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Younger workers want training, flexibility, and transparency

To build a workforce for the future, leaders need to understand how priorities are changing among new generations of talent.

A diverse group of young, smiling workers in a conference room

This is the third in a series of articles looking at sentiments among key segments of the workforce, based on PwC’s Global Workforce Hopes and Fears Survey 2022. Previous articles looked at the data regarding in-person and female  workers.

When business leaders look to the future, they need to consider external factors like the market forces shaping their industry. But they also have to take a close look at an important internal factor: the younger people who represent the future workforce. Understanding the wants and needs of younger workers can give companies a clear talent advantage.

What do younger workers want today? According to PwC’s Global Workforce Hopes and Fears Survey 2022, their biggest priorities are training, development, flexibility, autonomy, and transparency on social issues.

The survey was conducted in the spring of 2022 and drew responses from more than 52,000 workers in 44 countries and territories, making it one of the largest workforce surveys ever conducted. Of that group, generation Z workers (ages 18 to 24) comprise 11% of the respondent base, and millennials (ages 25 to 41) make up 46%.

One key distinction among younger workers is that they are more vocal in their demands than their older colleagues. More specifically, they are:

•  Twice as likely to ask for a raise in the next 12 months (with 41% of both gen Z and millennials saying they were extremely or very likely to do so, compared to 20% of baby boomers).

•  More than twice as likely to ask for a promotion in the next 12 months (38% of gen Z and 37% of millennials, compared to 16% of boomers).

•  Three times as likely to switch to a new employer in the next 12 months (27% of gen Z and 23% of millennials, compared to just 9% of the oldest respondents).

These numbers should be alarming to business leaders already facing struggles to retain talent. Younger generations make up the largest segment of the workforce and, as baby boomers retire, will comprise an even larger cohort in the future. If they’re not happy—if they’re told to simply follow orders handed down from the corner office—they will either leave the company, or they’ll stay and post their concerns on social media, leading to internal distractions, lost productivity, and a reputational black eye for their employer.

Conversely, younger workers can be a tremendous resource in providing innovation, creativity, and energy. Companies that engage them in a transparent way can more effectively achieve business objectives, adapt to a fast-moving business environment, and outperform the competition.

Younger workers can be a tremendous resource in terms of innovation, creativity, and energy—provided that companies engage them in a transparent way.

The good news is that, by revealing the priorities of younger employees, the data points a way forward. Companies that understand those priorities and adjust their workforce strategy accordingly can more effectively attract and retain young talent.

A growing demand for the skills needed to succeed

A clear theme in the survey results is that younger workers are more concerned than older workers about having the skills they need to advance in their career. A quarter of gen Z and millennial workers say they are extremely or very worried about being overlooked for development opportunities, compared to just 11% of the oldest cohort. They are also more worried about being replaced by technology, with 38% of gen Z and 34% of millennials citing this as one of their top three career issues, compared to just 19% of boomers.

Perhaps most striking, younger workers are far more likely to be concerned about employers not teaching them the relevant technical or digital skills needed to advance in their career: 44% of gen Z and 43% of millennials named this as one of their top three concerns, compared to 29% of boomers.

Some of these differences may stem from older people already having an established career path—and potentially being closer to the end of their career than the beginning. In addition, some disparities have likely been exacerbated by the pandemic. Consider that employees in their early 20s have never experienced a “normal” working environment in which they show up at an office five days a week. In those environments, it was far easier to gain knowledge from more senior people firsthand and learn informally about what’s required to rise in an organization. In fact, the lack of in-person time at the office has put many younger workers behind in terms of career skills such as in-person communication, problem-solving, and the social and emotional components of work.

Regardless of the root causes, younger workers are sending a clear signal to leaders that they want more training and development, particularly in newer technical and digital skills. And given the (likely permanent) shift to hybrid work, they will need more career guidance, coaching, and mentoring—all of which will require companies to rethink how they can best support remote and hybrid workers and foster a strong learning culture through both in-person and virtual channels. Notably, technical skills are teachable. But softer skills like collaboration, communication, and conflict resolution often are not—and the younger workforce will need to learn these firsthand, through interactions with colleagues.

The flow of skills can also move in the other direction, through reverse-mentoring initiatives that empower younger workers to partner with executives and guide them in areas such as technology or social issues. Reverse-mentoring gives younger workers a voice, builds relationships across generations, and sends a clear signal that younger workers have valuable contributions to offer.

Flexibility and autonomy are paramount

The second broad category of findings concerns employee autonomy. Younger workers have higher expectations than older workers in just about every dimension of this workplace issue:

• Regarding when they work (days or hours), gen Z are 10 percentage points more likely than boomers to say that choice is extremely or very important (51 to 41%).

• Regarding where they work (hybrid, fully remote, in the office), the split is even wider, with gen Z workers 11 points more likely than boomers to say that choice is extremely or very important.

• Regarding how they work, the gap grows to 17 points, with 58% of gen Z (and 63% of millennials) saying that it’s extremely or very important to be able to choose how they do their work in a way that suits them, compared to 51% of boomers.

As noted above, some of these differences could reflect where respondents are in the stage of their career, with older workers having spent several decades in organizations that were more likely to have traditional hierarchies and structures. They’ve taken direction for far longer and are simply used to it.

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But we believe the data shows more profound changes. As in other areas of their lives, younger workers are more likely to ask questions, provide input, and seek to choose their own paths. Companies that want to retain younger talent will need to adapt, by creating new working norms that empower employees with more latitude and autonomy. When crafting hybrid or return-to-the-office policies, companies should engage younger workers and solicit their opinion (akin to how labor unions often have a say in company decisions).

Companies also need to be cognizant of the fact that some younger workers are less willing to put in long hours or give up their nights and weekends for a career. (Witness the “quiet quitting” phenomenon.)  Accordingly, companies should establish clear boundaries regarding working hours and project deadlines, and support people in managing their workload.

Social issues are now workplace issues

Our findings show that social issues are important to younger workers. More than two-thirds of gen Z and millennial workers have conversations with colleagues about topics such as civil rights, racial injustice, and gender equality, compared with 55% of boomers. Moreover, those conversations are more likely to lead to positive outcomes for younger workers—helping them process their views and making them more confident to share them—and less likely to lead to negative outcomes.

Younger generations are also more attuned to climate change, with a higher share of respondents saying that company transparency on the topic is important (54% for gen Z, compared to 45% for boomers). The same holds true for diversity, equity, and inclusion, an issue on which younger workers are also more likely to expect company transparency. Encouragingly, younger workers are more likely to believe that their company is currently being transparent on these topics.

Those findings reflect a broader shift, one that should encourage organizations to factor social issues into their business and take public stances on a broader range of topics, with younger employees treated as a key stakeholders. Decisions about social issues can be fraught at times, but as the awareness of these issues grows, so do the demands, particularly from younger workers, that businesses become part of the solution.

In sum, younger people make up the future workforce at companies, and they have different demands, concerns, and priorities than previous generations. By understanding those shifts and adapting, companies can build the workforce they need to succeed—starting today.

Author profiles:

  • Bhushan Sethi is the joint global leader of PwC’s people and organization practice. Based in New York, he is a principal with PwC US. He is an adjunct professor at New York University’s Leonard N. Stern School of Business.
  • Peter Brown is the joint global leader of PwC’s people and organization practice. He has more than 20 years of experience helping large multinational corporations redefine the way work gets done and create innovative talent ecosystems that build enabled and agile workforces. Based in London, he is a partner with PwC UK.
  • Yalin Zhao is a senior manager in PwC’s people and organization practice. Based in London, she is a senior manager with PwC UK and a World Economic Forum Fellow.
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