The American workforce is redefining what it means to have career success. Workers are quietly redirecting their ambition into their personal lives instead of blindly climbing the corporate ladder as many have done in the past. An April piece in Fortune calls this about-face the era of “quiet ambition,” as younger workers refuse to “chase achievement for achievement’s sake.” This shift is causing the corporate ladder to crumble, according to an August 2023 Visier study, showing individual contributors shunning management in favor of free time. You heard me right. Gen Z is rapidly changing the landscape of the American workplace on how workers relate to their jobs. The shift is evident in the rise of TikTok terms such as “lazy girl jobs” or “quiet quitters,” who put in a minimal amount of effort and make up 50% of the U.S. workforce, according to Gallup.
A Trend Reminiscent of Jack and the Beanstalk
Are Gen Zs unwittingly chopping down the corporate ladder—Jack and the Beanstalk style? If you don’t know this children’s fairy tale, you can find it here. To learn more about the quiet ambition trend, Visier recently surveyed 1,000 U.S.-based full-time individual-contributing employees about their work ambitions and priorities. They found that only four percent of employees consider getting promoted to the C-suite a top career goal—a real threat to an organization’s corporate pipeline. Only 38% of individual contributors are interested in becoming a people manager at their current organization, and 62% prefer to stay as individual contributors. A mere 37% of respondents to the survey say they are interested in their boss’s job someday, and 91% cited reasons as the prospect of associated responsibilities such as stress or pressure and working longer hours.
Workplace-related goals didn’t even crack the top three ambitions for respondents: At the top of the list are spending time with family and friends (67%), being physically/mentally healthy (64%) and traveling (58%). Only nine percent list becoming a people manager and only four percent say becoming a C-suite executive. A gendered C-suite ambition gap could make achieving parity in leadership roles all the more challenging. Men are more likely to agree they want to enter the C-suite someday (42%) than women (29%). Compensation wins above other incentives with 71% of employees reporting that better compensation would incentivize them to become people managers, 45% say better benefits and 26% say more opportunities for career advancement. Over half (55%) of respondents say a positive work-life balance is a quality they look for in a workplace. Forty-one percent of respondents say flexible work arrangements, and 37% say a relaxed work environment. The ability to manage people came in last place on the list of qualities, with only 10% of respondents saying they look for it.
How Leaders Can Save The Corporate Ladder
As employees retreat from the corporate grind and draw a firm line between their jobs and personal lives, the Visier report concludes that a succession problem is looming. And big business has their work cut out for them. According to the Visier team, the corporate ladder is in jeopardy as employees trade fancy titles for free time, and employers need to prepare now for the leadership gap that’s coming their way.
Younger workers are redefining the meaning of ambition. They are rejecting negative associations such as job stress, work demands and burnout and redefining ambition in healthier terms like work-life balance, personal time and a relaxed and flexible work environment. The question remains, however: Will corporate honchos respond to this new wave? Or will they aggressively resist it? Considering organizations are already facing a shortage of talent entering management and the C-suite, the authors of the study suggest that employers reevaluate their strategies to future-proof their leadership pipeline as baby boomers and Gen X retire.
Since respondents cite pay increases, flexible work environments and work-life balance as enticements into a people-manager role, the Visier team suggests these actions could help to fix the corporate ladder. In addition, the team recommends that employers consider providing more support and training to their employees—especially younger generations and women—to bolster their management and C-suite pipelines. “By intentionally providing more support and aligning benefits with what employees want, business leaders can encourage workers—especially younger generations and women—to become people managers and fill the C-suite pipeline,” the Visier team concludes. “However, it’s also important that HR and business leaders are willing to adapt and meet their people where they’re at—whether it’s traditional managerial roles or reorganizing their career paths for individual growth.”