The workism con: On Gen Z, quiet quitting, and work-life balance

One of the joys of aging is developing the wisdom to see through long-held norms or, at a minimum, cast an experienced, critical eye on things you’ve long taken for granted. Of course, it’s also crushingly depressing when you realize younger generations are already a step ahead of you, which is nature’s way of reminding us of our ultimate dispensability.

Take work. For the past three years, headlines have burst with examinations of everything from the dramatic shift to remote work to the strains of balancing professional and personal lives, the “quiet quitting” phenomenon, and general existential angst about if and when work will return to the way it once was. Most recently, major companies have mandated that employees get their feet back under office desks, usually citing something to do with culture or connectivity or some such thing.

It’s been interesting having a bird’s-eye view of it all. Barely a year into the pandemic, I consciously left a leadership role at a company with more than 350,000 global employees to join Leff as something like employee number 18 or so. For me, the decision was squarely about job satisfaction, lifestyle, and impact. I wanted to have greater control over how and when I worked, to feel invested in what I was helping build, and to be closer to clients and outcomes.

If this sounds familiar, it’s because it’s what we consistently hear from younger colleagues, especially millennials (generally considered people born between 1981 and 1996) and even more especially Generation Z (those born after 1997). Apparently, within nanoseconds of hitting the workforce they knew what took me 30 years and stints as a newspaper and magazine journalist, foreign correspondent, management consultant, and writer and editor at major professional-services firms to sort out. Harrumph.

So, what have they figured out? I suspect it’s that the traditional career compact is a con. For decades, we worshipped at the altar of what The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson memorably called workism, or “the belief that work is not only necessary to economic production, but also the centerpiece of one’s identity and life’s purpose” (it’s also still pervasive, as any quick glance at the self-branding platform better known as LinkedIn will tell you).

This seems about right. Much stock was placed in how you answered “what do you do?” because it was about much more than how you made a living: it was central to who you were and where you were going. It was secondary whether this was truly who you wanted to be and where you wanted to go—I know because I jumped at some roles because I felt I deserved the title that accompanied them, irrespective of whether I’d really enjoy the work (or necessarily be good at it).

Younger workers seem to have this figured out. My colleagues at Leff are almost all younger than me and, for them, the relevant question doesn’t seem to be what they do but who they are—what drives them intrinsically and how they can best maintain this authenticity. This also means they view the likelihood of a job providing long-term happiness, creative fulfillment, and their life’s purpose as vanishingly slim.

This is why the headlines of the past three years have driven many to distraction. Workers are reasonably asking why they should return to offices—and endure commuting and other inconveniences—when they’re able to work just as effectively elsewhere. They’re wondering why it’s called “quiet quitting” when you’re doing your job and doing it well, simply not feeling obligated to go above and beyond. And they’re steadfastly refusing to sacrifice the rest of their lives—the parts that contribute deeply to who they truly are—in the service of jobs that often fail to reciprocate their dedication and loyalty.

It’s admittedly a little jarring for those of us who began our careers surrounded by people spending decades at a single employer—and imagining that future for ourselves. The theory was such dedication would be rewarded—financially, yes, but emotionally too—by companies that recognized your worth and celebrated it by doing the right thing. Well, it ain’t like that anymore—if it ever was. Watching thousands of tech workers get fired by email is surely the ultimate demonstration of, as Elizabeth Spiers said in the New York Times, “what employers really think of their workers” (and that’s before considering the tens of billions of dollars some companies are sitting on yet are apparently unwilling to dip into to preserve the jobs and livelihoods of their colleagues).

So, where to from here? For companies large and small—Leff included—the good news is employees are driving their own agendas and really don’t expect organizations to change. That’s also the bad news: we fail to embrace the revised career compact demanded by the changing nature of work at our peril. As a first order of business, it means forgetting about in-office work as it was three years ago. The nature of work has changed, and where we traditionally worked needs to shift accordingly. As Gensler co-CEO Andy Cohen told The Creative Factor, “Our answer is to design offices that are destinations, not obligations. Places where people want to be, that offer experiences and amenities they can’t find anywhere else.”

More fundamentally, companies need to embrace the fact that their employees are finding fulfillment from multiple sources. That’s a good thing—placing too much stock in anything or anyone to make you happy is a fool’s errand. I have clear professional guardrails to protect time with my kids, ensure workplace flexibility, and avoid unnecessary meetings (especially at crazy hours). None of these are because I’m not dedicated or I don’t recognize the need to often go above and beyond; they’re simply so I can bring my best self to every part of my life.

So, in case it’s not said often enough, thanks Gen Z. You’re wise beyond your years or, more likely, wise because of your youth. Let me know if you want to hear how great life was before social media.

Luke Collins

Luke is a dad and—in his spare time—the SVP of content innovation at LEFF. A journalist in a past life, he escaped the world of increasingly large companies to do what makes him happiest: helping clients tell stories that are engaging, compelling, useful, and (every now and then) a little inspiring. He plays tennis (well) and bass guitar (barely), and he is living proof that Australians are not genetically wired to surf.

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