Will tech addiction mean the rise or demise of the Gen Z workforce?

Taking selfies since toddlerhood.
Taking selfies since toddlerhood.
Image: AP Photo/Steven Senne
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

A few weeks ago, I was at a business awards ceremony. Applauding with everyone else, I watched as winner after winner stepped on stage and made essentially the same speech. “I haven’t seen my wife for two weeks.” “I missed my kid’s school sports day.” “This project has been my life for the last year.”

Each time, it was delivered with a rueful smile. In part, it was a tribute to a significant other who had kept family life on course in their work-induced absence. But they also were wearing it like a badge of honor—a testament to their commitment, diligence, and drive to succeed.

The more I reflected on it, the more I thought about Gen Z, the teens and early 20somethings who will, in three years’ time, make up around 25% of the global workforce.

Born into a digital world and raised during some of the toughest economic times in recent history, Gen Z is ambitious, industrious, and always on, which means if they follow the relentless example of those award winners—people who will likely be tasked with managing them as they enter the labor market—they’re likely to burn out long before they have the chance to fulfill their undoubted potential.

After all, there’s never been a more connected, digitally savvy group. Yet, this natural affinity with technology also comes with a downside. Unless Gen Z—with the help of their employers—makes serious changes to their tech habits, the up-and-coming generation could face serious problems.

On the one hand, Gen Z’s instant access to information breeds knowledge, transparency, and an ability to hold brands and employers to account. All of this can help them lead the charge on vital societal issues, like equal pay and sustainable living. Yet this same freedom of access has created a culture in which they’re forever judging themselves against the picture-perfect lives of others on social media. This inevitably leads to anxiety, stress, and a fear of not measuring up.

What’s more, Gen Z is wrestling with a perfect storm of societal challenges not faced by other recent generations. Terrorism, war, climate change, the opioid crisis, political strife, social strife, and gun violence in their schools—it all has been ever-present in their lives so far, constantly and viscerally played out on the devices they hold in their hands. It’s little wonder, then, that teen suicide rates have increased dramatically in the past two decades.

The pervasiveness of mobile technology has made it virtually impossible for Gen Z to switch off. Wherever they go, their phones—and their 24-7 connection to the online world—goes with them, which means there’s no transition zone, no moments in the day when they simply relax and reset. Tech aptitude has become tech addiction. It’s not sustainable—mentally, emotionally, even physically.

So, what can be done about it? How can we save Gen Z from themselves? (No doubt they would hate me phrasing it that way.)

As employers, we must help them balance their ambition and efficiency with taking time off to reset. We must let them use technology to fuel their productivity and thirst for knowledge, but also encourage them to step away from it to engage in more free-flowing, creative thinking that will help them solve our world’s greatest challenges.

Rather than managing them the old way, we have to help them look beyond the typical standards of success, like long hours and personal sacrifice, to avoid pushing themselves too hard, too soon. One starting point is for employers is to reward output rather than the hours put in.

In some ways, Gen Z’s experience of growing up in a tech-saturated era reminds me of something from my own childhood. Back then, smoking was allowed pretty much anywhere, and the negative effects of cigarettes were still, largely, undiscussed. Fast-forward to today and it seems inconceivable that people at one time regularly smoked on commercial airline flights, or at home around their newborns, or in the smoking areas at schools.

In the future, will we be similarly baffled by behaviors associated with today’s tech addiction? Will people one day be asking, “How could I ever have slept with my phone in my bed?” or saying, “I can’t believe I spent my life connected to that device!” We’re already seeing Gen Z becoming aware of the potential harm, with 61% saying they believe their generation would benefit from unplugging more, and acknowledging that technology and social media can get in the way of relationships.

Of all the generations, Gen Z, as the most digitally native, faces perhaps the greatest risk of tech overload and the yet-unknown dangers it may present long-term. After all, many of them were online before they were even born, with their ultrasound pictures shared on social media by proud parents-to-be. It was the beginning of a hardwired connection to technology that could now make or break their future.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Ernst & Young LLP or any other member firm of the global EY organization.