Gen Z will get teady to don the grey flannel swimsuit

By Froma Harrop

Generation Z isn’t the first generation to face recessions, high levels of debt, and struggles to find a good job. Every generation has been through this and much more. The Greatest Generation entered the workforce still enduring the agony of World War II.

The 1956 film The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit starred Gregory Peck as a soldier still traumatized by the death, suffering, and shared casualties of war as he attempted to integrate into a booming America steeped in materialism , competition and cocooned children. He’d crossed the emotional divide of a starving lover in wartime Italy to a woman in an American suburb, bitter that they didn’t have a fancier home.

It would be a stretch to compare the experiences of a war-torn generation to the fears of Gen Z born between 1995 and 2012. However, many Zoomers have also experienced contortions caused by the distancing, frozen opportunities of the COVID-era socializing and human disconnection imposed by life lived online.

(Less affected were others who had to physically appear at work during the pandemic — essential grocery store workers, police, plumbers, nurses, doctors, bus drivers. They had human company despite being more exposed to the virus.)

In the film, a friend talks about a new public relations position. “But I don’t know anything about public relations,” says the Peck character. To which the friend replies, “Who? You have a clean shirt. You wash yourself every day.

With many offices returning, young Americans are trying to step into the gray flannel world at a time when many don’t even know what this world is wearing these days. However, the white-collar tradition, with its penchant for continuity, draws many of them more than the glamor of new technology and the chance to get rich quick at the expense of hours playing the lottery. They want to trade the fear of not knowing what the next corporate reorganization will bring for the feeling that the furniture of their professional life is not being moved every two weeks.

Suzy Welch, a professor at New York University, confirms this impression. She writes that her Gen Z students long for a stable work life. They tend to want jobs in an ongoing company, not the opportunity to join a glitzy startup.

Handshake, a Gen Zers recruitment agency, recently asked business school students what they wanted most in a future employer. As Welch reports, a staggering 85% wanted “stability” and only 29% named a “fast growing company” as their first choice.

Their favorite travel destinations also indicate a desire for old-fashioned ways of doing business, even with low taxes or a warm climate. The five most interesting cities for these groups were New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Washington, DC and Chicago – home of gray flannel offices. They wanted cosmopolitan cities full of restaurants, nightlife, and public spaces that encourage interaction with other people.

Sure, many people who have worked from home like it and don’t want to commute again. But they may not have much of a choice. Employers are concerned about remote work as engaged collaboration appears to have waned at the start of the crisis. And now that golf courses and restaurants have reopened, employees have places to say goodbye to in the middle of the day. “It’s the numbers,” one executive told the Wall Street Journal.

Working hours may be more hybrid than in the past, but all signs point to more time in an old-fashioned office. Younger workers looking for a social life may like it.

No matter how regulated, there is no place like the office.

Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. She can be reached at [email protected]

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