Steven Bartlett, the entrepreneur and superstar podcaster, ruffled a few younger feathers recently when he described Gen Z as “the least resilient generation I have ever seen”. He added: “I just fear that when I’m hiring people in that generation, I almost need to go an extra length just to check they can cope with a high-intensity culture where demands might come on a Saturday – because the world doesn’t just stop on a Saturday and Sunday.”
His initial take is not a unique one. For many of their older fellow citizens, Gen Z are a source of irritation and disappointment. They’re too sensitive. They’re too easily offended. And they lack the inner toughness required to deal with the challenges and inevitable setbacks of everyday work and life.
Complaining about the younger generation is nothing new, but I think we also need to recognise the extraordinary pressures to which Gen Z are subject. At school, according to a 2020 World Health Organization report, they’re subject to a regime that makes the English education system the third most stressful out of 45 countries surveyed (from Europe plus Canada). They live in a world of instant online judgment (in 2021, the Wall Street Journal reported that one in eight young girls in the UK who reported suicidal thoughts attributed their poor mental health to social media). Their induction into the world of paid employment is also no picnic: unpaid internships, student debt to service, and a work environment that impinges more and more on what would once have been viewed as leisure time.
Before the pandemic hit, one US survey suggested that 60% of people who used computers in their daily working lives remained connected to work for more than 13 hours a day and a further five hours at the weekend. Mid-pandemic, according to Microsoft’s mining of data about its Teams users, the average working day increased by about 45 minutes. For much of that stretch of time, junior staff are sitting silently on video calls, listening to senior staff hold forth. They feel unproductive and powerless. When they’re not in soul-sapping meetings, they’re checking emails (an exercise that is thought to have quietly eaten into another two hours of their time). The working day has got longer. Its rewards have become increasingly less apparent.
Older workers may well object by saying that they face the same mind-numbing and stressful slog. And they’d be right. This summer, the Gallup Global Workplace Report announced that employee stress was at a new all-time high, with 41% of UK workers saying that they experienced it for “a lot of their working day”. Meetings eat up their day (up by a factor of 2.5 since the beginning of the pandemic).
When it comes to the workplace, what to my mind distinguishes Gen Z is not that it’s made up of snowflakes who can’t take the pressure – it’s that it’s made up of young people who are experiencing the same stresses as many of their older co-workers, but who are more prepared to be open about them. Sharing worries about mental health used to be a taboo. Now it’s not. Ironically, it takes a degree of the grit that Gen Z apparently lacks to express these concerns. It also takes grit not to simply give in to a status quo that is wreaking such havoc on mental health, and to voice dissent instead.
One other thing is apparent, too: whether or not you think Gen Z should be tougher, you’re certainly not going to help by telling them they need to be “more resilient”. Resilience is not an off-the-peg purchasing decision, and it’s not an easy-to-acquire trait. What’s more, contrary to the claims of resilience advocates, it’s not something that we can acquire on our own. We need other people as well.
When Prof Jean Twenge from the University of San Diego studied teenagers’ mental health during the early days of the pandemic, she was surprised to find that it was not “awful”, as she had expected, but “relatively OK”. Further study revealed the reason why: “Teens who spent more time with their families during the pandemic and who felt their families had grown closer were less likely to be depressed.” Improved relationships meant improved resilience (or as I prefer to call it, given what I regard as the toxic overtones of that word, “fortitude”). People drew strength from each other.
In these days of ever-longer online meetings, perhaps a good way to help make Gen Z “more resilient” would be to make them feel as supported at work as they ought to be at home.