Karen Martin, 26, spent the early years of her communications career at leading organisations. She enjoyed her roles, for they offered excitement, money, quick recognition and growth. “But I was caught in a vicious cycle as I went in deeper. I hardly got any leave. My shifts often changed,” says the Bengaluru resident. “I was working from home, but would hardly go out to socialize or meet friends, because my job demanded that I was constantly at my laptop.” Three years ago, she decided to step back and consider whether working with a big agency was worth compromising on her mental and physical health.
In 2020, she kickstarted her entrepreneurial career and established House of Anglo, a specialty Anglo-Indian food service, and Alkemi Media, a PR agency in Bengaluru. “I wanted my own business that had values in place… where people who worked with me had a voice and could be part of an open work culture,” she says.
Like many born from the mid-90s to late 2000s, Martin’s definition of success is different from earlier generations’. For Gen Z or post-millennials, flexibility, work-life balance, diversity, inclusivity, and having an identity beyond work are some serious considerations. In a recent survey of 4,000 working professionals, students and interns between the ages of 18-25 across 13 Indian cities, 64% said they wanted flexible workplace options. The survey, by industrial and services conglomerate RPG Group, and Yuvaa Insight Studio, a youth media organization, found that 61% would accept less money for a workplace that values mental health and inclusivity. Other priorities included harassment policies (44%), menstrual leave (42%), and companies that enable employees to follow their passion (62%).
“The definition of prestigious work is expanding,” says Tanuja Agarwala, human resource management and organizational behaviour professor at Delhi’s Faculty of Management Studies. “While landing an ‘elite’ job in a certain industry (consulting or finance, for example) is still seen as upstream, a high-status job goes beyond high salary.” Money is important, she says, but Gen Z puts more emphasis on autonomy and a creative work environment.
“I need money, but I also need to have the flexibility and independence to work at my own time so that I can explore other interests,” says Isha Pareek, 26, a product manager at a British e-commerce company in Manchester. Pareek moved there from Mumbai five years ago.
For some millennials, a career switch happened after spending their early years working long office hours and then experiencing burnout.
“I switched from being an employee to a consultant because of the additional freedom and flexibility,” says Gurugram-based design strategist and UX/UI consultant Arya Vijayan, 30. She did freelance work alongside her full-time jobs earlier, which gave her the confidence to begin consulting two years ago. Consulting has been lucrative for her, but her decision was influenced more by her experiences with companies, where pay increments were not given despite her excelling at work, and long hours took a toll on her. “It’s more work than being an employee, but now I get to do things on my terms, that fits my availability, my mental health.”
Employers who prioritise employee health are a big draw. Pareek’s current workplace has a doctor and physiotherapist on site. “It makes me feel secure that these companies are taking my physical and mental health seriously,” she says. She also values a diverse and inclusive workplace. “I look at how a company is ensuring people from all backgrounds feel included and there is no discrimination. This is important for your psychological safety.
Having time to pursue interests outside of work is also a priority. Enakshi Roy, 34, head of product design at a medical education company, values being able to work remotely from anywhere. She shuttles between Bengaluru, where the company is based, and Bordeaux, where her husband lives and works. Passionate about the environment, she dedicates 40% of her day to volunteering for environmental non-profits. “As long as my job gives me the bandwidth to keep doing this, I’ll always feel like I have a prestige job,” says Roy.
Different generations have different views of work and the role it plays in their lives. “Most people (Gen X and Y) also reach a stage when they realize the importance of balancing work and personal life. These generations, however, have traversed through their career driving towards higher achievement and career success, defined primarily in terms of the level they reach in career ladder, salary drawn, and social status (affording a rich lifestyle),” says Agarwala. She adds that the realization comes after they reach a certain level in their careers—when they look for meaningfulness—after which they redirect their energies to personal fulfilment.
Pareek says adults she grew up around got burnt out from long hours, work dominated their identities. “I feel people my age want to shape themselves as individuals outside their profession as well. I want to take up hobbies and develop skills beyond work for myself and to give my personality more dimension,” she says.
These changing priorities are also noticeable within their social circles. Arya Vijayan says, “For a friend of mine, the environmental impact of a company matters more than getting paid more. Another friend worked at a company with an aggressive competitive environment, like promoting midnight availability as a positive. She switched jobs for a better work-life balance.” Martin has seen her friends choose personal happiness over a hefty pay package. “Some would rather wait a few months without a job, than work somewhere where their mental health is at risk,” she says.
But, would this expansive definition of prestigious work then only apply to those who can afford to not earn monthly? Martin says, “It is a luxury we have when starting our careers. Once we cross 30-35 years, this luxury gets taken away because we have family responsibilities, homeowners, loans, kids, etc. People at that stage may not have the option of seeing whether a company’s values align with their own.”
Gen Z ’s desire for a healthy workplace should now shape organizations’ recruitment strategies and work culture.
Agarwala suggests that companies should provide work that challenges young professionals and encourages creative solutions as they do not want monotony. “They want to work in places that do not impose strict hierarchy; balance career achievement with personal goals; provide autonomy in constructing their work day; and clearly communicate company values and culture, particularly related to social relevance, diversity tolerance, and inclusivity,” she says.
Divya Mohan, chief human resource officer at omnichannel insurance platform InsuranceDekho agrees that there is a shift in Gen-Z’s priorities. “I think a distinct differentiator is their belief in ‘work to live as opposed to live to work’, which was characteristic of the previous generations,” she says. Because Gen-Z is more socially conscious and values social and environmental responsibility in organizations, Mohan suggests engaging them in sustainability initiatives, community involvement, and philanthropic efforts that align with their values.
Roy sums up what a “prestige job” really stands for for today’s young generation: “It’s one that lets me afford the values and lifestyle I dream of. The most important thing to me is to be able to live on my terms, not get too greedy, reduce the carbon footprint, and find meaning and love in what I’m doing.”
Reem Khokhar is a Delhi-based writer.