1 in 4 Gen Z employees are unhappy at work and 20% are considering leaving their jobs, according to a study

It may be nothing new and it may be obvious, but happiness makes people more productive at work, research has shown. Happy employees have been shown to be more engaged, productive and loyal which is good for business.

Growing recognition of this fact has spurred a surge in research exploring how workplace culture can impact people’s well-being.

And it didn’t take long for companies like Google and Spotify to ramp up their investments in employee support, including appointing Chief Happiness Officers (CHOs) to do just that.

But what is happiness like at work? Is it more vacation days, better facilities, or mental health support? Is the ability to work remotely more often or perhaps offers more opportunities for personal development?

A recent study determined that it ultimately depends on the generation, with some groups proving harder to please than others.

What drives employee happiness at work?

Dr. Katherine Chia, an American cognitive scientist at Cangrade, a talent management company, believed that the most effective way to determine what drives job satisfaction was to ask employees directly.

In a new study, she polled more than 600 members of every generation represented in the workforce to find out how they answered the question, “In general, how happy are you at work?”

Chia also asked participants to rate their current work experiences and respond to statements such as “my workplace cares about me” or “I’m proud of the work I do.”

She and her team then delved into different levels of job satisfaction, analyzed the behaviors of different generations and published the results in a study entitled “Happiness at Work in 2023, a Generational Happiness Study”.

Happiness, a generational dilemma

While the exact years that define each generation may differ according to the researcher, it is widely accepted that there are four groups that are broadly represented in today’s workplace: Baby Boomers (approximately 1955-1964) Gen X (approximately 1965-1980), Millennials (1981-1996) and Gen Z (1997-2012).

Each generation has different values, which can often be the root of workplace conflict and unhappiness, according to the report. For example, a Baby Boomer’s management style may not meet the needs or preferences of a Generation Z employee.

What were the results of the Happiness at Work research?

Chia’s team found that all generations report similar levels of job satisfaction, with one exception: Gen Z appears to be significantly less satisfied.

Gen X is the most job-satisfied generation, with a job satisfaction rating of 5.5 on a scale of one to seven. Followed by the Baby Boomers (5.47), the Millennials (5.41) and Gen Z, the least satisfied (4.76).

Interestingly, Gen Z also proved to be the most unhappy of all the generations assessed, with all other generations reporting being equally happy at work.

What is the difference between happiness and satisfaction? Job happiness refers to how happy we feel while doing the job, while job satisfaction is how satisfied we feel after doing the job.

Gen X and Millenials experience similar levels of happiness and the Baby Boomers aren’t far behind.

Only 9% of baby boomers reported being unhappy at work, compared to 69% who said they were.

Of Gen X and Millennial respondents, 13% of both groups were dissatisfied compared to 76% who were happy. Gen Z was once again the most unhappy (26% versus 59% who were happy).

The reasoning behind Gen Z’s unhappiness at work can be varied. But one reason may simply be because “Gen Z may also be less happy overall than other generations,” the report concluded.

THE Mental Health Million Project supports this theory, which recently reported that Gen Z had alarming rates of mental well-being, possibly due to the severe disruption to education due to the COVID-19 pandemic, he said.

Another “obvious” reason, according to the Happiness at Work report, is that Generation Z is still entering the workforce and more likely to fill entry-level roles. This, she says, can lead to frustration, particularly for a tech-savvy workforce that is largely defined by the phenomenon of instant gratification.

But what exactly makes each generation happy and unhappy at work?

For baby boomers, the most valuable priority at work turned out to be “making their voices heard,” the report said, which is associated with their “strong sense of organizational loyalty.”

Of the Baby Boomers, 50% agree with the statement “I like to tell people what I do for a living,” which Chia says highlights the career-focused mindset of the generation.

Baby boomers also “value having their voices heard in the workplace, above and beyond other perks that younger generations might appreciate, such as flexible working hours or unlimited paid time off.”

Gen X and Millennials share workplace priorities: self-direction and autonomy.

But Gen X is “more nuanced,” and they’re also similar to Baby Boomers in that they place significant emphasis on their work identities.

Millennials are “deeply mission-oriented in their careers,” seeking opportunities that allow them to “give back” or have a higher purpose.

The sentiment most highly correlated with job satisfaction for the generation was “I take pride in the work I do.”

Gen Z workplace happiness is closely related to the statement, “My work environment brings out the best in me.” The generation prioritizes learning and professional development opportunities in their jobs.

In line with job satisfaction insights, Gen Z was also shown to be the generation most likely to quit their jobs if they are dissatisfied with their jobs, the report found.

The Happiness at Work report states that fostering intergenerational understanding and collaboration will be key for organizations to thrive in today’s workforce. And instead of perceiving generational differences as a challenge, employers should see them as an opportunity to drive business growth.

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