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Younger Workers Have Had It Worse

Younger Workers Have Had It Worse

Story Highlights

  • Younger workers more likely to have lost their job during the pandemic
  • Generation Z and millennials less engaged and more stressed at work
  • An emphasis on wellbeing is nonnegotiable for younger workers

According to Gallup's most recent State of the Global Workplace report, the pandemic affected younger workers' careers more negatively in 2020 than older workers'. Younger employees (those under 40) also experienced more stress and anger, lower employee engagement, and lower wellbeing than older workers.

The Gallup World Poll surveys adults aged 15 and older, which means these findings include millennials (born 1980 to 1996) and working-age Generation Z employees (born after 1996).

These results should be a warning sign for international leaders and global employers who care about the future of their institutions. When paired with pre-COVID data showing that wellbeing has been the No. 1 concern for young job seekers, it is clear that leaders must prioritize employee wellbeing to win in the future.

Let's take a look at the key generational findings from the report:

The first year of the pandemic hit younger workers harder than older workers.

In 2020, Gallup asked several questions related to COVID-19. Across the board, workers under 40 reported greater pandemic effects.

Bar chart. COVID-19 has affected people's lives differently based on their age group. Those under age 40 are more likely to say their life has been affected a lot by the pandemic, and are more likely to say they lost pay, worked fewer hours, and lost a job or business.

(The margin of sampling error for the global report data referenced in this article is less than one percentage point at the 95% confidence level.)

Most notably, younger workers were more likely than older workers to say they temporarily stopped working (by 10 percentage points) or lost a job or business (by nine points). This may be a result of younger workers in entry-level or part-time work. However, many millennials entered the workforce during the Great Recession -- a disadvantage that likely compounded the economic and emotional strain of the pandemic. It may take many years before we can fully appreciate how much the pandemic harmed younger workers during their prime career-building, wealth-building years.

Negative emotions increased across the workforce in 2020, with anger and stress higher for workers under 40.

Daily worry, stress, anger and sadness reached record levels among the world's employees in 2020. The pandemic has been not only a physical health crisis but a mental health crisis as well. And for younger workers, it's even more acute. Younger workers experienced more stress (44%) than did older workers (42%) in the first year of the pandemic.

Perhaps even more troubling, more employees under 40 experienced anger a lot of the previous day (26%) than did older employees (22%).

It's worth noting that negative emotions have been rising for several years for all workers prior to the pandemic. In addition, younger workers in the past have been more likely to experience anger and stress, but in 2020, they were experiencing this at a slightly higher rate. This suggests the pandemic does not entirely explain higher stress and anger among younger workers, because it has persisted across time. The pandemic may have had some impact, as Gallup has also found that younger workers were more likely to report significant impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic -- such as receiving less money than usual from their work, working fewer hours, having temporarily stopped working at their job or business, or losing their job or business.

Gallup also asked three items related to ESG (environmental, social and governance) factors. Younger employees were more likely to report corruption in business and to be less satisfied with efforts to preserve the environment in their country. Seventy-two percent of workers under 40 said corruption in business is widespread within their country, compared with 67% of those aged 40 and older.

Employees under 40 have lower workplace engagement and lower overall wellbeing than older employees do.

Given the generational divide on COVID-19 life impact and negative daily emotions, it's perhaps not surprising that those under 40 have slightly lower employee engagement than older employees do (18% vs. 21% engaged, respectively) and lower "thriving" wellbeing (31% vs. 33%).

When employees are disengaged at work, they are unlikely to impress customers, be creative or go the extra mile. And when employees are suffering in their overall wellbeing -- for example, experiencing loneliness, financial insecurity or health problems -- they are not able to bring their best selves to work. At worst, suffering employees burn out, quit and share their bad experiences with others.

The hard truth? If you lead a typical organization, most of your employees are not engaged at work and about two-thirds are not thriving.

Millennials and Gen Z want employers who care about their wellbeing.

Before the pandemic, Gallup asked workers what they look for most in an employer. The No. 1 response for Gen Z and millennials was this: The organization cares about employees' wellbeing.

The pandemic only raised the stakes with employee wellbeing -- in terms of everything from physical safety for front-line workers to greater flexibility and support for remote workers juggling upset family routines. Wellbeing is no longer merely a perk, a benefit or a program to keep healthcare costs low. Caring for employees is a basic expectation for employees to show up to work.

The hard truth? If you lead a typical organization, most of your employees are not engaged at work and about two-thirds are not thriving.

Leaders, particularly those who come from older generations, also need to recognize that wellbeing support looks different for different stages of life. Younger workers may have unique challenges that simply are not the common experience of older veteran employees.

In addition, recognize that typical or traditional career paths have changed. Many millennials have experienced both the Great Recession and now a global pandemic. Employers should revisit what job requirements or expectations are truly necessary for success.

For leaders, the first step to showing you care about your millennial and Gen Z employees is to start a dialogue about expectations and needs. Expand the conversation beyond physical health to include dimensions like financial and social wellbeing, which influence health too. And make career development more personalized to fit the complexity of modern life.

Millennial and Gen Z burnout is not inevitable. But the solution begins with employers who listen, care and take action.

Lead your organization into the future with a focus on wellbeing.


Ryan Pendell is a Senior Workplace Science Editor at Gallup.

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