It’s 8 a.m. on the west side of Los Angeles, and Angelica Song is getting ready for work as a marketing manager at Google. But unlike most other managers at the company, hundreds of thousands of people know exactly what her morning routine entails.
Song, 24, nabbed her coveted post-graduation tech job in 2021 after hustling hard during her internship and working long hours. In addition to her full-time gig with Google, she’s also carved out a space for herself as a social influencer under a genre she calls “corporate girlie,” posting videos with advice to recent graduates, how much she spends in a day, and her homebuying experience.
As an influencer, she’s landed partnerships with Lexus and LinkedIn, doing brand deals and posting for her roughly 300,000 followers across TikTok, Instagram, and YouTube. She says her side gig brings in roughly two to three times what she makes at her corporate job.
“I may be entry-level at my Google job, but at my off-time job, I’m like CEO of my own company. I run my own business, and I have a team that helps me. It takes a lot of ambition to clock out after your day job and then fully dive back into another full-time job.”
Gen Z entered the workforce during a once-in-a-generation global health crisis, and many had never known a professional life before the world shut down for the better part of two years. As society slowly returns to a new version of normal, a narrative has emerged that paints Gen Z as lazy and lacking the ambition required to succeed at work.
But Gen Zers like Song, as well as workplace experts Fortune spoke with, say that young workers are, in fact, extremely ambitious—just uninterested in climbing an antiquated corporate ladder. And their efforts to redefine what success looks like will significantly transform how companies deal with their newest employees and their ability to retain and develop this generation into future corporate executives.
“Many established workers at all levels come from that paradigm of: Work is your central identity, and the way to belong and thrive and work is just to centralize work in your life,” says Heidi Brooks, a senior lecturer in organizational behavior at Yale School of Management. “[Gen Z is] not on that plan. Turns out there are other ways of thinking about life and work, which is great. It’s really refreshing, and we should be listening.”
A new kind of ambition
Camila, 26, who asked that her full name not be used for privacy reasons, recently put herself up for a promotion at the boutique public relations company where she works. She says that employees have to pitch themselves for promotions at her company and explain why they’re ready for the job.
“I figure, why not?” she tells Fortune. She says it would be roughly a $10,000 pay increase to do essentially the same thing she does now—with a smidge more responsibility.
The money is compelling, but Camila says she’s not particularly interested in the designation in her email signature. Nor is she overly concerned with what this promotion could mean for her long-term career goals.
“My vision of my job and life has much less to do with my actual job title,” Camila says. “I don’t need to make $1 million. Yeah, it’d be great, but I don’t need that… Success doesn’t have to be climbing the corporate ladder; it can be just being really good at your job.”
At most, Camila says she would want to be an account director someday. She’s not opposed to climbing higher, but only if she can do the job in a way that allows her to maintain her work-life balance. She doesn’t want to get phone calls and emails while on vacation like she’s seen with past bosses.
Song admits she has some desire to be the chief marketing officer at a big company one day. But what she really wants is to feel passionate about her work and flex her skills, not just rank high at a big company.
“It’s easy to say I would love to be CEO one day or that I’d love to be CMO one day. But I had a really good mentor ask me, ‘What is it out of those positions and titles that you want?’” Song says. “There’s obviously a vanity aspect of it. It’s like a public declaration that you’re able to make it that far. But ask yourself, ‘What type of leader do you want to be?’”
That rhetoric is common among Gen Z, who broadly want to bring their full selves to the office and perform work that aligns with their values, Brooks says.
Gen Z is more likely than older generations to pursue leadership positions, with 38% aspiring to be CEO, compared to 18% of Gen X and 21% of boomers, according to a 2022 study by global consultancy United Minds in partnership with KRC Research. But while ambitious to succeed, they seem far less interested in doing so in the halls of a traditional corporate structure, and more on their own terms. According to Bank of America, 31% of Gen Z—much like Song—are turning to their passions as side hustles, demonstrating an entrepreneurial nature and desire to captain their own ship.
The same United Minds survey found Gen Z are more likely to do the work they’re paid for and not more, to value flexibility at work, and to see the gap between what they want at work and what they get as “insurmountable.” As a generation, they are far more aware of diversity and exploring their unique identities than previous generations. They are also politically and socially active and place substantial value on racial justice and sustainability, which can be hard to find in mainstream corporate culture.
“I would be falsely posturing if I said I didn’t have any ambitions of climbing the corporate ladder,” Sakib Jamal, a 26-year-old senior investment associate at venture capital firm Crossbeam, tells Fortune. But his aspirations are more complex than simply trudging up the corporate ladder.
“The answer’s not no,” Jamal says when asked whether he’s eyeing the C-suite someday. “I would like the responsibility, but I’m just as happy with the smaller office… I’m still very much gunning for it, but I’m not willing to sacrifice just to reach that.”
And the prospect of corporate success isn’t the carrot it used to be for students getting ready to enter the workforce either. Sophia Kianni, a junior at Stanford University who founded the climate change nonprofit Climate Cardinals, tells Fortune that none of her friends fantasize about work and getting ahead in the office. The 21-year-old, who also served on the inaugural United Nations Youth Advisory Group on Climate Change, says she has no intention of joining corporate America and that many of her peers are still unsure about going the corporate route. Why work for a company when you can create your own and become the CEO?
“I haven’t seen a lot of hunger for climbing the corporate ladder in a traditional hierarchical structure, especially when it means forsaking the self, one’s health,” she says, adding that giving oneself over to the whims of “organizational structure and shareholder demands” isn’t that appealing.
“Gen Z is just not on that plan.”
Listening to Gen Z
Gen Z hasn’t been shy about making workplace demands. Like most, they want flexibility, a livable salary, and healthy relationships with peers and higher-ups. But they also say they’re most motivated by feeling respected and like their work is appreciated, according to a study from research firm the Center for Generational Kinetics.
In roughly two years, Gen Z will make up more than a quarter of the global workforce among the 38 member countries of the OECD, generally defined as high-income countries, according to the World Economic Forum. That means companies and the people who lead them will likely soon have to cater to some of Gen Z’s workplace demands to remain competitive in the talent market.
“From a kind of demand-and-supply perspective, there will be some pressure to heed their needs and expectations in the workplace,” Brooks says. “That’s a good thing. But beyond the kind of supply and demand, how do we actually unleash the potential of this generation?”
That’s the question every company should ask itself, says Liz Hilton-Segel, a senior partner at McKinsey, who, in addition to counseling CEOs, co-authors the company’s newsletter centered on Gen Z with senior partner Homayoun Hatami. She says the cohort started their careers, for the most part, during the pandemic, resulting in generationally distinct views on work and life. Whereas most employees now find themselves reprioritizing their work-life balance, Gen Z has no other reference.
“My experience is of a generation that’s unbelievably hardworking and unbelievably passionate about making a difference in their work,” Hilton-Segel says. “They’re talking about meaning and purpose more… And we’re all sort of learning the upside opportunity of what we didn’t know before.”
Brooks says that companies must find the root underneath smaller individual requests to win over their youngest workers.
“If you listen transactionally, they might be saying, ‘I don’t want to work on Fridays.’ But if you listen more deeply to what they’re actually asking for and ask a follow-up question—‘Why is it important to you to not work on Fridays? What are you hoping for from work? How can I help you create that?’—you can get into a deeper conversation with them and what they’re really seeking,” Brooks says.
Failing to do so could be costly not only in attracting talent but helping Gen Z evolve into future C-suite successors.
“If you think about the future of work, and you want it to be a vibrant place, characterized by meaning, and belonging, and unleashing potential for your company and for your employees, and for your stakeholders and for society, then you might not squash the yearning for Gen Z to be aligned with that,” Brooks says.
Read the full article here