The hidden mindset shaping Gen Z’s approach to work – and how employers can adapt

Adapting to Gen Z's workplace mindset and values is not just beneficial, it’s essential for businesses aiming to stay relevant and competitive.

Dr. Pardis Shafafi

According to Glassdoor, we are finally approaching the point where Gen Z employees will overtake baby boomers and millennials in the workplace. This generational transition brings a fresh set of perspectives, values, and skills – notably a remarkable fluency in technology and a unique approach to digital platforms, as evidenced by Gen Z’s creative prowess on social media platforms.

Forbes highlights that each generation brings distinct ‘hero traits’ to the professional environment: millennials are known for their collaboration, boomers for their loyalty, and Gen Xers for their entrepreneurial spirit. Gen Z, meanwhile, possesses a new level of tech fluency and the ability to adapt and thrive with new digital platforms and practices. This tech-savviness is not just about using tools, but transforming how work gets done creatively and efficiently.

Simply open TikTok and it doesn’t take long to see Gen Z’s talent for expressing their creativity by editing and collaging together different types of media, leveraging AI tools, and capitalising on social trends. There’s also a notable critique of other generations’ ineptitude with the same tools – millennial pause, anyone?

We’re in a time of profound change in workplace dynamics and expectations. But within this historical moment lies a challenge for employers that goes beyond skill matching and professional development. Workplaces will be forced to address something deeper – because for all the creativity, new skills, and enthusiasm brought forward by Gen Z, we are squarely in a moment of a creativity and productivity hold-out.

How it began: ‘quiet quitting’ and ‘soft living’

Cross-generational tensions are as old as time, but younger generations still tend to learn from and adapt to their conditions by observing their elder family, friends, and colleagues. With this logic in mind, if there’s a lesson Gen Z has learned from millennials and Gen Xers in the world of work, it’s that the high-flying career never delivered on its promises.

Jobs that interfered with mental and physical well-being, disrupted family obligations, caused burnout, and barely covered basic costs were distinctly unmasked during the pandemic, when ‘we’re a family’ mottos pedaled by many employers came crashing down through varying degrees of worker surveillance, pivots between remote working and back-to-office decrees, and waves of layoffs.

A new disillusionment took hold of millennials, and the birth of quiet quitting followed. The mindset shift first manifested in burnout, and then gave way to a larger conversation and eventually a complete reevaluation of what constitutes meaningful work.

Millennials reimagined social values around work with another new concept, ‘soft living’, where materialistic and consumption capitalism is traded for a negotiated labor exchange that affords more time away from work. This has swapped what used to be considered worthwhile ‘perks’, or glamorous urban lifestyles, for more humble outgoings, creating space to cultivate an individual’s true identity and explore their desires away from wage labor.

For millennials who stayed in their 9-to-5 jobs but had the same aspirations as their ‘soft living’ peers, many decided to act their wage, giving only the minimum required of them – nixing extracurricular work activities, taking on extra tasks, or trying to impress or move up the professional ladder.

So, what is ‘insouciance’?

Building on the path millennials set forward with quiet quitting and soft living, the concept of ‘insouciance,’ or a casual lack of concern, is becoming more pronounced among Gen Z workers. Gen Z’s attitude reflects a response not only to immediate job conditions but also to broader societal issues such as the climate crisis, economic instability, and a general mistrust of traditional institutions. In the workplace, this often translates into a minimalistic approach to work – a refusal to go beyond the basic requirements and a withholding of one's full creative potential unless the work aligns with your values and ethical standards.

While quiet quitting has been compared to a non-confrontational disengagement from an unrewarding or under-stimulating workplace and is most commonly linked to the millennial psyche, active insouciance is a more radical withholding of creativity, energy, and commitment. It’s distinctly more confrontational and distinctly more ‘Gen Z’. Especially for roles that demand creativity and innovation, this mindset can put a fatal drain on a company’s mission.

What employers need to know

A general sentiment that Gen Z is hard to work with abounds. While it might be tempting to blame insouciance for Gen Z’s seeming lack of effort or motivation, a better approach for employers is to realise that insouciance is not a problem to be fixed; it’s an evolution in mindset from a generation facing the consequences of history. So, if insouciance is here to stay, how can employers adapt?

With a greater focus on the employee experience over the last few years, many employers are already aware that workers increasingly seek transparency, integrity, and commitment to communal values in their workplaces. Companies that recognise these priorities and adapt to them will have better success not only attracting but also retaining Gen Z talent.

Employers must strive to create environments that not only honour Gen Z’s values but also offer fair and transparent exchanges for their employees' time and energy. Moreover, integrating strong ethical standards and supporting a balance between work and personal identity can transform potential insouciance into active, engaged creativity.

Increasingly, Gen Z is motivated by a common good and strong company values or at least, the offer of a fair and transparent transaction for their time. If neither are available, insouciance will reign. As Gen Z becomes a dominant force in the workplace, employers who respond proactively to these changes will thrive, turning a potential challenge into an authentic opportunity for growth.

Looking for ways to adapt and elevate your employee or customer experience? Let’s chat.