The Media Needs To Stop Asking Bosses About Labor

When I first started my career in PR in 2008, I remember being introduced to the concept of the millennial - a mythical creature that was extremely demanding of things like “being able to take sick days” and “wanting to sometimes bring their dog to the office” - and was also told that they (we) were a problem in the workplace. I spent the next 13 years watching millennials get blamed for everything: the death of stores, trend changes and all sorts of other stuff.

The New York Times, ever-disconnected from the world at large, published a piece a few days ago about “the 37-year-olds...afraid of their 23-year-old employees,” which at first seems like a kooky “things are new!” story but once again becomes the kind of anti-worker screed that I’ve grown to despise them for.

The impetus is an exercise in irony - that an older institution doesn’t understand young people and fails to communicate with or about them correctly - and quickly moves into every cliché possible:

Ms. Fain is old enough to remember when millennials determined what was in vogue: rompers, rose pink, craft beer, Netflix and chill. Now, she gets the foreboding sense from colleagues that her AARP card awaits. Subtly yet undeniably, as generational shifts tend to go, there’s a new crop of employees determining the norms and styles of the workplace. And they have no qualms about questioning not just emoji use but all the antiquated ways of their slightly older managers, from their views on politics in the office to their very obsession with work.

Anyway, let’s take a pause. I want to highlight one particular quote from a 30-year-old founder:

“Older generations were much more used to punching the clock,” Mr. Kennedy mused. “It was, ‘I climb the ladder and get my pension and gold watch.’ Then for millennials it was, ‘There’s still an office but I can play Ping-Pong and drink nitro coffee.’ For the next generation it’s, ‘Holy cow I can make a living by posting on social media when I want and how I want.’”

My man, what the hell are you talking about? What does any of this mean? Why is this quote just kind of left there with no qualifier? Well, let me answer: because a lot of media outlets seem extremely comfortable with leaving unqualified, unanalyzed, and vague quotes sit in articles so that they can build a particular profile of a certain person that they’d like to demonize, in this case both millennials and the Gen Z people working for them.

They want to frame millennials as out-of-touch - after spending a decade or so describing them as demanding, petulant children - and Gen Z as some sort of uber-millennial that wants to “make a living posting on social media when [they] want.” I ain’t no fancy Grey Lady writer, but I know that if I was writing this and had this quote in there, I’d want to talk to more than one other Gen Z person specifically about this quote and ask them what they think it means.

Take this wonderfully strange paragraph:

Ali Kriegsman, 30, co-founder of the retail technology business Bulletin, wasn’t sure, in the past, how to respond when her Gen Z employees insisted on taking days off for menstrual cramps or mental health: “Hey I woke up and I’m not in a good place mentally,” went the typical text message. “I’m not going to come in today.” Instinctively Ms. Kriegsman wanted to applaud their efforts to prioritize well being — but she also knew their paid time off could undercut business.

“As an entrepreneur, I want to call out of managing my team sometimes because my period is making me super hormonal,” she said. “But I’m in a position where I have to push through.”

You know what the real story here is? The boomerfication of millennials. That would be a story to write - that you have found several millennials who have become exactly the types of bosses they hate. Ms. Kriegsman in this case is talking about how "PTO could undercut business” - again in a totally question-free environment. Here’s a really easy follow-up question: how would losing one person for one day actually undercut business? Is your business that weak?

But wait, there’s more!

Lola Priego, 31, chief executive of the lab-testing start-up Base, had to laugh when a Gen Z employee sent a Slack message assigning her a task to complete. Ms. Priego interpreted this as a welcome signal that her 15-person staff doesn’t find her intimidating, but another member of upper-level management was horrified.

This is not something you just write and then leave alone. What do you mean “a Gen Z employee assigned a task for a founder to complete”? That feels like something which either didn’t happen or had a specific context to it. As a boss, you are the one who gives the orders rather than the other way around, and any reversal of roles is a huge thing to accuse an entire generation of based on a single flimsy anecdote. Where is the follow-up here? Where’s the context? What was the task? Was it a random “hey, do this”? Or did they say, “hey would you mind doing this? I’m running short of time and could use help.” This point may seem minor, but it absolutely isn’t - it is very different to have someone say “hey I need some help” versus literally assigning a task to their boss.

The latter feels like the first actual example of a petulant young person in the wild being petulant and demanding - if they literally assigned their boss a task, that is both very funny and equally not how these things work, and I would be very surprised if that was what actually happened. But the Times, in their great wisdom, chooses to simply leave this point as it is so that people can make their own assumptions: that Gen Z are “asking their bosses to do their work” based on one flimsy, half-assed anecdote.

The closing anecdotes are about “company culture” and suck harder than an industrial vacuum:

At many businesses, Gen Z employees are given increasing leeway to drive internal culture, too. Emily Fletcher, 42, who runs Ziva Meditation, noticed that at her company retreat the junior people were the ones who were most comfortable stretching the bounds of what is considered professional conversation.

This became apparent when the staff participated in an exercise she calls the “Suffie Awards”: sitting around a campfire and sharing personal sources of suffering from last year, trying to one-up one another as corny award show music played in the background. It was the Gen Zers, Ms. Fletcher said, getting the most vulnerable by speaking about partners cheating on them or the loneliness of a solo quarantine.

So - in my experience - the older you are, the more likely you are to complain about stuff. I don’t know where this idea came from that young people are complainers, when the majority of complaints that I read online seem to come from people over the age of 40. And the idea of oversharing various maladies and terrible things that have happened? Yeah, again, the older a person is, the more likely they are to mention the vast domain of maladies that they experience on any given day.

Also…the “suffie awards” feels like a deeply weird thing to do in the workplace, and that’s not me being older. Something about that entire story stinks - again, if someone told me this anecdote, my first question would be “who organized ‘The Suffie Awards?’” and “is that appropriate in the workplace?” The “appropriate” here is not that I don’t want to hear about my fellow colleagues’ suffering, but that this kind of oversharing is almost always going to be used against the worker. And if the company themselves organized it - which could very well be the case! - this isn’t Gen Z doing anything other than trying to fit in, which is what everybody does at work.

The Painful Distance from Labor

It’s not that I hate the New York Times - I just believe, like many media outlets, they continually fail to hire or promote voices that have anything approaching the experience or empathy necessary to cover these subjects. In this case, the writer is in her late 20s and is a graduate of both Cambridge and Yale (one of the more loathsome and disconnected higher education pairings I’ve ever seen) and also appears to have gone straight from her Masters program straight into a career at the Times.

To be blunt, I do not believe that someone who has both an Ivy League and an Oxbridge degree is likely to possess anything approaching an understanding of young people’s work habits. Somehow this piece is totally devoid of any sourcing of actual Gen Z workers, despite nominally being about them. It is almost entirely about the bosses, what the bosses see, what the bosses feel, what the bosses have done and the bosses’ reactions to Gen Z. It’s like writing a piece about being a Sea Captain by asking boat manufacturers what they think.

The problem with this kind of culture writing - which is incredibly common - is that instead of investigating a phenomenon (that Gen Z workers are different, somehow), it investigates the feelings of those around it. It is a professional failure to write a piece that includes the phrase “has anyone checked in on the kids?” without actually asking a single “kid” what they think or how they feel or anything about what’s happening in the story you’re writing about them.

This is because these articles are written for bosses with the intention of confirming their biases - that Gen Z kids are weird, and that things are different. There is no interest in this reporting in investigation or information beyond asking the perspective of other bosses, so that they can all sit around and act superior. 

The “Gen Z” consultant does not count as a Gen Z worker, because they are just another person - like the reporter, like the Times, like the bosses interviewed - looking for ways to take advantage of a generation to make themselves look good.

The piece also categorically fails to find any “normal job” bosses. Andy Dunn (42) is someone I used to work for; he founded the clothing company Bonobos and is founding a social media company. There’s a sex toy company, and a meditation company, and a herbal supplement company. Where are the retail workers? Where are the regular person jobs?

The truth is that I do not believe a single person involved in the process of writing these articles about workers has worked or remembers working a normal person job, or knows someone who is currently employed in one.

Sidenote: I will fully admit that I am not necessarily better - I run a PR firm and I’ve spent more years in PR, a stupid job for weirdos, than any other job - but I at the very least have the awareness of my distance from normal people jobs, and know people who do them, and regularly reread things to make sure I’m not talking out of my ass.

The distance from actual, real, meaningful work combined with a lack of empathy for workers creates a mediated bubble, one where the only people you talk to do weird office jobs and your entire worldview is framed by narrow sourcing. Unbelievably, I think that one of the comments on the article actually nails it better than the writer did (I quote it unedited):

These generational essays are tiresome. They are always about office jobs in some start up that is about to produce or already produces some short life faddish novelty that will quickly be replaced by the next short term etc etc. They create nothing more than the equivalant of 21st century “pet rocks” or “mood rings”. Why are these articles never about working class people of that generation? The ordinary people who elect to be carpenters,electricians, iron workers, plumbers, mechanics, health care workers etc etc. You know the people who build and maintain the infratucture. Their struggles do not usually accomodate priviliges for yoga classes or mental health days and I can assure you no apprentice ironworker will ever have the audacity to “assign a job” to his or her foreman.

Their point is salient: why are we focused on the whims and thoughts of people that are not really part of the infrastructure of the world itself? Do Gen Z workers do stuff like that in a regular job?

The reason this never happens is due to a lack of intellectual curiosity on an editorial and institutional level. There is a remit here - the plan was not to investigate Gen Z workplace habits, but to form an opinion and see it editorially executed, like content marketing for bosses in their 40s. The continually frustrating state of big newspapers’ approaches to remote work, or the supply chain crisis, or anything worker-related is because of a total failure to acquire anything other than the most macro view of things possible, getting a position on labor not from the position of the laborer but from those who profit from it.

This is (forgive my paranoia) a conscious attempt to suppress the identities and industry of young workers. While every generation is on some level demonized by the previous one, the millennial and Gen Z generations are unique in that the things they’re asking for are not necessarily things that previous generations didn’t ask for, but they’re in trouble about it anyway. And in this article - as with many others - their struggles are framed as generational idiosyncrasies by their bosses, with no interest in understanding the conditions that might have led to them or even the views of the generation in question.

But so much of this also comes from a much simpler problem: bosses are always asked about labor. I get that for something like this you want some bosses’ opinions, and it would be remiss to not get a single opinion from management, but the majority of these awful pieces I’ve read seem entirely focused on selectively quoting bosses and managers on subjects that they are only tangentially related to. Now, you might say “well this is about older people being scared of Gen Z’ers!” - to which I say yes, but how can you sensibly or ethically decide to simply erase the literal subject matter of the piece?

It’s because these articles are not in the business of informing anyone about a trend, but instead set out to invent trends that will make their readers - who they perceive to be managers and bosses - feel good about themselves. The ideal reader in this case (if I had to guess) is the boss who has been confused by some sort of Gen Z thing and doesn’t want to feel alone, which is a lovely idea if you are a gargoyle that lives atop a church. If you are a normal person, you may read this and reasonably wonder why this whole thing about workers is actually about what bosses think about workers and think that workers do in the workplace, or what they think workers are thinking.

It’s similar to (but worse than) the anti-remote push by many outlets, in that it totally disregards the lives of the many to applaud the lives of the few. It’s why we see endless pieces about how tough it is to hire restaurant workers that only seem to be from the perspective of the boss (New York Magazine had a great piece on the lack of worker voices in these stories) - it is an intentional narrative that is being spread for a specific group of people to feel superior to others, with no interest in informing any discussion other than the dishonest echo chamber of many gilded freaks.

Also, any writer knows that if you’re intentionally disregarding a potentially useful source, you’re likely afraid that what they’re going to say will counter your narrative. It’s also incredibly telling that they didn’t interview these workers with leading questions such as “what’re some weird things your bosses have done at work?” Such must be the degree of fear that a single quote from a single worker could crush the narrative that Gen Z orders the boss around and loves to talk about its feelings.

Finally, these articles also seem totally disconnected from the elder generations. The narrative that the elders were these wonderful, stoic, emotionless, and humble archons of conversation and production is entirely false, a narrative created for these generations with the intention of keeping specific people in power.

By not talking to employees, the Times (and others) create a harmful narrative about those who are most vulnerable in these situations, rather than actually revealing any sort of truth. And if it’s not intentional - if these narratives are simply a result of people doing their job in an honest way, devoid of influence - it is a continual drumbeat of amateurish reporting edited to have the validity and efficacy of real journalism.