If there was one industry you’d imagine would suit Generation Z down to the ground, one place where the younger members of the workforce should find themselves in a “safe space” where they can really, as they would put it, “live their truth”, it would surely be Hollywood. Nowhere accommodates the egocentric quite like La La Land.

Not so, it seems, on Jodie Foster’s set.

The actress has deemed working with Gen Z to be, in a word, “annoying”. While she applauds the “authenticity” younger generations often embody, and celebrates the “possibility of real freedom” they are able to enjoy, Foster admits to finding their attitudes to work hard to swallow. “They’re really annoying, especially in the workplace,” she told The Guardian. “They’re like, ‘Nah, I’m not feeling it today, I’m gonna come in at 10.30am.’”

She doesn’t think much of their grammar either. “In emails, I’ll tell them ‘This is all grammatically incorrect, did you not check your spelling?’ And they’re like, ‘Why would I do that, isn’t that kind of limiting?’”

The trouble with the young, Foster says, is that they are all too in their heads. “They need to learn how to relax, how to not think about it so much, how to come up with something that’s theirs.”

She wouldn’t be the first A-lister to have a problem with Gen Z. Whoopi Goldberg came under fire last year for suggesting they might be work-shy. “I’m sorry, if you only want to work four hours, it’s going to be harder for you to get a house,” she said in a discussion about why Gen Z are in a more precarious financial position than their parents. “We had to bust our behinds because we didn’t have the option of going back,” she added.

Since they (reluctantly) entered the workforce, Gen Z (those born between 1997 and 2012) have garnered a reputation for having a somewhat defiant approach to employment. This is a generation that has a vastly different expectation of what constitutes a work-life balance to their employers.

They are demanding new things: the flexibility to work remotely, more time off, better perks and higher pay. And while the generation before them was naturally ambitious (a PwC survey conducted in 2011 found millennial workers’ top priority was career progression), this generation is focused on two things: pay and pleasure.

A 2022 survey by American job-seeking site CareerBuilder found that pay is the top priority for Gen Z workers, while research by workplace training company TalentLMS showed 82% expect to be given mental health days and 74% want to work remotely. This is a generation that completed university degrees in their childhood bedrooms. For them, working from home is the norm.

Some say it’s all evidence of laziness, others that this generation is simply refusing to comply with a working culture established by Boomers. Forty-one years have passed between the first of the Boomer generation and the youngest of Gen Z entering the workforce. It’s perhaps not so surprising that attitudes and expectations will have changed in that time.

American social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, whose book The Anxious Generation (out in March) examines the epidemic of mental illness in the young, says that in the workplace, Gen Z is in a dreadful state. “We have a whole generation that’s doing terribly,” Haidt told The Wall Street Journal. This generation, he said, lives in “defend mode”. They are “weakened”; they enter the workforce “less innovative, less inclined to take risks” and may, in the end, “undermine American capitalism”.

Some say there are good reasons for that – namely, they have been made this way by their parents. Suzy Welch, a business professor at New York University, told CNBC that “helicopter parents” had created “a bunch of 20-somethings who have never really had to make hard decisions or do very hard things, and when they start to feel it, they’re like ‘Ow, ow, I want to run away.’”

Technology may have a good deal to answer for. Nine years ago, a Telegraph article warning readers what to expect from the new generation flooding their workplaces pointed out this was an age group whose soft brain matter had been moulded by screens from day one. “Instant gratification is their norm; whether they want information, entertainment or pornography, they can have it in the palms of their hands within moments, usually for free.” A study at the time put the average attention span at 8.25 seconds; a goldfish can last for nine.

It’s driving some to ask if Gen Z’s reluctance to knuckle down could be having an impact on overall productivity. The latest figures from the Office for National Statistics show output per hour worked in the first quarter of 2023 was just 0.6% above its pre-pandemic average, meaning the UK’s productivity is still increasing at the same sort of glacial pace it has since the financial crisis.

On TikTok, the term “quiet quitting” (where employees do the bare minimum, without putting in any extra hours or effort) has had 101.7 million views, while in hundreds of videos, “lazy-girl jobs” and “shirking from home” are celebrated as a point of pride. People are encouraged to assert their “boundaries”, prioritise self care and know their worth. It’s just an internet trend, not a piece of forensic analysis on the state of the workplace, but could it betray a growing reluctance among Gen Z to work hard?

It’s worth noting that they define success differently, Welch says. “The young people […] that go into work maybe one or two days a week or never, and work entirely remotely, they may have a version of success that is not our version of success,” she told Business Insider. “They’re probably not going to become CEOs, but maybe that’s not what they want.”

Despite accusations of laziness, there is also evidence Gen Z has more anxiety around work, particularly when it comes to taking time off. The LinkedIn Workforce Confidence Index 2023 found Gen Z felt the greatest pressure to stay connected to the office while on holiday, even finding it hard to take holiday at all. Only 58% of the younger cohort were planning to take annual leave in the year to come – four percent below the US national average, and six percent less than the millennials surveyed.

Meanwhile, 35% of the Gen Zers surveyed said they felt guilty not working when they were on holiday, while just 30 per cent of the millennials surveyed felt the same level of burden. Perhaps they ought to take note of Jodie Foster’s advice and “learn how to relax”. Not so much that they start quiet-quitting though.

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