Gen Z and millennials are checked out at work and it could wreck their careers

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Managers used to be—and to some extent still are—worried about what the Great Resignation could do to their workforces. But in 2023, employers may well be spending more time fretting over the Great Disengagement.

Engagement among employees in the U.S. has taken center stage in the remote workplace of the past few years. Even before the pandemic, a strong company culture that makes employees feel connected was a priority for workers, a task that has simultaneously become more important and more challenging in the age of working from home. 

A feeling of disconnectedness from their employer was found to be the top reason why workers wanted to change jobs in a 2022 survey, while last year CEOs blamed remote work for young employees’ sense of isolation from their company and colleagues.

Whatever the reason, the reality is that employee engagement in the U.S. is at its lowest point in a decade, according to a Gallup report published Wednesday, with workers feeling more isolated than ever and managers struggling to keep them connected. 

Employees disengaged from work risk mental health issues and missing out on career development opportunities, the report found, while for companies, a disengaged workforce can mean even more resignations and lost productivity. 

Disengagement on the rise

From extreme burnout at work and the advent of “quiet quitting”—employees doing the bare minimum and cutting back on the overall efforts and time they put into their jobs— last year was all about employees coming to terms with how disenchanted they have become with work.

Only 32% of employees said they were engaged with their work last year, down from a high of 36% in 2020, according to the report. The decline comes after a decade of gains in worker engagement and the current ratio of engaged to actively disengaged workers is now at its lowest points since 2013. Gallup collected and averaged results from four surveys conducted each quarter last year, each of which gauged the attitudes of around 15,000 full and part-time U.S. employees.

“Actively disengaged” employees now make up 18% of the workforce, up from 16% in 2021, while the remaining 50% of workers are resorting to quiet quitting.

While engagement is falling across the workforce, some employees are feeling more detached than others. Young millennials and Generation Z workers under 35 years old are disengaging from work in much higher numbers than older colleagues, while more women reported feeling disengaged than men. Among job types, managers are the employees who are most disillusioned with their roles, understandable as these positions also came with the highest rates of stress and burnout last year.

Young people’s growing discontent with work was already well-known. More than half of Gen Z and young millennials reported not feeling engaged with work in a November Gallup poll, more than other demographics, mainly because they did not feel a close relationship with their colleagues or employer. 

Women, meanwhile, have been feeling more disengaged at work than men since before the pandemic. Female engagement in the workplace has been dragged down by harder-to-come-by career growth opportunities for women and fears to voice workplace concerns to managers.

What can employers do?

In this week’s Gallup report, workers cited unclear expectations, disconnectedness from their company, and a lack of opportunities for career development as the main factors leading to their disengagement. 

For managers, addressing these issues starts with clearer communication. With employees today more invested in company values and work-life balance than ever before, leadership needs to communicate their culture and strategy more transparently and consistently, as well as check in more regularly to gauge employees’ wellbeing (through weekly employee satisfaction surveys, for instance).

The report found that employee satisfaction issues can be amplified by the physical distance constraints of remote work, but bringing employees back into the office may not be the panacea many major CEOs have touted in the past year. 

The reasons behind declining engagement were shared “regardless of work location (including fully remote employees),” the report said. While fully remote workers were more likely to quiet quit, the biggest decline in worker engagement was actually observed in employees who could work remotely at least some days, but were required to be in the office five days a week.

The priority for managers, according to the report, should be more transparent communication and consistent interaction with employees, especially those more vulnerable to disengagement, regardless of where they work from.

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