Your Gen Z Co-Worker Is Hustling More Than You Think
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Your Gen Z Co-Worker Is Hustling More Than You Think

Ambitious 20-somethings are trying to knock down the stereotype that they aren’t into hard work

Wed, Apr 12, 2023 8:21amGrey Clock 4 min

Being young and ambitious right now often means proving that you can be both of those things at the same time.

That applies even to 25-year-old Charu Thomas, who earned an engineering degree in 3½ years after completing high school in three years. She founded supply-chain software firm Ox at age 18, raised $3.5 million in funding and, in 2020, made it onto Forbes’s 30 Under 30 list.

Yet in a breakfast with investors in the fall, she said they wanted to discuss “quiet quitting” and the motivation of younger entrepreneurs.

“They had this impression that Gen Z and younger founders were non responsive, were less legitimate, or lazier,” said Ms. Thomas on a recent morning from her Bentonville, Ark., office. She had just spent much of the night in the office to oversee a Fortune 500 client’s software deployment, she said, then attended a 9 a.m. staff meeting still in the T-shirt she’d worn the day before.

Such is life for many ambitious 20-somethings. Barely in the workforce, they are pushing long hours, building businesses, striving for promotions—even for their more-senior co-workers’ jobs. At the same time they are running into perceptions that their age cohort cares more about work-life boundaries and rejecting “hustle” culture than scaling the career ladder.

Like Ms. Thomas, many say they are intent on knocking down the stereotype. “I don’t want to be a representative of that kind of culture,” she says.

Gen Z, typically defined as being born between 1997 and 2012, isn’t the first generation to be typecast as it enters the workforce. Not long ago employers were hand-wringing over what they viewed as entitled millennials who, some bosses joked, wanted trophies just for showing up.

A growing body of survey research echoes the idea that workers in their early to mid-20s want control over how much they work. In a survey of nearly 5,000 adults by Prudential Financial last year, 43% of Gen Z workers said they went above and beyond in their jobs. More than half of millennials said they did, as did 62% of members of Gen X and 69% of baby boomers. A 2022 Gallup survey of about 15,000 U.S. workers shows younger millennials and Gen Z respondents reported declining levels of job engagement and higher rates of stress than other workers.

To show colleagues she works hard, 22-year-old Brianna Chang says she chooses to put in as many as 60 hours a week as a supply-chain planner at Microsoft Corp.

Ms. Chang said her work ethic was forged as a teenager, when she waited tables in her parents’ Chinese restaurant in Bellingham, Wash. She’s driven in part by the goal of making money to one day support her parents and says she’s disheartened when she sees peers on social media saying they don’t work hard.

But, she adds, that makes it easier for her to stand out.

“A lot of people my age, they are just stuck,” she says.

Managers and recruiters say that remote work made it tough for some young workers to find mentors and learn professional norms in the office. As a result, many of these young workers struggle with resourcefulness, professional networking and communications with clients and co-workers, says Julia Lamm, a partner in PricewaterhouseCoopers’ Workforce Transformation practice. Some also had to navigate layoffs at the start of the pandemic and are now on their second or third job since.

Jorge Tapia, a 26-year-old software engineer in Indianapolis, said he lets his work speak for itself as he wakes up at 6 a.m. to get to work an hour later. He’s given priority to building relationships with colleagues since starting his position last year at a logistics technology and software provider. On his first week of work, he sat down with a man he didn’t know in the office cafeteria.

The man turned out to be the company’s North America chief executive, who told him how he approached his own career.

It was a valuable lesson, Mr. Tapia said: “If I could talk to my CEO, I could talk to my co-workers, my managers, openly.”

Mr. Tapia said he is working hard in hopes of getting a promotion, which would raise his salary and allow him to better help out his mother and three siblings, ages 23, 15 and 8.

Financial security is important to Gen Z workers, according to interviews with and surveys of about 100 Gen Z workers between November and January conducted by the Conference Board. About half of Gen Zers and millennials said in a 2022 Deloitte survey that they live paycheck to paycheck, and about 30% of each group say they don’t feel financially secure.

Last year, Brandi Jones was working as a dance teacher and at the front desk of a dentist’s office, making about $25,000 and living with family, she said. She quit both roles in July to find a job that would cover her health insurance and pay enough for her to move into her own apartment.

To get that job, Ms. Jones, now 26, got certified in Salesforce’s customer-relationship management software, so that she could work at a nonprofit that uses the tool. She studied sometimes 10 hours a day to pass the exam, she said. After passing, she applied for more than 20 jobs over six months.

Aware of common stereotypes about young professionals, she says she asked questions in job interviews about company culture to get a sense of employers’ generational diversity and how they defined a successful employee. She says she eventually found a job at a nonprofit that pays about $100,000 a year.

No longer working weekends, she marvelled at having more free time at first. Then she started studying cybersecurity tools because she is considering a master’s degree. She wants to advance further, she says.


This stylish family home combines a classic palette and finishes with a flexible floorplan

35 North Street Windsor

Just 55 minutes from Sydney, make this your creative getaway located in the majestic Hawkesbury region.

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Companies are eager to hire strong players who use hybrid work schedules to schmooze clients on the course

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Standout golfers who aren’t quite PGA Tour material now have somewhere else to play professionally: Corporate America.

People who can smash 300-yard drives and sink birdie putts are sought-after hires in finance, consulting, sales and other industries, recruiters say. In the hybrid work era, the business golf outing is back in a big way.

Executive recruiter Shawn Cole says he gets so many requests to find ace golfers that he records candidates’ handicaps, an index based on average number of strokes over par, in the information packets he submits to clients. Golf alone can’t get you a plum job, he says—but not playing could cost you one.

“I know a guy that literally flies around the world in a private jet loaded with French wine, and he golfs and lands hundred-million-dollar deals,” Cole says.

Tee times and networking sessions have long gone hand-in-golf-glove. Despite criticism that doing business on the course undermines diversity, equity and inclusion efforts—and the fact that golf clubs haven’t always been open to women and minorities —people who mix golf and work say the outings are one of the last reprieves from 30-minute calendar blocks

Stars like Tiger Woods and Michelle Wie West helped expand participation in the sport. Still, just 22% of golfers are nonwhite and 26% are women, according to the National Golf Foundation.

To lure more people, clubs have relaxed rules against mobile-phone use on the course, embracing white-collar professionals who want to entertain clients on the links without disconnecting from the office. It’s no longer taboo to check email from your cart or take a quick call at the halfway turn.

With so much other business conducted virtually, shaking hands on the green and schmoozing over clubhouse beers is now seen as making an extra effort, not slacking off.

Americans played a record 531 million rounds last year. Weekday play has nearly doubled since 2019, with much of the action during business hours , according to research by Stanford University economist Nicholas Bloom .

“It would’ve been scandalous in 2019 to be having multiple meetings a week on the golf course,” Bloom says. “In 2024, if you’re producing results, no one’s going to see anything wrong with it.”

A financial adviser at a major Wall Street bank who competes on the amateur circuit told me he completes 90% of his tasks by 10 a.m. because he manages long-term investment plans that change infrequently. The rest of his workday often involves golfing with clients and prospects. He’s a member of a private club with a multiyear waiting list, and people jump at the chance to join him on a course they normally can’t access.

There is an art to bringing in business this way. He never initiates shoptalk, telling his playing partners the round is about having fun and getting to know each other. They can’t resist asking about investment strategies by the back nine, he says.

Work hard, play hard

Matt Parziale golfed professionally on minor-league tours for several years, but when his dream of making the big time ended, he had to get a regular job. He became a firefighter, like his dad.

A few years later he won one of the biggest amateur tournaments in the country, earning spots in the 2018 Masters and U.S. Open, where he tied for first among non-pros.

The brush with celebrity brought introductions to business types that Parziale, 35 years old, says he wouldn’t have met otherwise. One connection led to a job with a large insurance broker. In 2022 he jumped to Deland, Gibson Insurance Associates in Wellesley, Mass., which recognised his golf game as a tool to help win large accounts.

He rescheduled our interview because he was hosting clients at a private club on Cape Cod, and squeezed me in the next morning, before teeing off with a business group in Newport, R.I.

A short time ago, Parziale couldn’t imagine making a living this way. Now he’s the norm in elite amateur golf circles.

“I look around at the guys at the events I play, and they all have these jobs ,” he says.

His boss, Chief Executive Chip Gibson, says Parziale is good at bringing in business because he puts as much effort into building relationships as honing his game. A golf outing is merely an opportunity to build trust that can eventually lead to a deal, and it’s a misconception that people who golf during work hours don’t work hard, he says.

Barry Allison’s single-digit handicap is an asset in his role as a management consultant at Accenture , where he specialises in travel and hospitality. He splits time between Washington, D.C., and The Villages, Fla., a golf mecca that boasts more than 50 courses.

It can be hard to get to know people in distributed work environments, he says. Go golfing and you’ll learn a lot about someone’s temperament—especially after a bad shot.

“If you see a guy snap a club over his knee, you don’t know what he’s going to snap next,” Allison says.

Special access

On a recent afternoon I was a lunch guest at Brae Burn Country Club, a private enclave outside Boston that was the site of U.S. Golf Association championships won by legends like Walter Hagen and Bobby Jones. I parked in the second lot because the first one was full—on a Wednesday.

My host was Cullen Onstott, managing director of the Onstott Group executive search firm and a former collegiate golfer at Fairfield University. He explained one reason companies prize excellent golfers is they can put well-practiced swings on autopilot and devote most of their attention to chitchat.

It’s hard to talk with potential customers about their needs and interests when you’re hunting for errant shots in the woods. It’s also challenging if you show off.

The first hole at Brae Burn is a 318-yard par 4 that slopes down, enabling big hitters like Onstott to reach the putting green in a single stroke. But to stay close to his playing partners and keep the conversation flowing, he sometimes hits a shorter shot.

Having an “in” at an exclusive club can make you a catch. Bo Burch, an executive recruiter in North Carolina, says clubs in his region tend to attract members according to their business sectors. One might be chock-full of real-estate investors while another has potential buyers of industrial manufacturing equipment.

Burch looks for candidates who are members of clubs that align with his clients’ industries, though he stresses that business acumen comes first when filling positions.

Tami McQueen, a former Division I tennis player and current chief marketing officer at Atlanta investment firm BIP Capital, signed up for private golf lessons this year. She had noticed colleagues were wearing polos with course logos and bringing their clubs to work. She wanted in.

McQueen joined business associates on the golf course for the first time in March at the PGA National Resort in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. She has lowered her handicap to a respectable 26 and says her new skill lends a professional edge.

“To be able to say, ‘I can play with you and we can have those business meetings on the course’ definitely opens a lot more doors,” she says.


This stylish family home combines a classic palette and finishes with a flexible floorplan

35 North Street Windsor

Just 55 minutes from Sydney, make this your creative getaway located in the majestic Hawkesbury region.

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