Froma Harrop: Gen Z gets ready to don its gray flannel suit
From the commentary: With a return to many offices, young Americans are trying to enter the gray flannel world at a time when many aren't even sure what that world wears these days.
Generation Z is not the first cohort to face recessions, burdensome debt and a tough time finding a good job. Every generation has gone through this and some much more. The Greatest Generation entered the workforce still bearing the anguish of World War II.
The 1956 movie "The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit" featured Gregory Peck as a soldier still traumatized by the death, suffering and shared sacrifice of war as he tried to fit into a booming America consumed by materialism, competition and cocooned kids. He had crossed the emotional chasm of a starving lover in wartime Italy to a wife in American suburbia, bitter that they didn't have an even fancier house.
It would be a stretch to over-compare the experiences of a war-tormented generation with the anxieties of Gen Z, those born between 1995 and 2012. Many zoomers, however, have also experienced dislocation caused by COVID-era distancing, frozen opportunities for socializing and human separation imposed by life lived online.
(Less affected were others who had to physically show up at jobs through the pandemic -- the essential workers at food stores, police, plumbers, nurses, doctors, bus drivers. They had human company though they were more exposed to the virus.)
In the movie, a friend talks up a new job opening in public relations. "But I don't know anything about public relations," the Peck character says. To which the friend responds, "Who does? You got a clean shirt. You bathe every day. That's all there is to it."
With a return to many offices, young Americans are trying to enter the gray flannel world at a time when many aren't even sure what that world wears these days. That said, the white-collar tradition with its liking for continuity attracts many of them -- more than the glitter of new tech and the chance to win the rich-quick lottery at the expense of punishing hours. They want to trade the anxiety of not knowing what the next corporate shakeup will bring for a feeling that the furniture of their professional lives won't be moved every two weeks.
New York University business school professor Suzy Welch confirms this impression. She writes that her Gen Z students yearn for a stable work life. They tend to want jobs in a going concern, not the opportunity to join a dazzling startup.
Handshake, an employment site for Gen Zers, asked recent business school students what they wanted most from a future employer. As Welch reports, an amazing 85% wanted "stability" and only 29% cited a "fast-growing company" as their first choice.
Their preferred destinations also suggest a desire for old-school business ways, even over low taxes or warm climate. The top five cities of interest for this groups were New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and Chicago -- homes of gray-flannel offices. They wanted cosmopolitan cities packed with restaurants, night life and public places that encourage interaction with other human beings.
Sure, a lot of people who have worked from home like it and don't want to again commute. But they may not have much of a choice. Employers are having second thoughts about remote work as gung-ho cooperation early in the crisis seems to have softened. And now that golf courses and restaurants have reopened, employees have places to run off to in the middle of the day. "It's in the numbers," one executive told The Wall Street Journal.
Work schedules may be more hybrid than in the past, but all indicators point to more time in an old-fashioned office. Younger workers looking for a social life may like it.
Be it ever so regimented, there is no place like the office.
Froma Harrop is an American writer and author. She can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @FromaHarrop.