Blame social media. Blame their over-encouraging parents. Blame the string of crises they have lived through in their still short lives. But Gens Y and Z are viewing themselves as the protagonists in their own life. Employers that take a largely dim view of this growing trend do so at their own peril. Savvy, winning, organizations, though, are those that recognize the motivation behind this very intentional mindset and that take care to write themselves into these scripts in a very positive way.
While the shut-downs of Covid-19 affected workers of all generations, they had an especially negative impact on the newest generations of employees – Generations Y (Millennials) and Z. For Millennials, defined here as those born between 1982 and 2000, who had struggled through the downturn of 2008 and 2009 and the subsequent families Great Recession, and, as a result, postponed many major life decisions such as home ownership, marriage, the start of, and significant personal investments, many were looking forward to making up for lost time just as Covid arrived. And for shiny new Gen Z workers (born between 2001 and 2019), the first of whom had entered the workforce just prior to Covid – they’d grown up seeing the malaise of the Great Recession impact their parents, determined even from the start to do things differently than their moms and dads. So, into the workforce they went, ready to change the world, and then Covid changed their plans.
For Millennials, this meant further postponement of major milestones. For Zs, it meant stopping just as they were getting started. For both – two cohorts raised in a world dominated by social media and reared by hovering adults that convinced them of their near-infallibility while taking steps to filter out failure or hurt – the shutdowns of Covid-19 also gave them time to reflect on their recent experiences at work. According to leaders in young people research YPulse, 72% of a recent survey of Gen Y and Z respondents agreed with the statement: “Coronavirus has made me reevaluate what’s important to me.” What most of them concluded was quite simple: one, that they had no interest in any longer accepting the unacceptable and two, that they simply wanted to be happy. 68% of young people in the same YPulse survey said it’s positive when someone prioritizes their happiness. 79% of them also said it’s healthy to put yourself first. But it’s important to point out that for these young people, it’s not about having the spotlight or being the center of the universe. In fact, according to the same YPulse survey, 52% said it’s a negative to be the center of attention, with 69% likewise saying it’s not a good thing to act like the world revolves around them.
See, it’s not a “me, me, me” thing; it’s simply an “I deserve to be happy,” thing. It’s about making decisions about work that add joy to their lives and no longer making decisions or wasting time on things that deprioritize their personal needs. From these basic sentiments, the Main Character of One’s Life mindset was born, then gained momentum.
For those unfamiliar with the concept, the Main Character of One’s Life is a notion that involves individuals, principally young ones, thinking of themselves as the protagonist in their own life story and instead of being content to see themselves as supporting characters with the action taking place around them or, worse, to them, they play a lead role – actively taking control of their lives – putting their wants, needs and desires first. According to YPulse, fully 55% of Ys and Zs, even now, think of themselves as the main character of their lives, a number that’s actually higher among Millennials than Gen Zs. It’s a trend that shows no sign of stopping and one that presents enormous opportunities for employers to both attract and retain these talented young workers – provided they move fast and behave in a genuine way.
To do so, it’s first important for employers to understand what main character energy is and isn’t about. For most young people, main character energy is about becoming their best self. It’s about things like building confidence, being more assertive and appreciative, and following through on good things they might not have done before. As examples, 40% of young people say main character mindset has caused them to cut off a toxic friendship/relationship, while 19% have changed careers, and 12% have quit a job. Fully 75% of young people say they are simply trying to approach their lives with more intention. To that end, both Gens Y and Z also believe in the power of manifesting; 70% of them, according to YPulse believe that one can believe or will what they want into existence. In a similar way, part of main character thinking includes romanticizing their lives. More than half of young people, 58%, turn everyday moments into celebrations and do things to make the mundane seem special. Remember, in its greatest sense, main character thinking is about being the lead character in the production of one’s own life.
What the main character vibe is not about is being cocky, trendsetting or acting selfishly. In fact, when asked, just 27%, 23% and 19% of YPulse respondents associated main character energy with these attributes. It’s also not simply a social media phenomenon. 50% of those surveyed by YPulse say they can be the main character of their own life without posting it on social media, and only 23% of those who say they are trying to have a more intentional life actually post photos or videos online that portray it. It is the intention that matters the most, however, and which small and medium enterprise employers seeking to attract and engage these young workers should focus on primarily.
That’s because for workers of any age, intentionality is a critical differentiating attribute. Those who approach work with intentionality are clear about what they want from life and their career. Their daily actions are shaped and guided in such a way as to deliver progress toward those goals. With intentionality, increases and along with it focus and determination. Appreciation, gratitude and respect for the efforts of others multiply as well. These things happen because these young workers stop relying on others to create their futures and instead take charge of their own lives. By working with them and not against them, employers can impact the future of work in profoundly positive ways. I spoke to Gigi Robinson, a Gen-Z chronic illness and mental health advocate, about the phenomenon and the implication for employers. She told me, “While the trend of the “main character” grew predominately from the way people portray themselves on social media it is by proxy a reflection of how they wish to be seen as a person – particularly in the context of work.” Employers that work more collaboratively with younger workers to manage their careers will be far more successful in retaining them than organizations that persist in handling these developmental activities in the traditional secretive, management-directed styles held over from the last century. It will also require employers to stop questioning or worse ridiculing the forms of employee expression manifested by main character thinking.
At the root of the main character phenomenon is a change in the way young people communicate and express themselves. Workers who view themselves as the main characters in their own life do not tell unidimensional stories. Employers who attract these workers will be those who embrace and see value in the whole person and in the influence that they have both at work and away from it. Employers who seek to quell main character energy will lose quality people to mass departure like the Great Resignation. I spoke about this with Mark Beal, assistant professor of professional practice, Communication, at the School of Communication and Information, Rutgers University. He told me, “With the emergence of social media platforms including TikTok and Instagram, people including Gen Zers have never had more opportunities to express their individuality and socialize the unique elements of their personal brand. That mindset is carrying over to the.” So, to win with main character workers, be a part of expanding their story, not intent on controlling it or worse, ending it.
The main character phenomenon, which emanated from the shutdowns of Covid-19 and the time for personal reflection they afforded, has created yet another opportunity for employers to connect with young people in a meaningful way – one that gives Gen Y and Z workers a greater say in their career development and that enables employers to benefit from an understanding of their worker as a complete person. Employers who embrace this new trend can benefit greatly, while those who chalk it up to yet another oddity that these generations must forgo in order to fit in will only encourage more young workers to join the millions who have already walked out in search of leaders who Make it OK to be exactly who they are – the main character in their own life story.