WASHINGTON — Every new generation entering the workforce changes the climate of expectations versus employer goals. None are studied more intensely than millennials, those born between the late 1980s and late 1990s, and post-millennials, also known as Generation Z, born between 1997 and 2012.
Figuring out how to manage those expectations while preserving a moral climate and acknowledging the dignity of all kinds of work was the topic of a March 28 panel at Georgetown University in Washington, sponsored by the university’s Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life and the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor.
Loyalty to employers — long the cornerstone of previous generations’ attitudes toward work — is virtually extinct. That has been replaced with the search for jobs that reflect personal values and enable a work-life balance.
Working from home, and not the office — the defining employment change of the COVID pandemic — showed a change in young people’s work ethic, said Dawn Carpenter, the founding director of Georgetown’s Solidarity Economy Workshop.
“People don’t have to be in the office to be productive, so they can fit their work into their life instead of their life into their work,” she noted.
A January report from the Oliver Wyman Forum, the media outlet of the business consulting firm, concluded, “Gen Zers’ clout comes from their numbers and their worldview,” representing “25% of the world’s population and $7 trillion or more in purchasing influence, and will comprise 27% of the workforce by 2025.”
The report described Gen Zers as “empathetic, pragmatic, cynical, resourceful, self-protective and wise beyond their years. And yet … Gen Zers are unfinished products. Their mastery of technology has left their social skills less developed. They have challenges spotting misinformation, and a fear of making mistakes. Having seen the older millennials live out their lives on the big social platforms — with cringe results — many Gen Zers have retreated to obscure microsites where they can better control the narrative.
“But if you dismiss their choices — and assume they’ll revert to the social norms because we did — you’re gonna get played. Their individuality, morality, and preference for experience over possessions are seared into their DNA.”
“Workers are realizing that they’re more alike than different,” said Candace Cunningham, the workforce development coordinator with Restaurant Opportunities Centers United DC. This means, and will continue to mean, that “the powers that be” won’t be able to divide them.
Robert G. Christian III, the editor of “Millennial,” an online Catholic periodical on religion, politics, and culture, bemoaned “the hollowing out of the middle class,” beset by college debt, the inability to purchase homes, and reluctance to start families.
Willie Lyles III, who serves as senior adviser and counsel to Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., acknowledged, “For me, I’m living my dream” in politics, but for others, “it’s important not to become burned out in one dream, in one’s best life.”
Cunningham, who works with low-wage workers, praised the role of labor unions in organizing efforts at Amazon, Starbucks and Target.
Those companies, she pointed out, “have the ability to intimidate, to scare workers into voting against their best interests. You have to ask, what are they afraid of?”
The right to unionize and seek workplace equity is fundamental to Catholic social teaching, with St. John XXIII, St. Paul VI, St. John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis expounding on Pope Leo XIII’s labor encyclical, “Rerum Novarum,” in various ways.
In his 1991 encyclical, “Centesimus Annus,” commemorating the 100th anniversary of “Rerum Novarum,” St. John Paul II taught that trade unions and other workers’ organizations “defend workers’ rights and protect their interests as persons, while fulfilling a vital cultural role, so as to enable workers to participate more fully and honorably in the life of their nation and to assist them along the path of development.”
Catholic social teaching about the common good, Christian added, faces the challenge of false expectations, including what he called the “meritocracy trap.”
This trap, he said, is “a very narrow view focused on money and prestige, and piling up as many accomplishments as possible.”
“Disappointments are inevitable,” he added. “We don’t actually live in a meritocracy.” That term is used “to disguise privilege and inequality.”
Lyles, without giving more specifics, acknowledged “structural change in our political system” is needed since Congress has not passed an increase in the federal minimum wage of $7.25 since 2009.
Carpenter thought the big change in attitudes toward work occurred when Gen Xers found they were burned by the 1990s dot-com bubble, which had promised quick wealth from Internet start-ups, only to go under.
“What does not change, and what always stays the same, is that we are co-workers with God,” she said. And Pope Francis “gave us the encouragement, and the nudge, to dream and dream big.”