Talk to any leader of an organization and they will tell you one of the things that bothers them the most is losing good people. There is a saying that has become very common: “People don’t leave bad jobs, they leave bad bosses.” While many people do leave because of their relationship with the people they directly report to, the reasons are more varied in many cases.
Unhappiness is a main reason employees leave organizations. Yet, what exactly causes people to be unhappy? There are a number of factors that come into the equation that can cause people to conclude they could be better off working somewhere else.
The decision to leave an organization doesn’t just happen overnight. Usually, the conditions have been around for a long time, slowly draining the employee’s enthusiasm and desire to bring their best selves to work every day. As Phil Johnson, founder and CEO of The Master of Business Leadership, says, “The drama, chaos, and conflict experienced in these toxic work environments leads to low levels of employee engagement.”
Here are seven issues that slowly drain a person’s desire to work for an organization:
LACK OF APPRECIATION
People spend a great deal of time at work, and if they get the feeling that they’re not being appreciated, it will slowly drain their energy and desire to give their best. The lack of appreciation can show up in various forms. Lack of recognition for their accomplishments is a key example. When we are working hard, doing good work, and nobody seems to notice, it kills our desire to continue to do more. Another area is lack of caring or taking an interest in our special interests, talents, and life outside of work. When we spend so much time at work, we expect others to take an interest in us as unique individuals, with special talents, needs, struggles, and home situations. And we want the people we report to to support us when we are going through difficult times.
“When employees feel a genuine connection with their leader, their role, and the organization, they are stronger collaborators and communicators, and are more engaged,” explains Debbie Muno, managing director of Genos North America.
UNFAIRNESS AND FAVORITISM
While there are different levels of talent and responsibilities within organizations, we expect the standards for promotions and rules of conduct to be applied equally to employees in the organization. Few things are as upsetting as when organizational rules they’re expected to follow are not adhered to by the higher-ups.
Another sore point that really drains performance is when people perceive that promotions are given based on favoritism rather than meritocracy. The resentment and anger resulting from these actions, or just the perception of them, create a toxic culture that causes good people to leave.
ALLOWING NO AUTONOMY OVER ONE’S WORK
In order to feel fulfilled in our work, we need to have some say in what our work looks like. Whether we have a choice on what we work on, have a say in company goals, or have a say in work-related decisions, we need to have choices to feel fulfilled in our career.
The best work happens when leaders trust us to know what to do and can count on us to do it well. Managers who act as guides and coaches—and are approachable when employees have problems—will see their staff perform much better than those who micromanage and allow their people little discretion over how their work is done.
SHOWING NO INTEREST IN EMPLOYEES’ PASSIONS
Organizations that expect employees to do their jobs without considering what they are passionate about not only miss out on harnessing those passions, but also alienate their people. It takes work, effort, and getting to know people to find out what their passions are. Unfortunately, many workplaces don’t have the desire to find out. As a result, those who believe employees are hired simply to fill a position and should leave their passions at home will find significant turnover among their teams. After some time, these team members will be looking at other companies known for an employee-first culture.
On the other hand, those organizations that do make the effort to find the connections between their people’s work and their passions will see an increase in productivity, higher rates of job satisfaction, and a happier workplace overall. To that end, author Debbie Peterson recommends utilizing psychometric questionnaires. “[These] can ensure employees are in roles where their skills and personalities can shine, and ensure the longevity of the employee and their employment as well as the performance of the organization,” explains Peterson.
ONE-SIZE-FITS-ALL STAFF APPRECIATION
Many organizations have an Employee Appreciation Day once a year when everyone is acknowledged and treated the same. The problem is that not everyone has the same skills, contributes equally, or regularly brings the same effort. Receiving the same recognition as someone who does the least work possible upsets those who go above and beyond, bring extra enthusiasm to their work, and give their best every day.
Not only should people be recognized for their achievements, but they also should be able to communicate how they wish to be recognized. In my book, The Other Kind of Smart, I talk about how important it is to get to know people in order to appreciate them in a way that powerfully connects with them.
A LACK OF MEANING
One thing millennials have become known for is wanting their work to have meaning and to feel that they are making a difference. Previous generations have wanted this as well, but settled for less as they believed the workplace was not the place where this was possible. Now, millennials are a major part of our workplace and are rising to leadership positions. Finally, organizations have started to pay attention.
Organizations must create a vision and share it with their people in a way that ensures everyone understands how their contribution makes a difference. Everyone wants to feel pride in their work and in the organization they work for. This will become increasingly important as younger generations, crucial to an organization’s success, demand this.
A LACK OF FUN AND PLAY
In previous decades, the idea that we should have fun at work would have left leaders aghast. Work was work, and people were expected to have fun outside of the workplace. We have since come to understand that having fun at work is a great way to invigorate people, give them something to look forward to, even alleviate stress and boredom. “For instance, [some] high tech firms now encourage employees to take table tennis breaks,” says Peterson, “with the added benefit that it promotes physical and neurological fitness.”
When people are not only allowed, but encouraged, to have fun in their workplace, they are more relaxed, are able to build camaraderie with their colleagues, and are motivated to perform better.
They are woke, broke and complicated. Businesses should take note
Young people have always perplexed their elders. Today’s youngsters are no different; indeed, they are baffling. They have thin wallets and expensive tastes. They prize convenience and a social conscience. They want shopping to be at once seamless and personal. They crave authenticity while being constantly immersed in an ersatz digital world. As they start spending in earnest, brands are trying to understand what these walking paradoxes want and how they shop. The answers will define the next era of consumerism.
Their absolute numbers are formidable. The European Union is home to nearly 125m people between the ages of ten (the youngest will become consumers in the next few years) and 34. America has another 110m of these Gen Zs and millennials, a third of the population. The annual spending of households headed by American Gen Zs and millennials hit $2.7trn in 2021, around 30% of the total.
A good place to start dissecting the psyche of young consumer is to consider the economy that has moulded them. At one end of the scale, today’s 30-somethings came of age in the midst of the global financial crisis of 2007-09 and the ensuing recession. Their younger peers had a bit more luck, beginning their careers in years when tightening labour markets had pushed up wages. Until, that is, the covid-19 pandemic upended many of their lives.
These two big shocks have fostered pessimism among the young people who experienced them. A study by McKinsey, a consultancy, published in 2022, found that a quarter of Gen Zs doubted they would be able to afford to retire. Less than half believed they would ever own a home.
Uncertainty about the future may be encouraging impulsive spending of limited resources in the present. The young were disrupted more by covid than other generations and are now enjoying the rebound. According to McKinsey, American millennials (born between 1980 and the late 1990s) spent 17% more in the year to March 2022 than they did in the year before. Despite this short-term recovery from the dark days of the pandemic, their long-term prospects are much less good. American millennials and Gen Zs have accumulated less wealth than Gen X or Boomers at the same age.
Easy access to means of spreading payments may encourage splashing out (see chart 1). According to another survey by McKinsey in October, 45% of Europeans in their teens and early 20s planned some kind of splurge in the next three months whereas 83% of Boomers, born before 1964, said “No” to such profligacy. Forrester, a market-research firm, found that most users of “buy now, pay later” apps are around 20. Megan Scott, a 20-year-old student from London, speaks for many of her peers by admitting that, when shopping, she has no restraint—until, she chuckles, the bill arrives.
In many ways youngsters’ shopping habits, like their lives, are defined by the “attention economy”—buying stuff online is far quicker and easier than a trip to the shops. The proliferation of social media means there are many new ways of attracting consumers’ eyeballs. Young shoppers never knew a world without smartphones. More than two-thirds of 18- to 34-year-old Americans spend four hours or more on their devices each day. A heightened expectation of convenience comes with being raised in the age of Airbnb, Amazon and Uber. Young people want their shopping to be totally hiccup-free.
The light-speed online world also appears to have lowered tolerances for long delivery times. A study by Salesforce, a business-software giant, found that Gen-z Americans are the likeliest of all age groups to want their groceries delivered within an hour. They are more likely than the rest of the population to use their phones to pay for shopping, says Forrester.
These “always-on purchasers”, as McKinsey has christened them, often shun a weekly shop for quicker fixes of everything from fashion to furniture. They like subscriptions, often favouring shared access to products rather than outright ownership. This has buoyed online-rental sites (like Rent the Runway for fashion) and streaming services. Investors may have fallen out of love with Netflix but Gen Z has not; the company remains one of the most popular brands among that age group in America.
The internet has also changed how the young discover brands (see chart 2). Print, billboard or tv advertising has given way to social media. Instagram, part of Meta’s empire, and TikTok, a Chinese-owned video-sharing app, are where the young look for inspiration, particularly for goods where looks matter such as fashion, beauty and sportswear. TikTok’s user-generated videos can propel even tiny brands to speedy viral fame. Such apps are increasingly adding features that allow users to shop without ever leaving the platform. According to McKinsey, by 2021 six in ten Americans under the age of 25 had completed a purchase on a social-media site. Some are following the Chinese model of “social commerce” by mixing live-streamed entertainment with the chance shop.
For the time being, though, young Western consumers prefer to make purchases outside social media, and often scour sites like Amazon for bargains. According to Cowen, an investment bank, spending on subscriptions to Prime, Amazon’s home-delivery and entertainment service, trails only phone bills, food and travel in young people’s shopping baskets.
Physical shops are not entirely shunned, as long as the experience feels personal and, ideally, integrates virtual and physical worlds. Nike, for example, is successfully targeting young buyers by allowing them to design their own trainers on its website, to pick up in person after attending an in-store dance class, and then encouraging them to tag the brand in a review on TikTok or Instagram.
The new world of shopping has also allowed the young to take a more informed view of the companies that they buy from. The attention economy’s information overload has not dulled youngsters’ senses but appears to have made them hypersensitive, especially to any brand that pretends to be something it isn’t. Edelman, a public-relations firm, found that seven in ten Gen Zs across six countries fact-check claims made in adverts. Citing survey data that show some teens have shunned certain brands because of their shady ethics, Forrester has taken to calling young consumers “truth barometers”.
Brands that do not match up to the long list of requirements had better watch out. If they do not get what they want and how they want it, youngsters are happy to try something new. According to the survey by McKinsey from October 2022, nine in ten Gen Z and millennial Europeans had changed how they shopped, where they shopped or the brands they bought in the previous three months.
How the young shop is clearly in flux. What they buy, too, is changing. What older generations consider discretionary, such as wellness and luxury, have become essentials. Self-care is all the rage. On the hunt for clothing that will set them apart, the young are turning to posh brands at an ever more tender age. According to Bain, a consultancy, the average Gen Z shopper makes their first luxury purchase when they are 15, compared with 19 for their 30-something counterparts. Some buy posh items as a hedge, believing that they can hold value even during tough times. Helpfully, such items can now be traded easily on second-hand sales platforms such as Vinted and Vestiaire Collective.
More broadly, young consumers profess to be more values-driven than previous generations. Research by Forrester shows that this attitude is even more common among teenagers and 20-somethings than among slightly older counterparts. Some of these values are centred around identity (race, gender and so on). Others stem from things the young care about, such as climate change. kpmg, an accounting firm, found that the Gen Z crowd across 16 countries worries more about climate change and natural disasters than any other generation. According to a survey by Credit Suisse, a bank, youngsters in emerging markets are more fretful still.
Revealed preferences paint a more nuanced picture. On the one hand, Forrester has identified Patagonia, a premium outdoor-clothing brand with a record of green do-goodery, as a Gen Z favourite in the rich world. The young are the most likely of all age groups to try—and stick with—alternative proteins such as oat milk and plant-based meat alternatives. But not at any price. Credit Suisse found that on average, consumers globally will pay an average premium of 9% for more environmentally friendly grub. Young consumers in the rich world are less willing to pay premiums for these alternatives than their counterparts in emerging markets.
Youngsters’ appetite for instant gratification is also fuelling some distinctly ungreen consumer habits. The young have virtually invented quick commerce, observes Isabelle Allen of kpmg. And that convenience is affordable because it fails to price in all its externalities. The environmental benefits of eating plants rather than meat can be quickly undone if meals are delivered in small batches by a courier on a petrol-powered motorbike. Shein, a Chinese clothes retailer that is the fastest in fast fashion, tops surveys as a Gen Z favourite in the West, despite being criticised for waste; its fashionable garments are cheap enough to throw on once and then throw away. Like everyone else the young are, then, contradictory—because, like everyone else, they are only human. ■
Correction (January 18th 2023): The original version of this article wrongly suggested that America’s Gen-zs might make up the majority of its shoppers by 2026. Sorry.
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This article appeared in the Business section of the print edition under the headline "Buying time"