Gen-Z vs Millennials: Understanding work-life balance
Global layoffs in the technology sector alone have surpassed 200,000 this year. Not only has this impacted the number of opportunities available to employees, a more cut-throat economic environment may well see more people put work-life balance on the backburner.
But in spite of this global shift, changing technologies, ways of working and basic affordability can all actually create demand for Gen Z employees. In fact, with Gen Z and millennials set to make up more than half the global workforce by the end of this decade, finding out what motivates them and how they work will provide employers with crucial insights to help them attract and retain the best talent, which is the lifeblood of success in any economic environment.
To learn more, we traveled to Asia to find out exactly what makes millennial and Gen Z employees tick. Hitch a ride as we uncover unexpected differences and similarities in their attitudes towards remote work, social media, company culture, personal growth and more.
Millennial and Gen-Z work-life integration
Wednesday, 7am, Singapore. The alarm goes off in the master bedroom. Jean, a 38-year-old mum of two who’s just returning to the workforce after giving birth four months ago, rolls out of bed and puts on her gold-rimmed glasses. Today is an on-site day, which means she has to get up earlier to prepare Elliot for kindergarten before commuting to work.
Singapore leads the way for hybrid working in APAC, a move strongly supported by the government, which wants to “promote Flexible Work Arrangements (FWA) as a permanent feature of the workplace”, according to the press statement released by the Ministry of Manpower.
This recent shift comes as a relief to busy working mums like Jean, who works as a senior manager of insights in the sports industry. After packing breakfast for Elliot, Jean leaves her apartment at 8am so she can start and finish work early. It’s all part of the FWA her company offers.”
Across the island, Jean’s Gen Z colleague, Karianne, is also busy stuffing her laptop, work pass, mouse and Airpods into her bag before leaving at the same time. “If I’m not in a rush, then 10-15 minutes would be enough to get out of the house,” says the shy, bespectacled 20-year old data analyst. She skips breakfast as the commute from Pasir Ris on the far east of the island takes an hour.
Using different communication tools during the commute
Both Jean and Karianne endure the peak hour crush for their commute on the MRT (Singapore’s Mass Rapid Transit system). Plugging into social media is ubiquitous on the crowded yet oddly quiet rides. A dreary silence hangs in the air as faces hunch over smartphones.
Jean scrolls past videos of friends and influencers on Instagram and TikTok, skipping any videos that don’t have captions because she forgot her earphones. She leaves it up to the platform to decide what she’s consuming. “Usually the algorithm knows what I like,” she says. She’s much less active on Facebook, as she prefers to keep her current life out of the prying eyes of older relatives.
While Karianne keeps herself updated with friends on Instagram, and follows her K-pop idols closely on TikTok, she uses Facebook much more frequently than Jean. “I find it easier to read news on Facebook,” Karianne explains. And unlike Jean, who wants to avoid scrutiny by her relatives, Karianne actually uses the platform to keep in touch with older family members.
Does she create content? “Not a lot – if there’s anything exciting happening, I’ll post an Instagram Story,” she replies.
Referrals vs group chats – two approaches to finding work
Like many of her peers, Jean first came across her current job opportunity on LinkedIn. She actually skipped over it at first, instead hopping over to employment platform Indeed for more opportunities. “I saw that this job posting was still there, so I decided to try,” she recalls. “But I didn’t receive a reply so I messaged my boss and asked him about it.”
Thanks to a roundabout referral, Jean is now seated in a minimally decorated desk in an open-plan office doing market research and consumer surveys.
Jean’s desk is truly spartan, devoid of any personal effects except for a nondescript tote bag sitting in the corner. It turns out that they’re about to convert to hot-desking. “I think all the heads of department are going to move out of their rooms and those rooms will be converted to meeting spaces,” she suggests.
Employees will be given lockers. “I guess you can’t put your stuff on your desk anymore,” she says, a little resigned and ambivalent about the changes, which reflect a growing trend in post-pandemic Singapore.
Karianne was grateful not to have to apply for her job directly. “I hate going through the whole process of interviewing. That’s why I feel lucky that I was able to find the jobs that I’ve had,” she says.
Her current six-month contract as a data analyst is an extension from an initial internship placement by Temasek Polytechnic. She leaves in a month to pursue computer science at the Singapore Institute of Technology.
When she has to source her own jobs, Karianne relies on Telegram group chats. Her one-year stint at the GrabFood Hawker Hub fulfilling food delivery orders came through a recruiter who posted in one of her group chats. “The pay was not bad, and it was something I was used to doing so I extended my three-month contract four or five times,” she recalls.
Hybrid work or fully remote?
Even with many companies supporting FWA, there is an art and science behind a satisfying work-life balance. Jean feels her department’s shift from working from home Mondays and Tuesdays to Tuesdays and Thursdays “breaks your momentum,” making it “harder to plan things to do”.
For Jean, this hybrid model is still better than going fully remote, which she did during the pandemic. Despite adjusting well during Covid, Jean still missed “the human touch,” as she puts it. “It’s not mentally healthy to be at home everyday, talking to people on screens,” she surmizes.
On the contrary, Karianne believes she will perform well fully remote or with more flexible working hours, where she can work as much or as little as she wants per day.
“Prior to this internship, the jobs I had were quite flexible, where I could choose my shifts. I quite enjoyed that but I think it’s hard to find something with the same flexibility,” she reckons. In addition to her year at GrabFood, she also worked at a vaccination center, working shifts around her full-time studies at the polytechnic.
While both Jean and Karianne enjoy the perks of hybrid work, they’re careful to ringfence their time off. According to Karianne, her basic expectation for work-life balance is “being able to knock off – to totally knock off so you don’t have to go back to work in the middle of the night. And weekends are just weekends,” she adds.
Jean feels the same way. “It doesn’t have to be, like, strictly work is from 9am to 6pm,” she says. “I can work outside of work hours, but I like if there’s flexibility for me. Like, if I have some errands to run during work hours, I can do it and pay it back outside of work hours.”
She echoes Karianne’s sentiments about working weekends and long hours, something Asia is notorious for. “No work during weekends and no working through the night,” she states bluntly, only to relent a little shortly after. “I mean, once in a while when it’s crunch time is fine, I don’t mind, but not every day.”
What do work culture and leadership mean to them?
Pinning down a definition of work culture isn’t Culture Map. Understanding what people really mean (not just what they say) can require some interpretation.
“I don’t mind a lower title, but I need the company culture and branding to be there,” says Jean. What sort of culture is she looking for? “I don’t think I can work in small local companies, the culture is very different,” she says after a pause. “For small companies, the politics are very obvious. They are not so open-minded.”
Karianne prefers to talk about the “work environment.” She’s not too fussed generally. “Basically, as long as it doesn’t make me feel like I’m going to hate it the moment I step into the office, it’s fine,” she says. It’s not her co-workers or brand image that matter most, but “having a good boss” who is “understanding and nurturing.” A manager who is “willing to guide you, give you space to grow and help you with that.”
I don’t think I’m cut out to be a leader. I would rather be a team player - someone who works under a good leader who makes me try my best.
The office is quiet when Jean reaches her desk and sets down her tote bag and packed breakfast. She powers on her laptop and scrolls through emails before unwrapping her fried beehoon (rice noodles) and sipping on teh c siew dai (hot milk tea with less sugar). It’s 8:30am - her most productive time of day, where she plans out her schedule and ticks off the more difficult items on her to-do list. She enjoys “having ownership of a project and executing it well”, and takes most pride in it when “the results help other teams in their work and decision-making.”
Karianne sounds unsure about leading projects. “I just don’t think I’m cut out to be a leader, it’s my own personal characteristics. I would rather be a team player and someone who works under a good leader who makes me try my best.”
Despite her reluctance to lead, her tenacity shines through in adversity. “At Grab, I was working through Covid. It was very, very hectic because everyone couldn’t leave so they were ordering a lot online.” For her, “a fulfilling day would be a super busy one without having a mental breakdown.” She pushes through the tough days because it matters to her that what she does “makes an impact and that I’m not just doing it for fun.”
Entitlement, personal growth, and a lighter side of work-life balance
Looking back, Jean feels that traveling has been her best investment in the past year. “It helps you recharge and you get to see things from a different perspective. You experience and learn things as well.” Her next trip is to Perth, Australia, a family-friendly destination where her kids might enjoy the rural life away from the city.
Karianne, on the other hand, feels that staying in her role as a data analyst after her internship ended has paid dividends. “It looks good on my LinkedIn that I continued as temp, compared to choosing to work somewhere else as a part-timer. And I’m still learning a lot on the way. It might not necessarily be technical skills. I’m learning personal skills like communicating with others, presenting or writing notes even.”
Ironically enough, it’s Karianne who is traveling this week. On a hunch, I asked her on Whatsapp if she was headed to Korea. An all-caps reply in Singlish came back, “YES!! HOW YOU KNOW? IS IT ’CAUSE COMMON PLACE TO GO?” Youthful excitement finally bursts through the mature demeanor she’s maintained until now. For a generation that’s purported to be the most stressed, it was a relief to hear that it was not all work and no play.
How can businesses use work-life integration to attract and retain young talent?
Embracing hybrid work is definitely key to making both Gen Z and millennials happy. Being flexible about how this arrangement is executed – our Gen Z prefers to go fully remote, while our millennial finds clustered remote workdays less disruptive – aids their productivity.
When it comes to staying in the job, Gen Z’s direct manager plays the most important role, whereas our millennial cares more about the company’s image and her co-workers’ attitudes. Creating a work environment which provides autonomy and gentle guidance to Gen Z is rewarding for them, while millennials might appreciate leadership opportunities in projects more.
Gen Z worries most about their environmental and company impact, and this is also true of Karianne, who says she wants to “make an impact” and not just “do it for fun.” Being more transparent about company goals and mission might serve to attract more of the younger generation, as will giving them meaningful roles in the organization where this impact can be realized.
Going beyond conventional channels for recruitment will also pay off for Gen Z, who are more likely to look for opportunities on social media chat groups.
Ultimately, transparency, inclusiveness and a sense of purpose is the way forward to keeping the younger generations engaged and fulfilled at the workplace, not just in Asia but across the globe.
If you enjoy our article and want to explore further into the future of work, make sure to check out our insights on how this digital nomad managed to create his dream lifestyle.