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Gen Z yearns for stability? Give me a fricken break!

No, the Tiger man doesn't put on a cardigan and sip non-caffeinated tea. The Tiger drills it baby!

Generation Z Yearns for Stability

The cure to professional malaise and existential dread? Focus on making life meaningful, not safe.

By Suzy Welch, WSJ

March 22, 2023 4:38 pm ET

Not long ago, a friend who teaches a communications course at a Midwestern business school asked me to speak to her class. Her instructions were invitingly wide: “Just tell them about your career.” And so I did, trying to hit all the points that might be relevant to students about to enter the job market.

When I was done, my friend opened the floor to questions and, much to my excitement, a line formed at the mic. Then came the first question: “You’ve had such a long career,” the student said. “Could you please tell us how you’ve avoided burnout? Like, what do you do for self-care?” As the student sat down, so did about half of the other students in the queue, signaling their question had been taken.

I’ll spare you my answer, but perhaps you can guess it. I am of the generation that thought work was what you did, even when it was hard. You pushed through. Burnout wasn’t an option. Self-care is what you did when you retired.

I thought of this encounter earlier this month after reading a survey from Handshake, an employment site for Generation Z, which asked 1,800 new graduates what they wanted most from their future employers. The overwhelming majority—85%—answered “stability.” High pay and benefits also ranked high, but both of them in my estimation are proxies for the same thing. The desire for “a fast-growing company,” on the other hand, garnered only 29% of the vote.

I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised. My own business-school students at New York University often express their anxieties about the possible post-Covid pre-recession job market that awaits them. A mega-trends report by Accenture recently dubbed this the era of “permacrisis.”

Many of my students say they feel as if they’re at their limits. “You’re always hearing the world is filled with opportunity,” one student told me last semester. “And then you turn around and there are layoffs everywhere, and everyone is saying AI is going to make us all obsolete.” She confessed there were days she wished she could crawl under her covers to escape the static and ambiguity of it all, not to mention—as she also did—the threats of global warming and nuclear war.

Such is the Gen Z zeitgeist, I suspect, that suddenly makes stability so sexy. Could it be that kids these days simply want to be normal? That success is coming to be defined as striving for a regular job at an established company, exploding options and cool optics be damned?

This isn’t to be derisive. I feel for my students and their cohort. I, too, often wish things in this world were better, easier and simpler—just as they used to be, even though we didn’t know it at the time.

Yet lump me in with the boomer and Generation X executives who are receiving this zeitgeist into their ranks. I hear similar stories from these leaders, and many of them are equally frustrated, if for much different reasons. They have, like me, ridden out a recession or two, lived through 9/11, survived the internet changing everything, seen the other side of the financial meltdown of 2008, and absorbed the personal losses, agonies and crises that punctuate any life. We are the “life goes on, it always does” crew, but our job has become not merely knowing that but selling it.

“I spend half my time basically doing therapy, cheering people up, getting them going,” a Fortune 50 CEO recently told me of his experience with his staff. He doubtless has a heart for his company—he tenderly referred to his workers as “mentally depleted”—but he said he wasn’t happy about the drain on his time. He also noted that he was often goading on employees whose definition of “full-time” diverged from his own. “Who works 40 hours a week?” he lamented. “No one under 35 suddenly does.”

The CEO of a diversified global company said much the same thing after a recent conference. Though he had given up on getting people back in the office five days a week, he noted that remote work had hardly diminished the yearning for leadership engagement: “Our people are desperate for the human touch. We have to stop doing what we want to be doing a lot of the time and just listen, and help people.”

This executive was also empathetic but not particularly thrilled. When you are running a business, you want to, well, run it. You don’t want to fill your calendar assuring people that life is going to calm down, that stability is coming, that things will eventually be normal. Especially when you know such things will never come to pass.

What, then, might be the message to the future and current employees who so ardently seek stability? It can’t be a version of “Toughen up.” People are hurting. They need understanding. The answer also shouldn’t be anything like the one I gave to the Midwestern class seeking anti-burnout and self-care advice. Caught in the headlights, I ended up blurting out something about “grit,” “resilience” and the importance of “staying optimistic.”

What I wish I had said was a harder truth: Even though your parents tried for you, no one gets a perfect life, let alone a normal one. Although there have been periods of “Ozzie and Harriet” tranquility, they have been rare, if they were even real in the first place.

As you get older—and yes, you will all get older—all you can really hope for is good health and a meaningful life. Our health is often out of our hands, but making meaning of the change around us—making it about something greater and better than simply change itself—is something we can all endeavor to do, perhaps now more than ever.

Let’s make that the new normal together.

Ms. Welch, a longtime CNBC contributor and author, is a professor of management practice at NYU’s Stern School of Business and a senior adviser at the Brunswick Group.

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