Skip to main content

Each new generation brings priorities, values and expectations to the work force, and Generation Z is already starting to make their mark.

Like the generations that came before them this generation of workers – born between the mid-1990s and early 2010s – are challenging employers to adapt, and the changes they inspire will reach well beyond their own cohort.

“Millennials started to make it okay for employees to make demands, to ask for change and for a better workplace,” says Graham Donald, the president of Toronto-based Brainstorm Strategy Group Inc., an early career research and consulting firm. “Millennials were the ones that really started asking for work-life balance, and despite some of the scoffing they may have heard at the time – people saying that they’re just lazy – older workers actually wanted the same.”

Brainstorm Strategy Group has been surveying Canadian post-secondary students for more than two decades, and Mr. Donald says the latest data reveals some of the next generation’s career priorities, particularly in the wake of the pandemic.

“The changes between 2019 and 2023 are dramatic,” he says. “Balance between work life and personal life is still No. 1 and has been for 20 years; what’s really changed was that their No. 5 career goal in 2019 was ‘maximize my income,’ and in 2023 it was their No. 2 goal, and the others just got pushed down.”

Since the pandemic, earning potential has outranked other priorities like job security, serving a greater purpose and the opportunity to be creative at work. In fact, the survey of more than 20,000 Canadian students found that one-third expect a pay increase within the first six months of starting their first full-time job, and 88 per cent expect one within the first year.

The survey also found working with and reporting to good people dropped significantly, which Mr. Donald suggests is a reaction to the rise of remote and hybrid work.

“It’s all about a lack of connection,” he says. “‘I’m not going to care about my boss or have a relationship with them because I barely see them in person, so you better pay me well because I don’t feel as connected to my workplace,’ – that’s my thesis.”

Beyond caring more about salary than their relationship with colleagues, this generation of workers is also more comfortable talking about their mental health needs at work.

“What we found out in our latest research is that Gen Z reports very high rates of mental health struggles,” says Sandrine Devillard, a Montreal-based senior partner at McKinsey.

In its latest North American-wide study, the consulting giant found 55 per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds report being diagnosed with or treated for a mental health related issue, compared to 31 per cent of those 55 to 64 years old.

Furthermore, while the McKinsey data suggests that Gen Z prioritizes work-life balance more than other generations, this cohort’s definition of flexibility is distinct. For example, while about 40 per cent of other generations want to work remotely, only 18 per cent of Gen Z respondents want to be remote full-time.

“Yes, the new generation wants more flexibility, but we shouldn’t confuse flexibility with working remote,” said Ms. Devillard. “Gen Z wants more flexibility [over when and how they work] than previous generations, but they want to be in the office.”

A recent study by EY Canada suggests that for the youngest cohort of workers, flexibility is a baseline expectation, rather than a point of differentiation. They also feel the same way about workplace inclusivity, which could be expected from the most diverse generation in the workplace.

“They’re appreciative of the fact that diversity in the workplace matters and has an important impact on productivity and engagement,” said Darryl Wright, a partner of people advisory services at EY Canada. “They’re just a lot more aware of the social issues happening outside the firm and that ultimately translates into their expectation of leaders to address those issues within the firm.”

Mr. Wright adds that people often equate Gen Z values with liberal values, but he says their views have a lot less to do with left and right, and more about right and wrong.

“Forty per cent of those we surveyed said they were moderate politically, but outside of their political leanings they seem to be united on what they consider the wrongs of the world, and they want to discuss that in the workplace,” he said. “Issues like racism, gun violence, drug abuse and addiction, climate change – those are large problems they want to discuss.”

For employers, catering to this new generation of workers isn’t just about offering flexibility and a competitive salary. The data also suggests they expect their leaders to be authentic, demonstrate empathy and champion what they perceive as fundamental fairness.

“They’re an integral part of the new organizational culture, they work hard and play hard, they want to be recognized for the differences they bring, and they want empathetic leadership,” said Mr. Wright. “Those organizations that are thriving recognize that different generations show up differently, and you need to manage and lead them differently in order to get the best out of them.”

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe