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Perspective: What Flexibility Means for Younger Workers — and Their Employers

Deseret News

December 14, 2023

Just about all workers say they want flexibility. But older and younger workers differ on what this means.

As we think about the future of work, it’s clear that workers need to have the skills to help them adapt to rapidly changing technology. Many of the jobs today’s young adults occupy didn’t exist 50 years ago, and many jobs they will likely hold over their careers aren’t yet on the drawing board. The “master-skill” of the future, then, lies in the ability to pivot to new opportunities and learn new skills. Flexibility is the workforce watchword.

But flexibility in the labor market also has implications for employers. A recent American Enterprise Institute survey of workers found flexibility in working conditions to be a top concern for just about all workers. For mid-career workers, flexibility typically means choices about where work happens, with many looking for remote and hybrid opportunities. Younger workers also rated flexibility highly, with a staggering 82% of workers between 18 and 29 saying flexibility was a top or near-top concern — but with a twist. Unlike mid- and late-career workers, younger workers have comparatively little interest in remote work. They mean something else. They want to be trusted to do their jobs like older workers are.

Younger workers often feel like second-class citizens in the workplace next to their older colleagues. Part of this feeling relates to the fact that employers tend to trust older workers more. At mid-career, about 78% of survey respondents said their bosses trusted their abilities. Closer to retirement, 84% reported being trusted to do their jobs. Among younger workers, 73% reported that their boss often had faith in their abilities. And only 36% of 18- to 29-year-olds reported being able to take care of personal matters during the workday compared to 46% of those ages 30 to 64.

It’s fair to chalk up some of these differing perceptions and feelings of dissatisfaction to age itself. On measures like job fit, work identity and pay, younger workers consistently lag behind their older colleagues. The survey data shows that work satisfaction is lowest at the beginning of a career and increases as workers gain pay, responsibility and status in the workplace. 

Of course, job dissatisfaction often goes by another name: ambition. In a sense, younger workers, for their own sakes, shouldn’t be too satisfied with their early jobs. They should expect to have frequent job turnovers on the front end of working life as part of the experimental process that leads to higher pay and a satisfying long-term career. Harvard economist David Deming recently published research showing that early work experiences and job changes tend to add to earning potential over time.

This dynamic of discontent, however, does create some challenges for employers managing workforces in a tight labor market. On the one hand, employers want workers who will persist long enough to add value to the enterprise. But keeping talented younger workers around that long probably means taking seriously their concerns about flexibility.

The answer to this dilemma is intentionality on the part of employers in creating clear, “earned” pathways to flexible work arrangements. Employers like Citigroup gradually expose young workers to the benefits and challenges of a flexible remote position and help build their capacity for responsible use of flexibility policies. Ideally, such approaches would be paired with mentoring opportunities that create space for asking questions about navigating company norms around workplace flexibility.

 A flexible job is a two-way street. In the context of shifting technology, employers need workers who are ready, willing and able to adapt to changing skill demands and who approach work with a “growth mindset” that actively pursues new learning opportunities. Flexible working arrangements can be the “give to get” that helps employers attract, retain and develop younger workers.