How the Young View Work

By Sheryl Teoh

February 2023 COVER STORY
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MILLENNIALS AND GEN Zs are the largest age cohorts in the workforce; according to Statista, they now make up approximately 75% of Malaysia’s labour force.[1]

Given their increasingly significant roles in the economy and in society, it is also more and more difficult to disregard the worldviews, values, attitudes and motivations of these groups.   

However, divides are commonplace in interactions between people of different ages (as is true for those of different socio-economic backgrounds, ethnicities, cultures and nationalities).  Stemming most of the time from a lack of understanding, the end results are often negative stereotypes, bigotry and feelings of disdain for each other, if left unchecked.

Growing up a millennial, I have been exposed to a myriad of negative stereotypes held of my age group. Called “the strawberry generation” in Chinese, referring to our apparently weak and easily bruised attitudes in life, and “snowflakes” in the West, also in relation to our supposed lack of resilience and ease of being offended, I have long pondered the truth of these unattractive labels.

While some of my peers react by rejecting their own age cohorts and joining in the age bashing, I find myself deeply relating to the millennial experience. Just as I am quintessentially Leo (although quite the opposite of drama- and attention-loving, I am told) and quintessentially INTJ (an MBTI personality type), I am also quintessentially millennial.

What this means, according to the countless articles on the Internet and according to my own observations of peers my age, is that I am open-minded, creative, assertive and technologically-savvy. Career-wise, I am said to value passion, meaning and interest over money (I am an Ancient Greek and Roman history major, against the initially vehement objections of my well-meaning parents), crave work-life balance and flexibility, seek learning and guidance, and enjoy fruitful collaborations – all accurate descriptions.  

In conversations with parents, older relatives, colleagues and bosses, I am often struck by just how differently we see the world, our places in the world and what we want from the world and can offer in return. This is nowhere near revelatory – the social, political, economic and cultural climate in a person’s formative years can vastly shape all the aforementioned. But ultimately, there is no right or wrong; what matters is mitigating these differences through deep listening, empathy and acceptance.  

What Do Millennials and Gen Zs Want?       

R/Malaysia, a subreddit “for Malaysia and all things Malaysian” on Reddit, a social news website and forum, was abuzz one morning in January after hoteliers (represented by the Malaysian Association of Hotels, Malaysian Association of Hotel Owners and Malaysia Budget and Business Hotels Association) published a joint statement to express their disappointment that the hotel industry had not been included as a critical sector in the Human Resources Ministry’s plans to ease foreign worker recruitment processes.[2]

They face problems recruiting new talents, the joint statement claims, “as the younger generation, the Gen Zs, prefer gig economy jobs and tend not to prefer working long hours despite overtime pays.” The statement went on to say that previously employed hotel staff that were displaced because of the pandemic were not keen on rejoining, having already built their careers in other sectors during the lapsed period.

The comment section of the post went hot, with many condemning the authors for placing the blame on the Gen Zs, when the pay offered was not commensurate with the hard labour and long hours required.

Albeit grossly over-generalised and accusatory in overtone, the joint statement highlights what researchers have been saying for years. PricewaterhouseCooper’s (PwC) Millennials at Work reports that the younger generations in Malaysia are very concerned about the earning potential of their jobs. They are no longer willing to work hard for paltry sums in dead-end jobs with little or no chance for career development.

In its survey, the top five factors that make an organisation attractive to Malaysian millennials are: competitive wages and financial incentives; good benefits packages; opportunities for career growth; excellent training and development programmes; and flexible working arrangements.

Most Malaysian employers do not live up to the younger generations’ expectations. As costs of living and inflation soar at unprecedented rates, the mean monthly salary and wages of millennial and Gen Z employees (aged 14 to 44) in Malaysia range between a meagre RM1,659 and RM3,637.[3] According to Bank Negara Malaysia’s 2018 Economic Development report, real starting salaries, which factor in inflation, also declined for those with tertiary education between 2010 and 2018.[4]

That said, younger employees seem well prepared to make compromises – only 28% of those interviewed said they did not make any compromises when accepting their current jobs; others took a lower salary than expected, had to work away from their preferred locations or accepted a job with fewer benefits than they had hoped for.

How Is This Impacting the Working World and Corporations?

In July 2022, on TikTok (a platform as apt as it gets), Zaid Khan, a 20-something-year-old engineer talked about refusing to go above and beyond in his job. “You’re still performing your duties, but you’re no longer subscribing to the hustle culture mentality that work has to be your life,” he proclaims. The term “quiet quitting” has since spread like wildfire across social media platforms and was so well-received by the younger generations that it has been picked up and extensively written about by media such as The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Harvard Business Review and Forbes.

Much like the Great Resignation, quiet quitting is rooted in employees feeling underappreciated, underpaid and overworked. While quiet quitters continue to do what they were paid to do, they are more likely to opt out of citizenship behaviours – voluntary commitment within an organisation that is not part of one’s basic job descriptions – such as helping colleagues with their tasks, coming in early or staying late to work or attending non-mandatory work events and meetings. Amid vociferous criticisms against the trend (Kevin O’Leary from Shark Tank took to TikTok to chide, “if you’re a quiet quitter, you’re a loser”)[5], quiet quitters have hit back against detractors to say that they are merely “acting their wage”.

While, in essence, doing exactly what you are paid to do may not sound like too big of a deal, it can ultimately be detrimental to the growth of an organisation – so much so, that Harvard Business Review has published an article about quiet quitting being worse than actually quitting and has since followed up with a barrage of advice for leaders, bosses and management to address the issue.

“Focus on motivating employees to fulfil their core tasks, listen to workers and address their unique needs and create cultures that invite workers to craft their own approaches to citizenship,” it offers.[6] Among other advice gathered from other general management commentators are: providing younger generations with strong coaches and mentors who are invested in their career development; offering a competitive salary; and forging positive employer-employee relationships. “Managers who were rated highest on balancing relationships with results saw 62% of their employees willing to give extra effort and only 3% quietly quitting,” Harvard Business Review says.

In China, a similar movement had also taken shape – some call it the precursor to and genesis of the Western quiet quitting. Rebelling against the gruelling 996 working system practiced by many companies in China, which requires employees to work from 9am to 9pm, 6 days a week, young Chinese employees have taken to the Tang Ping movement.

Tang Ping, or “lying flat” in English, is a protest against societal pressures to overwork, and a rejection of participating in the corporate rat race – often for barely liveable wages. “I have not been working for two years, just having fun and don’t see anything wrong in it. Pressure mainly comes from people around you who position and compete with you, it also comes from the values of the older generation,” writes Luo Huazhong, from whom the movement originated. Seen as a threat to the social and economic stability in China, his post has since been removed by censors, and the movement called “shameful” by Xinhua news,[7] the official state news agency of the Chinese government. Luo, who worked 12-hour shifts in a factory, now takes on odd jobs to make a living, lives with his family and spends his days leisurely reading and working out.

Propelled by their constant search for better pay, benefits and career progression, younger generations are also deemed to be less loyal to their employers compared to previous generations – millennials are called “the job-hopping generation”. Only five percent of millennial employees believe that they will stay with the same organisation for the rest of their careers.[8] According to PwC’s Millennials at Work though, they do not quit willy-nilly; most of the respondents prefer to progress within the same organisation if their needs and goals are met. 

High turnover rates are an organisational nightmare – though many employers might fail to recognise its harm. Studies have shown that employers spend 90 to 200% of an employee’s annual salary on replacing employees,[9] suffer loss of productivity and waste substantial resources on retraining new employees – resources that could have been directed to the growth of the business. 

“The sooner Gen X [and Baby Boomer] employers understand that it is no longer the trend for employees to stay in the same company for long periods of time, the better,” says Wendy Tan, the Business and People Operations Manager of SHC Fasteners. Her Chief Executive Officer, Stephen Tan, proposes that companies “make business processes as automated and efficient as possible in order to keep the process of training new hires simple, because constantly training new hires is going to be a big part of owning a business, whether you like it or not.”

What Do Employers Think of the New Work Trends?

“Employees are always expecting a raise and a bonus, and yes, it is our responsibility to give – but what if they don’t deliver? We can’t justify giving them a raise if they do the same thing year-in and year-out without any improvement,” explains Gary Teoh, Managing Director at Auto-City. "However, we also do annual assessments of our employees to provide opportunities for growth, and encourage and support them to take on additional or new challenges. We are happy to approve a raise as long as we see progress in their contributions to the company."

In a time when massive open online course (MOOC) providers saturate the education market, employees now have a slew of platforms which offer all kinds of online courses, such as Coursera, Udacity and edX, to choose from. These MOOC providers partner with top universities and educators to offer interactive online courses where students can reskill and upskill themselves. In fact, many who desire career changes can simply attend these online courses to learn the trade and switch careers using these accreditations.

Lydia Lim, now in her late-twenties, is an economics major and worked in risk management. A year into her first job, she felt unchallenged and demotivated by the lack of career advancement in her company, and decided to pivot back to a data-related career. “Data Science was unheard of during my time in university and I had a rude awakening – my skills were inadequate for a current career in data! It took a few months of self-studying on Udemy to pick up Python and SQL before I felt confident enough to start applying to data jobs.” She now leads a team in an established Fintech company and feels that she is on the right career track.

Dato’ Alexander Isaac, the owner of Tropical Charters, is implementing changes in his organisation to adapt to new working trends and workforce changes, such as listening and being open to new ideas, especially in marketing and administration, offering flexible hours and not micromanaging. “I am glad that I started this process back in 2019. It is definitely challenging, and supervision is required to ensure all meet their tasks.” To tackle employee disengagement, he initiated team bonding every four months to remind them that they are part of a bigger team.

Stephen Tan also adopts a give-and-take approach with his workers. “My employees make up the company so whatever my employees need, if they are well within reason, I will always try my best to do whatever I can to assist them.” That said, no organisation can keep all their employees happy, says Wendy Tan. Some also take very real issues out of context and ask companies for too much, often without having the proper qualifications and performance results to back them up.

Are Generational Labels Constructive?

To be sure, there are many criticisms levelled against generational labels, which assign shared beliefs, values and attitudes to age cohorts, as frivolous and unreliable at best and promoting finger-pointing and discrimination at worst. While there are definite research limitations to segmenting people by the era and period they were born in and can be over-generalised and homogenised, they can also, as Kim Parker, Pew Research Center’s director of social-trends research, say, be a useful tool for understanding demographic trends and shifting public attitudes.[10]

For companies that are eager to attract and retain younger talents, understanding them and what their hopes and aspirations are have become increasingly important. Aside from Pew Research Center, consulting firms such as Deloitte and PwC regularly survey millennials and Gen Zs as part of their global study into the future of people management to provide business leaders with insights into the minds and behaviours of the younger generations.

Ultimately, bridging the generational gap is a two-way street. “Older generation employers need to be open to the new ideas of the younger generations. The younger generations should also understand the current practices and cultures of the employers, for example, why things are done the way they are before they ask for changes,” says Gary Teoh. In essence, these differences should be dealt with the same way any relationship conflict is.

While some newer work cultures and transitions may be hard for older generations to comprehend, a New Yorker article calls it “the first step of a younger generation taking their turn in developing a more nuanced understanding of the role of work in their lives. Before we heap disdain on their travails, we should remember that we were all once in this same position.”[11]










[9] Hom PW and others, ‘Reviewing Employee Turnover: Focusing on Proximal Withdrawal States and an Expanded Criterion.’ (2012) 138 Psychological Bulletin 831



Sheryl Teoh

holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from Linfield College, a liberal arts college in the United States, and majored in History with a focus on Classical Greece and Rome. Her interests include the study of philosophy as well as a range of humanities and socio-political issues.