While most DEI conversation centers on visible identities such as race or gender, a growing number of agencies are focusing closely at another important “identity” – age. And one group of employees – the youngest set – is facing their own set of difficulties and challenges that needs to be part of the DEI conversation.
As Generation Z, defined as people born between the years 1996 and 2013, floods the workforce, they’re bringing with them a unique set of skills, and new expectations that have implications for how ad agencies handle diversity, equity and inclusion for their workforces.
Generation Z is entering the workforce while experiencing serious mental health concerns. These include an increased prevalence of substance use disorders, suicidal thoughts, and ongoing grief from the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, which began right as many members of Gen Z were entering the workforce for the first time.
In part due to their heightened mental health challenges, members of this generation also have concerns about burnout, with 42% of Gen Z employees reporting that burnout and lack of work-life balance would lead them to quit their job, according to a survey conducted by TalentLMS. Burnout prevention is particularly relevant for ad agencies, who often expect long working hours and quick responses to work-related communication.
When it comes to inclusivity, addressing the rightful concerns of younger employees has to be part of the age conversation. Members of Gen Z are not immune to adverse treatment based on age: 73% say they have experienced discrimination at work, according to a report from CIPHR, describing the discrimination as patronizing attitudes and dismissing input from younger employees.
Moreover, Generation Z has different expectations of what work is and should be. They’re demanding more equitable workplaces.
Part of this is because of who they themselves are. Members of Generation Z are more racially and ethnically diverse than any preceding generation, according to Pew Research, and recent polling data from Gallup finds that one in five Gen Z adults identify as part of the LGBTQ community. This demographic shift sets up the potential for disconnect between a diverse group of younger workers and agency leadership, which still skews disproportionately white and male. Almost 20% of current college students studying advertising describe the ad agency industry as “racist” and “male-dominated.” Perhaps because of their generation’s diversity, members of Gen Z value commitments to workplace DEI initiatives. 77% of Gen Z employees want to work for an organization that prioritizes DEI, and 76% define an ideal workplace as one that employs “caring, socially conscious people,” according to a report from TalentLMS.
Hiring young talent is often a priority at agencies, in many cases because of a pervasive belief that younger people possess an inherent understanding of technology and trends that is valuable to agency business. But it’s important to point out that young talent is also much cheaper than older talent, and if agencies do not properly compensate and support their youngest employees, we can expect to see a wave of Generation Z employee burnout, contributing to ongoing agency turnover.
The pandemic also created some specifically unique issues that affect how Gen Z works.While Gen Z represents the most highly educated generation to date, some areas of their professional development may have been negatively impacted by the pandemic’s shift to all-remote communication and working environments. A little under half of Gen Z employees believe that they are not adequately prepared for the workplace, and almost a third have not received any sort of on-the-job training to fix this discrepancy, as covered in the TalentLMS report. Investing in professional development and training programs may be one way for agencies to support this employee demographic.
This phenomenon is not new. Back when millennials were the youngest generation of employees, agencies encountered similar challenges. Millennials voiced concerns about inadequate compensation, a lack of meaningful assignments and professional development, and excessive micromanaging, per Digiday. More recent Digiday reporting, published right as the first group of Gen Z students were graduating college and hitting the job market, found that younger employees were experiencing higher levels of job burnout, often due to a sense that they could never fully disconnect from their jobs. This feeling of being “always on” is pervasive in the ad industry, but it is also uniquely heightened among younger generations, who grew up constantly connected to smartphone and email technology and may have more trouble setting work/life boundaries.
Playbook: What agencies can do
As agencies look to hire a new crop of fresh Gen Z college grads, there are crucial considerations to keep in mind if they want to best support and retain these younger employees:
- A key area of Gen Z support: mental health. Members of Gen Z report experiencing emotional distress at twice the levels reported by millennials and Gen Xers, and three times the levels of baby boomers, reports McKinsey. The TalentLMS report also found that Gen Z’s mental health is being directly impacted by their work, with 31% of Gen Z employees reporting that they find it difficult to cope with work-related pressure and stress.
- To support Gen Z employees, agencies are going to have to shore up their mental health systems – 50% of Gen Z employees want workplace training on how to handle stress, and over 8 in 10 believe it is important for workplaces to offer mental health days in addition to sick days.
- Agencies are going to need to step up their DEI game to recruit and retain Gen Z employees. The Journal of Advertising Education study found only 40% of current advertising students describe working at an ad agency as their “dream job.”
Layoffs and DEI implications
As tech stocks continue to plummet and various tech companies implement hiring freezes or layoffs (including Netflix, which is experiencing a decline in subscriptions for the first time), there may be significant fallout in terms of employee diversity and tech DEI initiatives, as covered last week by Insider.
As an economic slowdown appears to loom, what this means for DEI initiatives at agencies is up for debate. For agencies, staffing up and down depending on business is common. Layoffs disproportionately impact entry-level and younger employees, who are more likely to identify as female and people of color. When an organization cuts costs, DEI programs are also often the first on the chopping block. As the economic future continues to remain uncertain, agency DEI initiatives may be more at risk.
The Great Resignation is not impacting all employees equally. As more agencies shift back towards expecting employees to work full-time in the office, women are quitting their jobs en masse, prompting WorkLife to describe the attrition as a “female flexidus.” Last week, we covered the importance of providing flexible work options to retain female employees and particularly female employees of color. If agencies wish to remain competitive in attracting scarce female talent in today’s hot job market, they might do well to revise their policies in this area.
Rise of pleasanteeism
You may have heard of “presenteeism,” the bias in which managers tend to reward employees who are physically present in the office, as opposed to those working remotely. Workplace analysts are now examining the emergence of “pleasanteeism,” the concept that employees are always expected to put on a happy face and display their best selves, regardless of any work pressure and/or economic stress they may be experiencing, as reported by WorkLife. Promoting a “good vibes only” or “just stay positive” type of attitude within an agency office culture could have serious negative effects on employee mental health, as employees continue to suffer in silence and believe they are alone in their anxiety.
Why agencies need diverse creatives
A recent report from Unstereotype Alliance, an ad industry initiative with a mission to eradicate harmful stereotypes in media and advertising, finds that a lack of creatives from underrepresented backgrounds is a crucial factor in agencies avoiding putting out ads that accurately reflect the country’s demographic diversity. 36% of marketing employees reported that a lack of diverse talent is a significant obstacle to creating ads portraying communities of color or other underrepresented groups, as people who do not identify as members of those groups have a pervasive fear of “getting it wrong.” Hiring a more representative creative team could be one way to alleviate this issue.
We’re also reading:
- On the anniversary of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of police, advertising leaders reflect on how far the industry has come since Floyd’s killing and how much progress remains, per Campaign.
- Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) employees are not a monolith and the ad industry needs to educate itself on how to better support this group, as covered by AdWeek and Campaign.
- Nina Austin, associate creative director at Cashmere, on creating room for Black women in the industry, per Muse by Clio.