Clarissa Holleman had always felt like teaching was her calling. But just more than a year into her first job caring for children with special needs, the 24-year-old from Hinesville, Georgia, US, was burnt out from what she calls the “high stakes” and “compassion fatigue”. She had “no life” of her own outside work, and was struggling to see a future within the education field.
When Holleman started teaching in July 2020, all reclasses were remote due to the pandemic. She felt both powerless and ill-supported to help the children she was caring for. “That kind of work environment is just crazy; you have no energy left at the end of the day,” says Holleman. On top of the anxiety and exhaustion she was experiencing, there were financial issues: she wasn’t being paid during school holidays. Holleman increasingly felt that the toll the job was taking on her life was no longer worth the sense of purpose it offered.
So, in January 2022, after spending months upskilling via free LinkedIn courses, Holleman quit what had been her “dream career”. She’s now a tech recruiter at a millennial-run company, and although she doesn’t identify with her work as much anymore, she prefers it that way. Holleman has unlimited (and culturally permitted) paid time off, great work-life balance that allows for established hobbies and a better salary. “I definitely see myself staying there really long term,” she says.
For decades, the cultural mandate in many Western countries has been hustle hard for your employer, and you’ll be rewarded. If the strving is for a job you love, the pay will be satisfaction. And if the job involves climbing the rungs of a corporate ladder, the pay will be, well, big bucks. Though different in motivation, both paths share the same narrative. As a result, work has become an obsession, an identity even; something workers traditionally felt lucky to have.
But increasingly, Generation Z workers like Holleman – those born between 1997 and 2012 – are insisting we write a new script for work. Having observed older workers experience burnout, time poverty and economic insecurity at the grindstone, they’re demanding more from workplaces: bigger pay checks, more time off, the flexibility to work remotely and greater social and environmental responsibility. Many of these values were millennial preferences, but for Gen Zers, they’ve become expectations – and they’re willing to walk away from employers if their needs aren’t met.
As a result of their war on work, Gen Zers have been dubbed entitled or anti-capitalist. Yet they’re not; Gen Zers want it all – and are willing to work hard for the right employer. But if the juice isn’t worth the squeeze, they’ll leave and find other ways to make ends meet. Many have argued they’re simply a generation responding to the social movements of their time, and using lessons hard won by older workers to inform their career choices. And some even think the youngest in the labor force have potential to bring meaningful change to the workplace along the way.