A generation in crisis, positioned to drive change

The COVID-19 pandemic has sparked the sharpest change to the way we conceptualize the workforce and the workplace in a generation — possibly ever. As businesses discard orthodoxies and respond to shifting realities posed by the pandemic, the newest entrants to the workforce are well positioned to leave their mark. Combined with other demographic shifts and increased attention to pressing issues like climate change, we may ultimately look back at this time as a watershed moment that Generation Z workers helped drive.

“As businesses discard orthodoxies and respond to shifting realities posed by the pandemic, the newest entrants to the workforce are well positioned to leave their mark.”

Generation Z generally refers to the successor generation to millennials. While anyone born between 1981 and 1996 is a millennial, anyone born from 1997 onward is part of this new generation. As a group, Gen Zers face disproportionate anxiety and economic hardship within this pandemic.  But crises and opportunities are often more aligned than we realize, and it’s worth looking at the role this cohort of students and young professionals can play in shaping the future of work. The financial crisis of 2008 can be of help in understanding this.

Ten years ago, North America began seeing the impacts of a post-recession economy following sustained declines in economic activity and irreversible hits to manufacturing. Over the course of the decade, retirement age increased, and millennials, who at the time were the most ethnically diverse generation Canada had ever seen, inherited a better labour environment than their parents had. The participation of women in the labour force grew and the level of education increased. There was hope.

Millennials helped shape that post-recession economy. Their entrepreneurial spirit led to the influx of start-ups in American cities like Palo Alto, Calif., and New York, as well as closer to home in Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto. This influx changed the business landscape and resulted in some aspects of start-up culture — such as remote work, unlimited vacation days, and more casual dressing — trickling into the corporate world.

For many workers on Toronto’s Bay Street, and in centres of industry across the country, the concept of a true 9-5 work day dissipated. Desk phones started to become obsolete and the notion of having a corner office was no longer something to aspire to. Mobile technology enabled these changes that added to efficiency, but made checking out at the end of the day far more difficult.

While millennials were not the predominant managers of this shift, they were more adept at it than their older colleagues. As the recent graduating classes of Gen Zers begin to infiltrate the corporate world, they too stand to benefit from their adaptability, digital literacy and comfort with the evolving corporate culture that millennial entrepreneurs helped create.

For the first time in history, we see a generation that entered the workforce with none of the technological supports we use today (including the internet, modern computers or cell phones) working alongside the first fully digital generation. Older generations have had to teach themselves and each other how to incorporate these new technologies into their day-to-day lives, especially during this pandemic. Gen Zers, on the other hand, have never known a life without these technologies.

The norms Gen Zers were raised with have become the only road forward since the pandemic forced organizations to shift to work-from-home arrangements. Boomers and Gen Xers, who may not be as technologically advanced, have been forced to adapt to this new era of remote working. This embracing of technology, which in some cases may have caused tension among the generations, may ultimately level the playing field between digital and non-digital natives.

Even before the pandemic, more companies were looking at ways to incorporate flexible workdays and remote work into their regular environment. But COVID-19 accelerated this thinking and showed employers and larger companies that there may be lasting potential for employees to work from home more often.

Gone are the days when fancy and expensive offices were the norm. Such offices are being replaced by a new way of working that emphasizes flexible arrangements and results in lower operation costs. This will permit companies to focus on investing in the best new technologies, and will open up a new pool of recruits able to benefit from the added flexibility.

Despite this influence and these overwhelming trends in their favour, millennials who entered the workforce at the height of the 2008 recession and Gen Zers entering the workplace now have experienced a common financial and social insecurity. According to a 2019 report conducted by the American Psychological Association, young adults new to the workforce tend to have the highest average stress levels of any generation. Some of these people, especially those who live alone or are new to a city, have come to depend on the human interaction that comes from working in an office space.

This period of rapid change has not been easy, but for some there is an unprecedented opportunity to not only thrive in this environment but to help shape the years ahead. Employers are increasingly required to pay attention to the values of Gen Z and how they may inform their employment decisions.

According to Forbes, Gen Z consumers and recruits look for companies that support green policies and human rights. A decade ago, millennials were starting to think the same way, but companies were not aligning their corporate social responsibility objectives with their business objectives in the same way. That was okay, then.

That institutional reluctance appears to be giving way. Bay Street is embracing anti-plastic movements and climate change summits, and is dedicating resources to green initiatives. According to research from the Canadian Centre for the Purpose of the Corporation, 78 per cent of Canadians think Canadian businesses should do more for the betterment of society. The landscape of corporate Canada is changing: companies are facing intense pressure to improve not only share value performance, but social performance as well.

Just as previous watershed moments impacted other generations, this pandemic will undoubtably be a defining event for Gen Z. While it will shape the way generations across the board work, it will have the most lasting impact on the future of the workforce for this group.

When people look to the future of the workplace, they look to automation, market trends and public policy. In addition to all of this, they should be looking out for Gen Z.

Vaccine arrival is a jab in the arm for political leaders

On Tuesday, 90-year-old Margaret Keenan became the first patient outside of clinical trials to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, a few short days after the U.K. became the first country to approve the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine. Keenan’s jab brought with it a collective sigh of relief from every corner of the world as the moment we have all impatiently awaited arrived at last.

Throughout the British Isles, the deepest sigh of relief came perhaps from Downing Street, where Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s political fortunes were reversed with the prick of a needle.

After nine months of a gruelling, unrelenting and frequently mismanaged battle with the pandemic, Johnson’s Conservatives have finally delivered Britons their first victory. What’s more, the start of vaccinations gave British Tories an opportunity to champion the National Health Service — the crown jewel in the welfare state their party is so often accused of wanting to dismantle.

Indeed, Johnson wasted no time in appearing at a London vaccination centre in front of the NHS logo, celebrating his country’s status as the first nation to receive the vaccine. This is a distinction he is unlikely to allow his party, his voters or his opposition in Parliament to forget anytime soon.

The victory arrives in the nick of time. This weekend sees his other priority project — Brexit — sliding toward the cliff edge with no deal in sight.

But if Johnson is the poster child for politicians riding the high of a vaccine — perhaps all the way to a general election — he is certainly not the only one.

In capitals around the world, political leaders have, with varying degrees of success, pinned their own political fortunes to the arrival and successful rollout of a vaccine. Who can blame them? After almost a year of unrelenting bad news, what politician wouldn’t want to own the solution, regardless of their limited role in it?

In the United States, President Trump has for months promised to develop a vaccine at “warp speed.” To his credit, many laughed when he said we would have a vaccine by the holidays

This week, Trump was elated to emerge from his self-imposed confinement in the White House to posture in front of his “Operation Warp Speed” signs. While he celebrated his incredible, fantastic, amazing efforts to bring a vaccine to American shores —single-handedly, it seems — he stunningly ignored the news that the total number of infected Americans passed 15 million.

The video introducing the event was an opportunity for Trump and his team to manipulate and decontextualize the words of vaccine timeline skeptics, like Dr. Fauci. In mocking his naysayers among the country’s top public health officials, the president managed to further undermine respect and trust in the very people responsible for rolling out a vaccine in the coming months.

Unsurprisingly, the people at Pfizer and Moderna — who we actually have to thank for the vaccine — declined the invitation to join Trump’s grotesque performance, which inevitably declined into bellyaching about the election that was stolen from him.

Befitting the spoiled brat he has proven to be, the president was unable for even an hour to recognize the struggles or celebrate the achievements of anyone but himself. So it goes.

If Johnson’s vaccine politicking constituted a shot across his opponents’ bow, Trump’s was a volley of cannons straight at their hull.

At home, it remains to be seen how our own political leaders will fare in their vaccine politics. Thus far, Trudeau and his cabinet seem reluctant to tie their fortunes to the successful rollout of a vaccine, except to say that every Canadian will be inoculated in due course.

After a confusing and rocky start, the Liberals seemed to get their sea legs this week with the news that Canada will become the third nation to begin inoculating its citizens. But the hard work of securing more doses and rolling them out has only just begun.

With a potential election looming just around the corner, Trudeau had better hope that his team sticks the landing — because there is no inoculation that can keep a minority government alive forever.

Hold the Line (w/ Jen Gerson)

This week, host Amanda Galbraith speaks to Canadian writer and founder of The Line, Jen Gerson. The two unpack today’s media climate, the biggest issues facing Canadian writers and the motivation for breaking away from the norm to start The Line. Then, the two go head-to-head in our rapid fire round on the vaccine, lockdown and Jen’s… interesting… holiday recipe.

The true cost of Trump’s election shenanigans

Amid all the bluster of Donald Trump’s persistent, pathetic and frankly anticlimactic simulacrum of a power grab, it is easy to forget just how much is at stake.

For weeks, we’ve seen the president and his attorneys wheel out their sock puppets to show-and-tell the nation their conspiracy theories of election fraud — with all the rhetorical and legal prowess of a fourth-grade holiday pageant. Even though they have been tossed out of court after court, the freakish tragicomedy of it all is causing real, lasting damage.

What’s more, unlike the damage Trump has wrought on some of America’s more resilient institutions (the courts, the Justice Department, the intelligence community), this farce strikes at the heart of an already weakened facet of public life: faith in democracy.

At a time when so many Americans feel either disillusioned or entirely removed from the process by which their leaders are chosen, the president’s campaign has further undermined the most sacred aspect of secular life.

Every few years, in democracies around the world, citizens of every walk of life journey to community centres, places of worship and schools to participate in a ritual that binds us all. In doing so, they pay testament to their belief in the promise of modern democracy. They believe that their votes, cast in those musty halls and church basements, will be counted fairly, without fear or favour — and that our leaders will accept the result.

That promise is an article of faith. The very bedrock of our democracy.

Yes, many Americans have changed the channel on Trump and Rudy Giuliani’s noxious lies. But as they spin malignant fables about Dominion Voting Systems and a conspiracy among Georgia Republicans, remember: voters are watching. America is watching. Perhaps worst of all, the world is watching

First, voters. Prior to the 2020 election, which saw nearly unprecedented voting figures, the U.S. had fallen behind most developed democracies in voter turnout. This trend has been driven by a number of factors, not least of which being the determined efforts of state legislatures to disenfranchise and disillusion certain voting populations — especially in urban districts and among Black Americans.

This reality is troubling in itself, but it also points to an incredibly fragile democracy which is further imperiled by Trump’s efforts to convince Democrats and Republicans alike that the election game — like so many others in his alternate reality of America — is rigged against them.

Second, the nation as a whole. As the U.S. enters a year that could present even greater challenges and cause for division than 2020, it needs resolute leadership and a federal government that can genuinely work to unite Americans. That will be no easy task for Joe Biden’s administration, but it will be made even harder by the implications of Trump’s fraudulent claims of a “stolen” election.

Recent polling shows that upwards of 70 per cent of those people who voted for Donald Trump genuinely believe that Biden’s win is illegitimate; that the election was, indeed, stolen from Trump. If that’s the case, Biden’s aims of unity and reconciliation are dead even before he raises his hand and takes his oath of office. Those voters will simply never accept him as their president. It will be Obama redux, with the result being even less appetite for bipartisanship and even less getting done in Washington.

Finally, the rest of the world.

It will take years to mend the damage Trump has done to international relationships, global co-operation and general comity among allies.

Since Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points, U.S. diplomatic strength has relied on a sense of exceptionalism rooted in the morality and stability of American democracy. Now that the president’s actions are more befitting a Kim than a Kennedy, it will be that much harder for the State department to scold Russia, Iran or the many despots whose actions it routinely condemns in the UN. “Look,” they will say, “you’re just like us.”

In the end, we can take comfort in the fact that Trump’s efforts will fail. But we cannot lose sight of the very real damage he will have inflicted — and the work it will take to clean up his mess.