“I’m fucking pissed off” Nick, 24, tells me on a Friday morning stroll along the Yarra. He’s worked hard at his current job for one of Australia’s top consulting firms and he’s just been notified that he won’t be receiving a promotion.
Strangely for Nick, it wasn’t the lack of a pay rise that angered him, but the perceived lack of recognition. He believed he deserved a new title and the respect that came with it for going above and beyond his contractual work responsibilities, having organised several extracurricular activities for the firm. “People treat you differently when you have the grad title…” he elaborates, which is why the promotion was critical. As a result, he states, “I’ll be tapping out a bit. I won’t keep pushing as much”.
Nick’s sentiment rings true for the twelve graduate workers that I’ve come to know over the course of my research. These twelve are our newest additions to the workforce having taken up their first, full-time job amid a global pandemic. As far as the recruitment industry is concerned, these 12 can be seen to represent the future pool of permanent recruits.
My conversations with these 12 graduates highlight an interesting, but not unique, view on the modern employee mentality. In a world where businesses have had to re-invent themselves in a short time frame post-pandemic, and often have struggled to adapt to suit arising needs, young workers are not waiting around for employers to change. If things aren’t working, and their needs aren’t met, they will be looking elsewhere or, as in the case of Nick, “tapping out” – what recent news reports have called: “quiet quitting”.
The future of work
“I’d turned my phone off sorry, I really just needed a break after the mess of last week” Tara, 22, says apologetically to me over our first interview facilitated via a Zoom video call. I hadn’t been able to reach her over the weekend when I was attempting to confirm the interview. She’d just started her first full-time job at the start of the year with one of Australia’s top consulting firms, a job she’d chosen almost exclusively for its internal culture. The reality of her job has fallen short of what she had hoped.
During our conversation, Tara recounts an incident between herself and her manager. Tara had been tasked with completing a document for her manager and had decided to finalise it at home. Unbeknownst to Tara, as she hadn’t looked at her mobile on her journey home, her manager had been trying to reach her to follow up on her progress with the document. Having not reached Tara, her manager had decided to complete the document herself and later reprimanded Tara for not completing the task. “I needed to communicate better of course, I should have told her what I was doing” Tara admitted but continued to say she now felt “emotionally drained, and physically tired”. Tara further explained that her manager liked to push her but that her manager’s way of pushing “stresses me out”. Tara was just beginning to touch on the dark side of this COVID cohort’s experience and fears.
Within these snippets are two truths that were a constant throughout my study. Nick’s disgruntlement at being looked over for a promotion is the first theme, where Nick needed recognition and a sense of forward momentum to feel engaged, citing it as more important than a pay rise. This need for mobility was a unanimous driver, and Nick’s reaction – to ‘Quiet Quit’ – is a common one when these drivers are not addressed. This is, I believe, is a generation in need of mobility above all else.
Second, the participants agreed that avoiding ‘burnout’ in the workplace was of utmost importance, and that psychological safety was crucial. Both Nick and Tara had growing concerns of burnout, with Nick describing to me how he was consciously aware of his psychological state and made efforts to avoid feeling “burnt out” and pushing himself too far.
When I next connected with Tara a few weeks later, she had similar feelings, recounting a recent occurrence between her and her manager. During the incident, she’d been yelled at by her manager in the presence of senior Partners of the firm. Tara had been so shaken that she had fled the office floor to seek refuge in the closest bathroom. She reports that she’s now feeling “constantly on edge” at the office and that at home she had been having trouble sleeping. These changes have led to her looking into other workplace options. Tara’s experience is testament to the dark side of this cohort’s focus on progression and mobility. While a “push” may at times be positive, here we have an example where one can be pushed too far.
In fact, much has been written in recent years about “millennial burnout”, the tendency of young workers to leave organisations citing toxic workplaces and unsustainable working conditions, but also the exhausting tendency to believe that one must work all the time and that even one’s ‘downtime’ should be productive.
No, it’s not the fault of ‘millennial snowflakes’, but a phenomenon that dates back to ancient times. Margaret Lee, a Researcher from Monash University, describes how burnout can be traced back to the time of Benedictine monks from the 5th century. Burnout, Lee states, is always an “ecological issue”, that is, a situation that is precipitated and sustained by the environment in which one is working. Such experiences, are not, she stressed, the cause or fault of the individual.
Nearly all the participants in the study spoke of experiences with poor mental health and described taking proactive steps to manage their moods and boost their ‘psychological wellness’. Whether through physical activity, turning off devices (as with Tara) or ensuring they made time to connect with friends and loved ones, all were comfortable with speaking of mental health issues. As one participant, Selena, explained “we grow up talking about it at school, we know it’s [mental health] is real and a fact of life”. This individualisation of mental health, however, to Lee’s point, tends to place onus of responsibility for one’s ‘mental fitness’ on the individual, rather than the environment or organisation.
But mental health and burnout aren’t the sole perpetrators of this well-documented shortage of skilled staff – A shortage that has shifted the power of choice to the employee. No, it’s new motivations that have driven the fresh faces of Australia’s workforce, bringing us back to the theme of progression, or movement as I like to view it.
Joseph, 29 years, started full-time work for the first time in 2020 after completing his undergraduate degree in logistics and spending six years working part-time as a ski instructor in Canada. At around 26 years old he had reflected that “you don’t want to wake up in your thirties and realise you haven’t gone anywhere” and had soon after found his way back to Australia to begin a career involving data analytics. When we met for a coffee near his former place of employment, however, he explains that he’s feeling “stuck”; “I’m just sort of fixing stuff a lot of the time, and it’s not that interesting to me”. Two weeks later he reported that he’d started a new role at a different company as they used logistics software that excited him and sparked his sense of exploration.
This prioritisation of progression is reflected in the findings of a recent study by McKinsey and Co which found that the number one reason for attrition between April 2021 and April 2022 was a “lack of advancement”. Data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics has also found that the job mobility rate (i.e. what proportion of employed people changed their jobs) was the highest recorded during the year ending in February 2022 since 2012.
Zooming out on this phenomenon, it was interesting to note that this requirement for movement and progression coincides with one of the largest physical lockdowns ever seen (especially for those in Melbourne). My participants reflected on this correlation by saying the stay-at-home orders of 2020 and 2021 resulted in them ‘turning inward’ and focusing on their own life ambition and careers.
Matt, for example, who began his first full time job as a primary school teacher at the beginning of 2022, summarised how it felt at the time “I was finishing my [teaching] course…I was being challenged every day and I was growing…I feel like the thing that would have driven me crazy and probably the thing that drove a lot of people crazy is that feeling of not progressing, like I think it’s just one of the most important things”.
Matt and Joseph are both examples of the need to ‘move forward’ through their work, but what became clear was that mobility was gauged in different ways across the board. Some, such as Nick from the opening of this article, felt a sense of progression not only through a title change but through “impact rather than salary or status”. The extra-curricular activities he had organised all related to sustainability and the environment, and Nick stated that he was “not a fan” of the term career, because “traditionally a career is just about staying in the same organisation and working your way up some ladder for a salary, but you should be asking about ‘what change do you want to make in the world?’”. Similarly, Simon, 24 years old, a sports management professional, stated that he viewed progression in terms of encouraging sports participation, which he described as having positive “health and social outcomes”. That these first-time professionals viewed progression in terms of social impact supports findings by McCrindle Research that identified Gen Z, the most “socially aware generation in history”.
Yet while for some this meaning translated to an external impact, for others it was more internally derived. Sally, for example, 26 years old, working in the health industry, found meaning in knowing that her work was helping people and stated that she had nonetheless begun to feel ‘stuck’ and ‘stagnant’ in her current role. “I’m just not learning as much” she had reflected. While in her first year of work from 2019-2020, the changes to health services ushered in by the pandemic had meant she had felt “thrown in the deep end”, now, having “found her feet” she was not feeling as though she was “growing” as much as previously, which had prompted her to consider moving on from her current employer.
Finally, others stated that salary and other markers of status were important determinants of feeling a sense of progression. Divya, a Law/Commerce graduate, for example, had quit a role at one of the major banks for a spot on the graduate program of an investment firm paying a six-figure starting salary. Of her previous role Divya had reflected that she had struggled to connect with her managers who seemed dull and “old-school”. On her first day in the physical office after weeks of working online due to the 2021 Melbourne lockdowns, Divya had arrived at the building and had suddenly felt self-conscious of her shoes “I was wearing my everyday boots, not the expensive heels I will wear to [her new Investment firm] … I remember seeing the big building and realising this organisation was impressive, but that somehow, I had ended up in team that just wasn’t”. Divya had been frank that for her mobility meant increases in status and salary, and that she was “willing to sacrifice” her social life and weekends to achieve these things.
As with Divya’s move to an investment firm, my informants’ desire for mobility, growth, and progression, often translated to a lack of loyalty for their places of employment. For example, Claire, a 24-year-old employed in the graduate program of one of the nation’s largest retailers told me that “People are scared of commitment in relationships, I’m scared of job commitment!” A mentor of Claire’s had advised her that “after three years you’ve seen all that an organisation can offer you and it’s time to move on”. Before landing her current role in the graduate program, Claire had been working at a large health-product company and had been offered a sizeable promotion and salary package. “I just saw that there was a glass ceiling there”, she had reflected “and that you could only climb so high”. The company in question, she had explained, had only limited resources for the area she was most interested in, whereas in her current graduate role there was a lot “more opportunity to progress”.
The future face of industry
My own experiences during the Global Financial Crisis paint a stark contrast to today’s workforce; there were limited graduate positions and the climate was incredibly competitive. The current environment, however, is markedly in favour of the employee, as recent news commentators have suggested. Accordingly, most of my subjects stated that ‘stability’ wasn’t of importance to them as they believed they would be able to readily find an alternative position if the current one stunted their personal and professional progression.
In seeking to attract and retain young high achievers in 2022 and beyond, therefore, organisations would do well to ensure they are offering progression in the form desired by the individual – be it impact, intrinsic learning or status and salary. Finally, organisations should be ensuring the psychological safety of their employees and reviewing the environment in which their staff are working to prevent burnout. Failing to do so will result in unmotivated workers looking to leave for greener pastures at the earliest opportunity.