Skip to main content

For Gen Z, Workplace Illusions Disappear


Today’s students have more realistic job expectations than millennials did when they embarked on their careers

A young woman at work

This year, generation Z (those born between 1997 and 2012) is expected to overtake baby boomers in the workforce. As older gen-Zs embark on their careers, they have certain expectations of their potential employers that are much more realistic than millennials (born 1981 to 1996) — a generation that expected quick pay raises and promotions upon entering the workforce. 

For Eddy Ng, Smith Professor of Equity and Inclusion in Business, who has studied both generations’ career expectations, these findings make sense: while millennials and gen Z (or zoomers as they are called) share some similarities, such as tech savviness and an appreciation for work-life balance, they grew up in different environments that shaped their outlook on work. 

Ng and his team have kept a close eye on both generations. As a gen-Xer (the generation born 1966 to 1980) who taught millennials in the early 2000s, he was curious about what that group expected from employers upon graduation.

“My colleagues and I were frustrated with the millennial students we were experiencing,” he says with a quick laugh. “This is a generation that would get participation ribbons and were told they were special.” 

To satisfy his curiosity, Ng and his colleagues conducted an online survey of 23,000 Canadian post-secondary millennials in their final year of school. The researchers asked students to indicate their career, advancement and pay expectations. In addition, the students were asked to rate the importance of 16 work attributes that they considered when deciding on a job, such as work-life balance, a good salary and opportunities for advancement. Their results were published in 2010

In 2019, Ng, along with Mostafa Ayoobzadeh (Université du Québec à Montréal), Linda Schweitzer (Carleton University) and Sean Lyons (University of Guelph), examined data from more than 16,000 gen Z post-secondary students, using the same methodology as the previous study. Both studies provide a snapshot of what the two generations expected from their work experiences at the same point in their lives. 

“This was really an apples-to-apples comparison,” Ng says. “Any differences that we found, we could attribute to generational differences.” 

When they compared the two studies, the researchers found some major differences in what millennials and zoomers expected from their employers. 

Getting real 

The recently published study found that overall, gen Z students have realistic expectations as they prepare to enter the workforce. Ng says this generation of workers values a healthy work-life balance but does not necessarily expect a high starting salary or quick promotions. 

“As children of gen X, they want better work-life balance because they’ve seen their parents, who are both employed, juggling their jobs and taking care of elderly parents,” Ng says. 

He adds that zoomers grew up as the most racially diverse generation, which explains their desire to work for a company that is committed to diversity. As a generation invested in social causes such as climate change and equality, gen Z students also place importance on working for companies that are committed to social responsibility. Additionally, they highly value the opportunity to be mentored by more senior level co-workers.

Think You Understand Millennials?
Readers Also Enjoyed Think You Understand Millennials?

Job security topped the list of gen Z’s career expectations. This was not a top priority for millennials in Ng’s earlier survey. 

“They are seeing automation and AI take over lots of jobs in manufacturing, and even creative industries,” Ng says, adding that this generation also witnessed parents lose their jobs during the 2007-2008 financial crisis. “It makes sense that they value stability a lot more.” 

Where generations diverge 

While zoomers share some of the same expectations as millennials when they entered the workforce — such as valuing development opportunities — there are significant differences between the two generations. 

In the 2010 study, millennials also had realistic expectations about their starting salary, but expected to have a 70 per cent salary increase after five years. They also expected to be promoted within as little as six months. 

“No employer would give you a promotion in that short of time, even if you had superpowers,” Ng says. 

He points out that there’s a good reason for these unrealistic expectations: millennials are largely the children of baby boomers (born 1946 to 1965), which was a generation that experienced great career success and had more opportunities available to them than did generation X that followed. “Millennials saw that success came pretty easily for their boomer parents,” Ng says, “so they expected for success to come easily for them, too.” 

In contrast, he says gen Z youth were more likely to observe their gen X parents struggle in the working world due to layoffs, as well as logjams from baby boomers occupying most jobs. “It’s like how King Charles didn’t get his first job until he was in his 70s because his mother occupied the job forever,” Ng says. “It’s an analogy that draws laughter, but it explains gen X’s inability to progress.” 

What it means for employers 

Ng has found that employers are increasingly aware that corporate expectations need to align with the expectations of gen Z students graduating in the coming years. Employers often commission these studies because they want to find out how to compete for the “best of gen Z.” 

“Organizations are becoming well aware of what gen-Zs need, because of this war for talent,” Ng says, adding that many employers are also parents of generation Z, and know they must adjust their expectations for the new generation. 

Ng acknowledges that workplace policies were largely created by baby boomers, and some still have expectations of their employees — such as a nine-to-five workday — that don’t necessarily line up with how zoomers expect to work today. 

“How we work is quite different than it used to be,” he says. “Employees might take more breaks in between, but people work throughout their waking hours now.” 

From his research, Ng has noticed that organizations are generally willing to adjust their recruitment and retention practices to attract a new generation of workers. And that’s a good thing. Gen Z employees in particular want to be mentored and to form connections with their colleagues, he says, which benefits all generations in the workplace. 

“Employers need to emphasize knowledge exchange between the older workers and the younger cohort,” he says. “Older workers want to know how ChatGPT works, and younger workers want older workers’ guidance. It’s a symbiotic relationship. Ultimately, there are great benefits to having a multigenerational workforce.”