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21-Year-Old Shares 5 Steps to Address Gen Z Disengagement

A young man smiling in a suit and tie.

Five years ago, when I was 16 and before any of us had ever heard of social distancing, I wrote an article for the Society for Human Resource Management's HR Magazine on what the working world needed to know about my generation, Generation Z. Since then, we've experienced paradigm-shifting global events, and I've been busy attending college, solidifying the direction I will take when I officially begin my career.

Now at the age of 21, I'm excited to enter the workforce and get my first real job, but I also have my worries. I'm concerned that I, along with the rest of my college-age peers, will become the latest victims of a workforce structure that often leaves its junior talent out to dry.

Employees working in entry-level positions score lower than any other employee group in every category related to mental health and physical well-being. In the Belonging at Work Culture report from the Achievers Workforce Institute (AWI), 35 percent of C-suite executives reported feeling physically healthy and mentally well; junior employees scored 16 percent and 13 percent, respectively, on the same questions.

It seems that hierarchy is ingrained in our DNA, so it isn't surprising that the disparity between executives and junior employees is so large. It takes sacrifice and hard work to reach the top of any profession, and entry-level jobs have historically required a lot of repetitive drudge work. But as a new workforce entrant, especially in an industry—investment banking—notorious for how it treats its juniors, those figures scare me. Based on the above data, I have what amounts to a 13 percent chance of being mentally well as a junior employee.

If HR leaders follow these five steps, I'm confident they can be better prepared to address this crisis before it's too late. 

1. Prioritize junior employees' well-being. It's the right thing to do and it makes business sense, especially in an era of corporate social responsibility. 

Companies have an opportunity to make their presence in employees' lives net positive. Beyond the financial benefits that come with working, employers provide opportunities for junior employees to connect with peers and have meaningful social experiences. Fostering these connections has been often overlooked in the pandemic's aftermath. 

With a post-pandemic decline in in-person, culture-building opportunities, many junior employees struggle to balance a newfound facade of flexibility with the reality of being tethered to screens 24/7. The best companies—and therefore the best managers—assume a mantle of stewardship by caring for their employees first and foremost. Entry-level workers are especially in need of this care, as we gain our career footing and figure out where we want to go in our careers. It's essential to be in a work environment that nurtures growth and exploration. Plus, it's costly to retain disengaged employees at any level. According to Gallup, employees who are not engaged cost their company 18 percent of their annual salary in lost productivity, proving that investing in junior talent is crucial for a firm's long-term outlook. Junior employees are the future, after all. 

2. Understand what drives junior employee engagement. 

Two significant drivers of employee engagement are employees' sense of belonging and a feeling that they're cared for. However, according to AWI research, only 15 percent of junior employees feel a strong sense of belonging at their organizations, compared with 26 percent across all employee groups. Gallup data indicates that less than a quarter (24 percent) of all employees believe their employer cares about them. 

I acknowledge that managers are struggling with their own well-being and often don't have the time or patience to engage junior employees with more care. It's up to a manager to set culture, though, and employees who say they feel cared for are three times more likely to be engaged at work, leading to higher-quality work products and contributions to a strong culture. 

3. Create an environment conducive to opening dialogues about this issue. 

Focus on creating an environment where Generation Z employees feel a sense of psychological safety so they can share their honest opinions without fear of repercussion. Leaders can create this type of environment by frequently checking in and asking questions like: 

  • Do you feel you have the support you need in your role?
  • How can I provide better support to you?
  • What do you need to thrive in this organization?
  • What are you interested in beyond what we're working on?

Some companies have instituted mechanisms to give junior employees a voice in decisions that affect them. Committing to these actions builds trust within the organization and encourages people to stay. 

4. Be empathetic to the day-to-day struggles and frustrations of junior employees while helping them recognize and act on their professional hopes and dreams.

One source of stress among junior employees is how salaries have not kept pace with rent and other rising expenses. This problem is amplified in the age of hybrid work, where a junior employee's bedroom might double as their office. Therefore, it's important for managers to balance expectations of professionalism while simultaneously understanding if there is background noise when an employee is taking a call.

A second source of stress is that the recent emphasis on well-being has caused many entry-level employees to curtail professional ambitions. This phenomenon is unnatural for a generation that is competitive and suffers from a fear of missing out; it's tough to sit by and watch other people be successful. It's especially difficult in an era of LinkedIn updates notifying us that our college roommate just got a sweet new job.

Therefore, it's important for leaders to show junior employees that it's possible to be ambitious and successful while also maintaining their sanity, which can be achieved by assigning manageable workloads and protecting junior employees' time off. Additionally, senior leaders have an opportunity to make junior employees aware of internal opportunities available within the organization and share their career experiences through defined mentorship programs.

Third, platforms such as Fishbowl, Reddit, Glassdoor and Wall Street Oasis have given junior employees an outlet to vent their frustration about their job with others who may be in similar positions. On the one hand, this coping mechanism is healthy, but on the other, these platforms can often spiral into echo chambers that bring together the most unhappy people in a particular profession, making situations appear worse than reality. Employers can monitor these platforms for information on how culture is perceived by junior employees and adjust accordingly.

5. Realize the long-term value of investing in junior employees.

It's essential to think about the best ways to invest in junior employees, and while there is no one-size-fits-all answer, opportunities like mentorship programs and career coaching are bound to make junior employees feel a deeper sense of loyalty to their companies. Building loyalty will improve an employer's reputation and will also make it easier to recruit in the future.

Additionally, think about investing in tools that make junior employees more effective. Every day, there are more—and better—software products that come to market that can ease some of the repetitive tasks assigned to entry-level jobs. Let tech-savvy junior employees guide the process of identifying and purchasing such software, since they'll be the ones spending the most time using it and have a more intimate knowledge of the pain points such software would solve. Plus, it's an easy way to display trust, which continues to be one of the most important elements in engaging junior employees.

My generation is making our presence felt, and I believe there is still an opportunity for us to be part of a new-age workforce that features a more human-centered approach to management. I hope HR leaders and managers will take steps to address this, because the strategic rationale to invest in junior employees is clear from both a moral and a business standpoint.

Be ready to recruit us, engage us and retain us so you can prepare us to be the future leaders of your organization.

Josh Miller is the 21-year-old co-founder of Project50, a company dedicated to helping corporate clients improve their entry-level employee experience. He is a sought-after speaker and thought leader on next-gen workforce engagement, and a junior at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., where he studies economics and journalism.


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