Donal Nugent, journalist

While the pandemic has pushed work/life balance higher on the agenda than ever before, many will assume that it is of greatest concern to those with growing families and punishing commutes.

However, research from ACCA reveals that, for the newest generation in Ireland’s workforce – Generation Z (Gen Z) – work/life balance is as much a priority as for anyone else. Ground-breakers: Gen Z and the future of accountancy includes Ireland in a global survey of some 9,000 18-to-25 year olds, and finds that while Covid-19 has raised worries about job security (ranking it higher than concerns about climate change, inclusivity and equality), Gen Z aren’t prioritising it at all costs, but instead are ‘seeking organisations that can provide them with continuous skills acquisition and a good work/life balance’.

Gen Z face the unwelcome distinction of being the first generation in modern Ireland to have a lower standard of living than the previous one

While the trend is a global one, the research notes that ‘Gen Z respondents in Ireland (67%), Singapore (63%) and Malaysia (62%) place particular emphasis on great work/life balance in their employment choice’ as compared to the global average of 50%.

While some may argue this reflects a general shift in priorities in Ireland right now, the ACCA research also finds respondents to be highly self-aware in this regard: ‘85% of Gen Z respondents asserted that valuing “flexibility and work–life balance” is one of the defining characteristics of their own generation’, it states.

Generational shift

Workers of an older vintage may detect some cognitive dissonance in a generation that expects employment to stay within the guardrails of nine to five while also offering ready career advances. The ACCA report confirms that Gen Z see no contradiction here: ‘Those already in employment want progression fast’ it finds, adding that ‘60% expect to move role within two years’ and two-thirds predict promotion as part of this.

However, it will be no surprise to their older colleagues that it is precisely in the environments where long hours are typically the basis of advancement that work/life satisfaction is currently at its lowest for Gen Z (14% in the large accountancy firms, compared with 46% in the public sector).

Well aware of their appeal to a business community in a perennial war for talent, Gen Z are ‘quite happy to take their talents elsewhere if they believe their needs aren’t being met’, the research finds, also revealing just how far they are willing to extend that journey, with two-thirds suggesting that they expect to have multiple careers in different disciplines in the future.

Fault lines

If such optimism appears wide-eyed, it’s important to remember that Gen Z have shaped this fundamentally positive outlook against some less than favourable headwinds. A study by the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) published in May laid bare the generational fault lines they find themselves on the wrong side of. It found workers in their twenties to be earning less, in real terms, than their predecessors in the 1990s and 2000s, while facing spiralling rents and dwindling hopes of home ownership.

The ESRI says that Gen Z face the unwelcome distinction of being the first generation in modern Ireland to have a lower standard of living than the previous one. Compounding the misery, it notes that they have also suffered ‘disproportionately’ from the economic fallout of the pandemic, with employment 14% below pre-pandemic levels for 15-34 year olds, compared with 6% for those aged 35 and above. ESRI economist Barra Roantree noted that ‘policies that act to tackle the root causes of high rents will also disproportionately benefit younger adults who risk otherwise being left behind’.

Up in the air

As the move to reopen society accelerates, the distinct challenges confronting Gen Z look set to become increasingly prominent. Published in March 2021, Our Rural Future shows the Irish government taking an active lead in developing a new vision of work, with quality rural broadband and bespoke working hubs in smaller towns central to its vision.

It’s a dream come true for many, certainly, but one that arguably puts the needs of older generations to the fore. A recent KPMG report highlighted the distinct sense of displacement that Covid-19 has created for Gen Z: ‘Where they live, how they connect to others, whether they enter higher education, where and how they work – all these are up in the air,’ it stated, reminding decision-makers that this age group already accounts for some 40% of the world’s consumers, giving them an influence that they are only beginning to exert.

If the determination to make work/life balance a core value strikes older generations as unusual, they should recognise that Gen Z are also facing a distinctly different set of challenges from their predecessors, and appear acutely aware that career progression in isolation isn’t a salve for them.

Writing about this generation in India, Sandeep Sinha, managing partner of Lumis Partners, shows the universality of this shift when he observes that they are ‘not afraid to settle for anything less than a balanced work/life.’

His prediction for the future in India is one that will chime with the distinct hopes and expectations of Gen Z in Ireland, too: ‘Education, work, and wellness will no longer exist in silos. The next few years will see these three areas disrupt, grow, and integrate more closely to create a more fluid and holistic new world.’

Further information

Read ACCA’s report on Gen Z and the future of the profession

Find out more about career development at the new ‘Rethinking careers’ hub