk. I also think a lot of bosses reading this would like what Zuckerberg said.

As work returns to something approaching pre-Covid normality, I have lost count of the complaints I have heard from managers, most in their late thirties and forties, about their coddled, disengaged and indifferent 20-something employees.

Here are some examples.

There was the flummoxed investor who had told junior staff they should be in the office when clients visited, only to have those staff say: thanks for the feedback but I would rather keep working from home.

There was the TV executive who was told that young staff working on a long shoot would prefer shorter hours if they had to leave head office.

A consultant told me of a younger colleague who refused to travel abroad to client meetings any more, insisting they could be done online. And a financial adviser who fumed about young people logging in to important internal meetings where they kept their cameras off and said nothing.

I know that these are merely anecdotes. Some of the hardest working people I know are under 30 and too much weight is put on lazy generational stereotypes.

Also, as British researcher Professor Bobby Duffy wrote in his excellent book, Generations, last year, complaints about the young date back to ancient Greece, when Socrates lamented their contempt for authority, bad manners and greed.

Still, the sheer volume and consistency of these latest gripes makes me wonder if something else is going on.

Dr Eliza Filby, a generational researcher who advises companies on how to manage and recruit people in their twenties, thinks there is.

She told me the other day that the pandemic had heightened factors that set these workers apart, starting with their overworked, burnt-out bosses in their thirties and forties.

These older managers had made it through the jolting uncertainty of the global financial crisis, then Covid, but often still relied on their parents to avoid financial disaster.

No wonder, says Filby, their juniors ask: “Why are you working so hard? What have you got to show for it?”

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Younger workers also have a far better idea of how their job compares with what is on offer elsewhere, thanks to endless social media updates.

They grew up knowing money could be made on ecommerce sites such as Depop, which is just as well because they often do less part-time work than older employees did at their age, partly because school is more competitive now.

The upshot of this is that a lot of younger, over-parented staff arrive in their first job with little idea of how much better it is than serving beer — and little faith it will meet their life-long financial needs.

Filby’s advice: listen to them. Offer great training. But do not, on any account, heed their every whim, because “you’re not actually helping them through life”.

I agree. I also think there has never been a better time to be an ambitious, hardworking young employee. Finding a great job isn’t easy but if you can do it, you may well find yourself surrounded by a lot of people your age setting an unusually low bar.

pilita.clark@ft.com

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