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Déjà Leonard is a copywriter and freelance journalist based in Calgary.

  • Majority of workers report being ambitious, but nearly half aren’t interested in career progression
  • Gen Z is channelling their ambition into social causes and want to work for employers that have similar values
  • Philanthropy poses a solution to engaging and retaining employees

A global study from recruitment agency Randstad shows 56 per cent of workers – 69 per cent for Gen Z – consider themselves to be ambitious. Yet, 47 per cent say they’re not focused on progression, and 34 per cent say they never want to be a manager.

This poses a question for companies and managers: how do you engage, retain and reward workers who aren’t looking to move up the ladder?

“Historically, traditional careers were really linear on an upward trajectory. Career outcomes were measured in terms of compensation, as well as how many promotions we had attained by the time we reached 30 or 40 years old,” says Eddy Ng, a professor of equity and inclusion at the Smith School of Business at Queen’s University in Kingston. Mr. Ng has conducted research examining Canadian students’ career expectations and the multi-generational work force.

“Those things are not as prevalent any more and the measure of career success is more intrinsic,” he says.

Gen Z looks at work differently

Mr. Ng says there are two important factors that play into why Gen Z workers may be ambitious, but not put an emphasis on upward mobility.

First, is that workplaces are changing and more organizations are “flat,” meaning that there are few or no levels of middle management between the executives and the frontline employees.

“A lot of decision making gets decentralized at the local level. As a result, career progression isn’t part of today’s organizational structure to begin with,” he says.

Second is that Gen Z’s values are different from other generations, based on their formative experiences and the current context.

For example, Mr. Ng says Gen Z workers are more concerned with job security because of their parents’ experiences during the 2008 financial crisis. They have certain values imparted on them based on that and they are also grappling with the current uncertain economic climate.

“They are looking more for a portfolio of career experiences more so than career progression itself,” he says.

In a survey of post-secondary students, Mr. Ng found that in 2007 when students were asked about 14 decision-making factors, the top factor was opportunities for advancement. When he asked students in 2019, opportunities for advancement fell to No. 6, while good people to work with and work-life balance moved to the top two spots. Job security moved to No. 4 from No. 8 in 2017.

Mr. Ng also found Gen Z workers care more about social issues such as equity and sustainability.

He suggests that not only does Gen Z want to work for companies that share their values, but they want to put their ambition toward those types of causes, too.

He sees this trend already with his Gen Z students who will soon move into the work force.

“They’re constantly busy, but they’re not busy with academics – they’re busy pursuing all these social causes because of things that they believe in,” he says.

Can doing good be good for business?

Fatima Zaidi, chief executive officer of podcast production agency Quill Inc., says she has seen the powerful results of engaging employees in philanthropy.

“Right out of the gate, before we were making any money, I pledged 1 per cent of our equity to [Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children],” Ms. Zaidi says.

Quill employees also receive paid time off to volunteer and support causes that are important to them. The company, which launched in 2019, has seen 0 per cent voluntary employee turnover.

Ms. Zaidi says that engaging employees in donating and volunteering isn’t a replacement for essentials that also help retain people like a good culture, a fair salary and vacation time, but giving back in this way “fills a different cup.”

“It wasn’t that I was intentionally community-and-mission driven to retain employees. I think that was just a consequence of the mindset I had,” she says.

Ms. Zaidi is also the co-chair of an initiative called #Tech+Biz4SickKids where she works with other entrepreneurs and businesses to rally support for the hospital.

They complete tasks like hosting workplace fundraising events, setting up employee donation matching programs and pledging equity to the hospital.

She says that even with the effects of the pandemic and budget cuts, engagement is still strong and the employees at participating companies show eagerness to get involved.

She says philanthropy is also a means to finding purpose at work.

“People want to work for organizations that support charities, give back to the community and are involved in social activism in some format,” she says.

This evidence linking purpose and retention is more than anecdotal.

McKinsey insights show that when employees “live their purpose” at work, they are more likely to stay at the company and they are also more productive.

“It’s ultimately what fills that sense of belonging and fulfilment cup, which you can’t necessarily get from a pay increase or a promotion,” she says.

What I’m reading around the web

  • Check out LinkedIn’s 2024 Top Companies list in Canada, a ranking that highlights the best companies for career development.
  • Is it ever too late to start over in your career? This podcast from The Atlantic, with a transcription included, explores the nuances of mid-life decision making and how to make a final call when you have important career-related choices to make.
  • “Shift shock,” an emotional experience where someone’s new job or company is not what they expected it to be, is on the rise in 2024. Here’s why it’s trending.

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