Ana Bohr has built her career around flexibility.
The 29-year-old has worked in the entertainment industry in Los Angeles for over three years. She picks up freelance and full-time gigs and posts her own content on social media to carve a path for herself without being boxed in.
“I definitely lean more towards the Gen Z culture of trying different things," said Bohr, an assistant to social media personality Noah Beck. “We're not letting anything define us.”
But her bosses didn’t always see things the same way. She and her supervisors in their 40s and 50s had conflicting ideas about what an employee’s work life should look like, she said.
“They view it as 'you're my assistant, and that's all you can do,'” said Bohr, saying they disapproved that she posted about her life and career on TikTok.
In her current job, she works with a younger team that takes what she considers a more open-minded approach to things like dress code. They might wear sweaters and jeans rather than corporate-friendly business attire, for instance, and they don't mind if she works remotely, a change from previous roles.
"They're not like so focused on, like, 'you have to put your hours in 9-to-5 in the office,'" she said.
Bohr is one of many young professionals whose flexible approach to their work lives may differ from previous generations, contributing to widespread stereotypes that Gen Z and millennials have different – and even muddled – priorities.
What’s the common thread?
For example, an April survey of more than 1,300 business leaders and managers commissioned by ResumeBuilder.com found that 74% believe it’s more difficult to work with Gen Z than other generations. Respondents who felt that way cited a lack of technological skills, effort and motivation among those employees born between 1997 and 2012.
The survey also found that 65% said they need to fire Gen Z employees more frequently than other age groups. Millennials have also been the subject of debates around their so-called laziness and entitlement in the workplace.
But employees across the age spectrum have similar work values, according to a poll from Harris Poll exclusive to USA TODAY, even if their approaches – such as the freedom to have a social media side hustle – can vary.
Nearly 3 out of 4 boomers and Gen Xers said they care more about who they are outside of work, according to the Harris Poll survey of 2,117 adults taken Aug. 25-27. Even more millennials (79%) agreed with that statement, along with 69% of Gen Zers.
What’s different is how each generation tries to achieve that balance.
How do Gen Z and millennials achieve the balance?
Henry Green, a 29-year-old software developer in the Chicago suburbs, enjoys his work, but actively tries to resist the “grindset,” where work and long hours always take priority. He puts his laptop in his bag at the end of the workday and generally doesn’t respond to Slack messages outside scheduled hours.
“I see a job as a means to support my life and my hobbies,” said Green, who enjoys tinkering with cars and playing video games.
Before he began setting boundaries for himself, he felt pressure to perform at a high level, which was a detriment to his well-being.
His current employer, however, supports worker efforts to create balance in their lives and encourages them to take mental health days when needed.
Before that change, he was working himself ragged “to be seen as a rock star, you know?”
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How do older workers balance work and life?
Boomers and Gen Xers have defined the work-life balance in blocks of hours.
“I expect people when they’re here to have soul in the game, but I also want people to have a life outside because life’s so much more than your work,” said Vitaliy Katsenelson, a Gen Xer and chief executive of financial services firm IMA in Colorado who says that’s why he tries to avoid calling his employees outside of work hours. “If I call outside of business hours, it’s really an emergency.”
In exchange for those work-free hours, he expects people to be present and fully focused on work. "When you show up to work, you need to work.”
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Have views changed?
Being stuck at home or laid off during the pandemic opened many people’s eyes to remote work, new gigs, and different ways to have it all.
Angela Lande, 36, who worked long, hard hours for eight years to become a general manager in a Panera Bread in suburban Chicago, quit a couple of years ago. She said she was exhausted by the high churn of undedicated workers who were hired during the post-pandemic labor shortage – and left without another job lined up.
At the end of the day, she asked herself: Why am I doing this, and for whom?
Quitting gave her more time to walk her four dogs, which ignited the idea for a business, Angela’s Pet Care.
“People rely on me,” she said, “And I know how important it is to me that I can rely on someone to watch my dogs. It feels more meaningful.”
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While Harrison previously saw work as an extension of his personality – a mindset he attributes in part to the grind of business school – he has since tried to carve out more time for personal pursuits, like a podcast called "Match Made in Manhattan" that he creates with friends.
“That isn't to say that I'm not still passionate about my work," he said. "But … I'm trying to create more of a wall between work and personal life.”
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Still, no one can escape the economy
Even as workers attempt to redefine what work-life balance looks like, they aren’t free of economic pressures.
The Harris Poll-USA TODAY survey shows that with the current economy, 70% of all respondents said the only thing that really matters about a job today is the salary, and a similar share said they’ve chosen a career for the financial security it offers.
Bobby Brown, 25, who works at Dunkin’ in Chicago, appreciates a steady paycheck, which is mostly what has kept him working at the chain since he was 15. He started part-time and became a licensed electrician – but has remained with Dunkin'.
“If a company sends you out as an electrician, it’s also on a contract basis," Brown said. "You can find work but it’s not enough and not as consistent. At least this is consistent.”
Financial security is especially appealing when you have dependents.
Jackie Belloso, 40, a Chicago nanny who immigrated from El Salvador and is a single mom, works long hours to provide for her children, she said. She’s fortunate, though, to love her job.
“I spend most of my day working, and if I didn’t have a good day, obviously, I am not going to be good at home,” she said.
She said the younger generation seems different to her. Her 19-year-old daughter attends Columbia College in Chicago, lives her life, comes home and might sleep until 10 a.m. the next day.
“When I was her age, I got up at 5 in the morning and I had to work” before school in El Salvador, Belloso said. “Maybe it’s because we didn’t have everything we wanted, and they don’t suffer from that.”
Where do we go from here?
Ashley Lundquist, managing partner at recruiting firm Thrive Talent, is optimistic companies will learn and adapt to the workforce’s new ideals.
“Once it was ping pong tables and beer kegs, that doesn’t matter to people anymore,” she said, recalling the tech boom days at the turn of the century. “People want flexibility, security and they’re not willing to waver on that," she continued, adding "and rightfully so in many ways. Oftentimes, there are things that happen that feel or appear not to be great, but they lead to great innovation and great change.”
On the other side, workers will find fulfilling work to keep them going, Katsenelson said. “You basically spend one-third of your life working,” he said. “That one-third of your life, you’re miserable, you’re doing it just to collect the paycheck? What a miserable existence.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Every generation wants work-life balance, they just search differently