WTF   //   January 10, 2024

WTF is the Great Negotiation?

The youngest generation of workers is adamant about doing things differently in the workplace. They’re rejecting norms like staying in the office past 5 p.m., or coming in sick when they know they probably shouldn’t. They’re redefining traditional career paths and seeking to do work they find meaningful. And they appear far less loyal to the organizations they work for as job hopping becomes more normalized. 

They’re also no strangers to financial insecurity, as the cost of living continues to rise and many turn to side hustles or other ways to not only gain new income streams but explore their personal interests. What makes them different from previous generations (who hold many of the same values) is their open expression of their discontent and eagerness to change things, experts say. 

It’s given rise to a new term that describes this next era of workers and their attitudes to working on their terms: “the great negotiation.”

Bradley Schurman, founder and CEO of Human Change, a workplace analytics company, coined the term in a recent LinkedIn post. “Companies will need to rethink their concept of employee loyalty now that a 9-to-5 job on its own no longer offers the kind of economic promise it once did,” he wrote.

So what exactly does this younger generation of workers want to negotiate with their bosses, and how does that square with the reality of what businesses are willing to offer? Here’s an explainer:

What are they negotiating exactly?

While pay raises remain important to younger workers they are highly focused on negotiating their working conditions and how they impact their lives outside of work. “It’s much more than just salary negotiation, it’s about work-life balance, flexibility, the opportunity to work from home,” said Robert Garcia, vp of coaching in organizations for the International Coaching Federation.

The bottom line is that not only are their full-time jobs not paying enough, but they feel they aren’t fulfilling and are more demanding than ever. And it’s not exclusively a formal negotiation, but also a movement of collective resistance. 

“There’s a reason why we aren’t back to full-time 9-to-5 office work in this country — it’s because workers are saying we don’t want to do that, we’re not getting compensated enough,” Schurman said. 

“Time seems to be one of the biggest things that people want, time and flexibility, and this isn't just for Gen Z, this is for all generations."
Bradley Schurman, founder and CEO of Human Change.

So how should employers respond?

Schurman says businesses have two options: to either maintain the status quo or listen to workers and attempt to pivot to meet their needs. “Time seems to be one of the biggest things that people want, time and flexibility, and this isn’t just for Gen Z, this is for all generations,” he said.

Experts have said the discontent young workers feel comfortable expressing is – for the most part –related to areas of work that past generations may have felt, but rarely voiced. But vocalizing these same concerns could, be beneficial for all generations, some say. 

Schurman believes that a major driver for this heightened tension today is a widening gap between employees’ economic realities and employers’ expectations. “If employers and employees can’t bridge this widening gap — by embracing flexibility around when and where we work, establishing renewed trust between managers and their staff, and addressing long-standing unrest over pay and other labor conditions  — we will all suffer the economic consequences,” he wrote in his original post. 

How likely are they to get what they want?

Managing expectations can sometimes be a tall order, and for this generation that can go doubly so. The reality of what employers can provide, to meet the expectations of this generation, often is dependent on the size of the employer, their culture, and what their overall policies are for the rest of the organization.

But Gen Z workers are expected to outnumber Baby Boomers in the full-time workforce this year, according to a report from Glassdoor, and their bargaining power as a collective will also likely rise in the coming years. Employers will have to accept the shifting concept of loyalty as more of those workers enter full-time roles, experts say.

“Even as labor market dynamics continue to shift – from the Great Resignation to the Great Stay to the Great Negotiation – one thing that remains consistent is that an organization’s success is dependent on the satisfaction and motivation of its employee,” Kristen Leverone, managing director of leadership development at talent solutions provider LHH.

“The most effective leaders will be those who are able to acknowledge all of the outside factors that contribute to the success and loyalty of their workers, and offer new ways to support them rather than adding more concern to their plates,” Leverone said. 

Employers should pay special attention to the development opportunities they provide younger workers during this time to foster engagement, and support staff in learning new skills and advancing in their roles, even if they do end up leaving their organizations. 

“To build meaningful employee loyalty that persists through tough economic times, senior leaders must invest in setting workers up for success not only within the organization, but throughout their careers,” Leverone said. 

“In today’s economic climate, having a side-hustle does not inherently mean that your employees are unloyal or distracted from their day-to-day responsibilities."
Laurie Chamberlin, head of recruitment solutions, North America at LHH.

Should employers worry that Gen Z workers have side hustles that divert their focus?

Side hustles have traditionally been positively associated with entrepreneurship, but news headlines last year occasionally pointed to some of the potential downsides for employers. Namely, that having a side hustle can mean an employee’s focus isn’t solely on their day job. But talent experts say employers will simply have to be more open to younger workers having multiple jobs.

“In today’s economic climate, having a side hustle does not inherently mean that your employees are unloyal or distracted from their day-to-day responsibilities,” said Laurie Chamberlin, LHH’s head of recruitment solutions, North America.

“In most cases, workers are either looking for additional income to support the growing cost of living or exploring alternative avenues for growing their professional footprint,” Chamberlin said. 

Managers and business leaders will need to expect that employees will continue to seek out new opportunities to learn new skills, progress their careers and add to their bottom line income, she stressed. 

“Providing employees with more opportunities to learn, grow and profit from skill development can help employers build trust and loyalty with workers, which can result in improved retention while also helping companies fill critical gaps in the workforce. This can be done through reskilling, mentoring and providing more flexible work options,” she said.