Salvo 05.16.2023 5 minutes

Cell Block


Zoomers may need a little extra help in getting them ready for work and adult life.

According to a recent report in the New York Post, many members of Gen Z (Zoomers) are lousy employees. A majority (65 percent) of employers say that they’ve had to fire them more often; one out of eight Zoomers were fired from their jobs in the first week; and three out of four employers “say Gen Z is hardest to work with.” Most of the challenges of working with Zoomers are attributed to their general lack of professionalism, excessive sense of entitlement, and most of all, their addiction to smartphones. Apparently, the Zoomers struggle more than the millennials (my generation), who are usually the subject of such generational criticisms: “even Millennials and prior generations understood that you come to work and you do what your employer asks of you.”

Who would’ve guessed that a culture that abhors character development, celebrates mediocrity, and encourages screen addiction from an early age would produce a generation of incompetent young adults who can’t function in the workplace? Who could believe that indoctrinating them with identity politics would make them overly sensitive and impossible to work with? How is it possible that so many people who grew up in broken homes, never had a father, lost their innocence at an early age, had poor mental health, and never practiced religion could be so moody, flaky, and inconsistent?

Having taught Zoomers for most of my career, I could easily predict that many of them would struggle in the work environment. Even the best and brightest of them seemed to fall prey to forces around them, be it the smartphone, social media, negligent parenting, radical propaganda, or the constant infantilizing influence of overindulgent parents and teachers.

Though I’ve written about these problems in more than a few essays, my friend and fellow teacher, writer Jeremy Adams, examines the problem of Gen Z in greater depth in his book Hollowed Out. As the title suggests, he shows that while Zoomers enjoy the most material comfort of any generation, they are spiritually and psychologically impoverished. All the fundamental components of a happy life—friendship, family, civic community, tradition, beauty—are largely absent from their lives. In their place is the smartphone and what’s on it.

Each year with my classes of sophomores and juniors, I encounter the same annoying attitudes from them as today’s employers are encountering. I used to take much of it personally and blame the kids for being abnormally rude and immature, but then I realized that so much of this wasn’t their fault. They have been largely raised to regard their phones as a natural extension of their hands.

As such, in my modest capacity as an English teacher, I use the first few weeks to separate the students from their phones. I talk about it regularly, make them read and write about it, and gradually cultivate the habit of putting the phones out of sight. At first, they’re reluctant, nervous, and irritable—basically going through the withdrawal symptoms of an addict. For most of them, it takes at least a couple of months to sit and listen without constant disruptions from their technology.

It’s only at this point that it becomes possible to guide the students and establish a good rapport with them. Besides teaching them how to read, write, and think, I can teach them how to be human: how to apply and interview for a job, how to ask someone on a date, how to make friends, how to participate in their community, how to take a joke, etc. And yes, I often have to teach them to use appropriate language, respect their superiors, and act like grownups. 

Somehow, this is something that no one ever explains to them, which is probably why the Zoomers spend so much time online. Much of this is mindless compulsive activity like scrolling through social media, but some of it is seeking out information on things they should already know. Often, it takes them a while to understand that the adults in their life, whether it’s me, other teachers, their parents, or their flustered employers are almost always more helpful than their favorite influencers online.

Of course, not all Zoomers respond well to my guidance, and many will cling tightly to their phones and continue demanding that the world conform to their petulant demands. There’s only so much a teacher or parent can do when everything else in a student’s life works against him. However, it’s always important to try. A little kindness and understanding can go a long way with the great majority of young people.

However, it doesn’t end there. One final thing that employers need to consider is what they they really need from their employees and why they need it. It may be important to communicate ideas clearly, follow deadlines, and show respect to others, but is it really important to use processes that are obsolete, complete tasks that are unnecessary, or deal with needless inconveniences that inhibit one’s wellbeing and potential? Is it fair to demand that younger employees respect the corporate hierarchy when older employees routinely flout it?

Again, I had to come to terms with this reality in my classes. I used to believe that students should simply do what I ask because I was the teacher and I knew best—after all, this was what I learned growing up. Needless to say, this kind of mindset frequently generated a stressful atmosphere in the class and led to more than a few power struggles where I would repeatedly confront students for being on their phone, not doing their work, or talking out of turn.

If I were an employer, I could just fire these kids. But because I was a teacher and would see these students the next day, I needed to reconsider what my approach was and what I was asking of my students. Besides recognizing that I needed to be nicer to them, I also realized that what I asked was not always reasonable, helpful, or interesting. If students had no other incentive to complete their work or listen to me other than “because I said so,” it was understandable that they would start questioning the purpose of my class or school in general.

It shouldn’t be too much to expect employers to reevaluate what they ask of their employees. For every story I hear of a clueless employee making messes on the job, I hear five stories of clueless managers also making messes while also expecting their subordinates to clean it up for them—this is why satires that feature stupid bosses like The Office, Office Space, and Dilbert resonate so well with audiences. Instead of waiting in vain for the perfectly trained employee to work for them, these executives may want to look in the mirror and see if the perfect employee would even be enough for what they have in mind.

Overall, the process of welcoming Gen Z into the workforce should be practical, reasonable, and above all, humane. Sure, we can share our frustrations of working with a new generation of adults who relate to the world differently than we do, but we should also be willing to share solutions. All is not lost for Gen Z. They’re people who want what any human being wants: meaningful work, community, and fair treatment.

The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.

The American Mind is a publication of the Claremont Institute, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, dedicated to restoring the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life. Interested in supporting our work? Gifts to the Claremont Institute are tax-deductible.

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