A job – or joy? Many Gen Z and young millennials would rather be unemployed than unhappy

July 08, 2024

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Young adult: “I quit!”

Parent: “But why?”

Young adult: “I was just unhappy. I would rather be unemployed than unhappy!”

Parent: “But why?”

What’s more important to you: being employed, or being happy? If you had to choose, which would you prioritize?

When we asked this question1At the start of 2024, we began including the following item on our monthly survey of 2,500 U.S workers: I would rather be unemployed than unhappy. Workers responded on a five-point Likert scale. We focused our analyses on respondents who chose the extreme ends of the scale, classifying those who strongly agreed as “rather be unemployed” and those who strongly disagreed as “rather be unhappy”. We looked at generational age groups between 18 to 58 to capture sentiment from workers just beginning their careers to those approaching retirement., we thought that younger workers would be more likely to say they’d rather be unemployed than be unhappy.

We were right. Not only that, our data showed that the older the worker, the more likely they are to value employment over happiness. Among the youngest workers, 46 percent said they’d rather  be without a job than be unhappy, compared to 28 percent of 40- to 58-year-olds.

This might not come as a revelation. Gen Z and younger millennials—people in their 20s and early 30s—are at a different stage in life than career-established workers or people approaching retirement. These younger workers probably have fewer financial obligations and family responsibilities to tie them to a paycheck. In addition, their early career experiences were shaped by the pandemic, which led many people to reevaluate their relationship with work.

But does this mean that organizations can expect to have difficulty retaining their younger workforce? Or is something happening in the workplace that has younger employees prizing happiness over their job?

Happiness is a fluctuating state that can change day to day or week to week. But our monthly survey2Each month we survey a stratified, random sample of 2,500 U.S. workers. also measures more stable traits, which gave us an opportunity to investigate this unemployed-or-unhappy sentiment further. We found a variety of factors that might be at play.

Pay equity

We started by asking if the unhappiness question was related to money. The short answer is no.

In a previous study for Today at Work, we discussed the importance of being paid fairly and the relationship of fair pay to retention. But employees who would prioritize their happiness are less likely to say they are paid unfairly.

Discrimination

Our survey also asks respondents the following yes or no question: Are you currently experiencing discrimination in the workplace?  

We found a strong relationship between workplace discrimination and people who would rather be unemployed than unhappy.

People experiencing discrimination at work are 2.5 times more likely to say they would rather be unemployed than people who aren’t. Across all age groups, about 70 percent of people who report experiencing discrimination say they would rather be unemployed.

Connection

The difference between people who would sacrifice their job for happiness and those who wouldn’t comes down to feeling valued.

About 28 percent of our survey respondents feel strongly connected3ADPRI’s Connection XPerience Score measures a person’s feelings of being seen, heard, and valued in the workplace based on a U.S. study of more than 12,000 respondents. Our methodology and definitions can be found at: https://www.adpri.org/research/dei-study/. to their organization. But among those who would rather be unemployed than unhappy, connection drops 10 points, to 18 percent.

These individuals come in lower on all three points of connection we measure—being seen, being heard, and being valued—with the largest difference showing up in the valued dimension. Younger workers who do not feel connected at work are the most likely to say they would rather be unemployed. 

Stress

Stress, too, plays a part in happiness on the job. As our earlier research has shown, some people experience work pressure as positive stress (eustress) while others experience it as negative stress (distress).

Using these reactions to stress, we can categorize workers as thriving, rattled, or overloaded. Only 19 percent of workers who prioritize happiness over employment are thriving, compared to 45 percent of workers who would rather be unhappy at work than quit.

This stress at work seems to affect young workers the most. Nearly half of Gen Z workers who report feeling overloaded say they would rather be unemployed than unhappy.

Intent to leave

Hiring and retraining new employees is a huge investment, which is why retention is of the utmost importance to employers.

In any given month when we ask workers about their intent to stay with their current organization, about 18 percent say they’re either actively looking or interviewing for a new position.

It’s one thing for a person to say they would rather be unemployed than unhappy, but does it mean that they really intend to leave their job?

People who say they would rather be without a job than be unhappy in fact do have a greater likelihood of following through with leaving: Thirty-seven percent of them are actively looking for work outside their current employer, compared to 11 percent of people who would rather be unhappy and employed.

Even though Gen Z workers are most likely to say they’d sacrifice employment for happiness, they’re less likely than their millennial and Gen X cohorts to actually be looking or interviewing for another job.

This is important, because of all age groups, Gen Z workers who say they’d rather be unemployed than unhappy report the highest levels of discrimination and stress and the lowest levels of connection. Still, they are the least likely to follow through with leaving their job.

This could be due to a number of factors, such as a lack of experience, education, or training, all of which might provide more opportunities for job mobility.

Whatever the reason, the data suggests that many Gen Z workers might remain in environments where they experience discrimination, a lack of connection, and high stress. In short, staying at workplaces where they’re unhappy. That isn’t good for them or their employers.

Young workers might be more likely to take a principled stand and say they’d rather be unemployed than unhappy. But when the chips are down, they’re not as likely to act on that sentiment.

The takeaway

When we consider discrimination, connection, and stress, we begin to understand why an employee would prefer to quit than be unhappy at work. While we can’t say for certain that discrimination leads to lower connection, or to difficulty balancing good and bad stress, we can see that, overall, these workers are more likely to head for the exits.

What can team leaders and HR professionals do?

  • Talk about workplace discrimination with your employees. Discrimination could be felt for a variety of personal reasons or factors, such as how an employee is treated by their peers and managers, and it could vary significantly for each generation. Feelings of discrimination might take root where there’s a lack of opportunity for growth or promotion, denying workers the chance to take on new responsibilities and challenges or do work they aspire to, or when workers lack access to flexible working arrangements. 
  • Be open about discussing stress in the workplace and how employees are feeling. Try to pinpoint the triggers of negative stress and determine ways to minimize them while identifying and seeking out activities that deliver positive, energizing stress. Do you know what each employee loves to do, where they excel? Are they getting enough access to those opportunities?