Generation Z is getting antsy at work. Nearly two-thirds of job seekers born in the late 1990s into the early 2010s have switched industries or are considering doing so, according to a recent LinkedIn survey.
What’s making them leave when they are only just getting started? A key undercurrent seems to be the lack of mentoring and access to seasoned management because they’re working remotely.
To better understand where employers are failing, we talked to one young worker who recently switched jobs. Theirs is a cautionary tale for organizations everywhere, and points to how some basic, everyday management tactics can make a difference.
This column is based on a conversation with that person, a 24-year-old working in public relations. The person spoke on condition of anonymity to share experiences about a previous employer and to protect their career prospects. Here's what they said, in their own words, edited for space and clarity:
I graduated in 2020 at the start of the pandemic. It was definitely very difficult so I took a break after graduating. Nobody was hiring.
There were just no jobs to be had so I thought: I can live at home and take a little break. I networked with people my parents knew.
I attended a liberal arts college. I wanted to do something with science but I also wanted to do a desk job. That’s why I thought I would like doing healthcare public relations.
Somebody that my parents are friends with, like three people removed, passed on my resume to this company. I went through the interview process and it wasn’t really that new to me; I’ve done internships before.
A rocky start
I was the first person out of my close friend group to get a job. I was so happy. Once I got my job offer, I chose not to negotiate or anything because of the current landscape. A lot of people were accepting jobs they didn’t even want.
It was pretty rocky right away. Even on Day 1, people forgot I was there. I went to an onboarding meeting in the morning and then no one said anything the rest of the day.
Slowly, I met more people and I would get more work. But it was always this feeling of ‘Do people know I am here?’
I realized I liked the job pretty quickly. But it was very difficult. They hadn’t had employees start remotely before. I was in an impossible situation. Nobody ever asked anything besides, ‘Can you do this?’
I was working from home, my parents’ house. And it was so hard to know whether this was normal. None of my friends had jobs. I never had had a job in this sense before, only internships.
Eventually I realized this isn’t super normal. Nobody talks to me. Everybody else had pre-established relationships from having been in the office. With me, though, it was very business business business. And I kept thinking this is not what I have heard about PR.
I was given a young manager. She had never managed anybody before, and especially to do that remotely, it was clear she was limited. She didn’t have a super high title either.
After I was there for five months, somebody else new had started on my team. She had a few years of work experience and right away, she said to me: ‘This isn’t normal. People should be helping us more. They need to answer questions now, not in three days.’
She ultimately left within a few months. But that was helpful for me to realize I’m not crazy.
Good management has to come from the top. For someone to take time in their day to get to know employees, set a culture, that has to come from the top.
From the start, I had questions like ‘What am I supposed to be doing all day?’ People keep forgetting I am here. Nobody has ever worked like this before. I get it. And yet they are forgetting you are on the team. There’s only so much you can volunteer to do stuff.
People were busy so I could never get questions answered. There was not a culture of responding quickly.
The things no one tells you
When you are a new employee, you have so many questions. Like ‘What are the rules for saving document names?’ That’s a type of question you need answered immediately. In an office, if you see someone not busy, you can just ask them. When you’re home, you can’t tell. So I would just sit there with the document open, unsure what to do, waiting for someone to tell me what to name it. I felt so stupid.
I didn’t really have a fear of raising my hand. In liberal arts, you really push for what you need. This is how I was taught to communicate with people. That’s the benefit of a liberal arts college: you speak up in class.
At school, in a group project, if the rest of the group isn’t responding, you do the whole project anyway. I feel like with work, if you’re not getting an answer from someone else but you’ve done everything else on your list, it’s not your fault if the work’s not done. That was a big discovery for me: At work, if someone is busy, it can just sit in their inbox and wait until tomorrow.
There are so many norms from observing other people. When I first started working, I learned you have to reply to every email confirming receipt of the email. That’s so different from before the adult world. In college, you just sent it to people by the date something is due.
In an office you would pick up that behavior, but remotely you don’t. Everything I am learning about working only comes from people explicitly telling me, not from watching me.
The end of the innocence
Eventually, I felt exhausted at work. But I felt like I had to stick it out for a year. I was trying to hang on. But by the 10th month, I was really unhappy. I didn’t want to go to work. Then I thought, it’s going to be hard to find a job so let me start now.
I got a new job within two weeks.
It was very easy. It was an absolute difference from looking for a job the first time. There’s such an employee shortage now. Having a tiny bit of experience and training, that made all the difference. Places are now desperate for anyone who has any idea of what they are doing
Every single place I applied requested interviews. This process was way better than before when no one responded to online applications.
I was prepared to tell people what I needed from the start. I asked very straightforward questions when I was interviewing. I really wanted to talk to actual people I would be working with every day. I found out exactly how they like to work, if they find the work interesting. If people don’t want to be doing the work, they are not going to help you.
My first job paid me $42,000 a year. This job, 10 months later, is $56,000.
It’s way better. I knew pretty quickly it would be and I came in with some things I knew that I would want to work for me. For one, we’re allowed to go to the office and the lead of our team has organized a few days to meet and get some face-to-face time. And every week, I still have recruiters in my LinkedIn inbox.
Remotely, you really have to spell things out for people. If someone doesn’t see you, they don’t know you. People didn’t see that I was miserable. If somebody looked up and saw that, I think they would have taken action. You have to tell somebody that though.
On both sides, you have to be really clear with people, be explicit in what we’re supposed to be doing. I’m still learning this. And I still don’t feel like I know what it’s like to work in an office.
S. Mitra Kalita is co-founder and CEO of URL Media, a network of Black and Brown news and information outlets that share content, revenue, and distribution. She also is publisher of Epicenter-NYC, a community journalism initiative in Queens. A veteran journalist, Mitra most recently worked at CNN, and is the author of two books. Follow her on Twitter @mitrakalita. Sign up here to have Mitra's columns and Charter newsletters delivered to you by email.