‘I want to be the main character in my life’

Are Malta’s employers missing the boat when recruiting young talent?

For those of you who follow Black Mirror, chill – this is not a dark tale about how big tech is literally hijacking our lives. Instead, it’s all about how Gen Z are changing employer/employee relationships and the workforce trends in general. The phrase ‘I want to be the main character in my life’ is very much a Gen Z credo and, in the workplace, it is no different.

Meet Martha, not her real name because she’s not yet quite ready to lose her rent money should her employer stumble on this feature. Martha is 22 years old; she started studying fashion at MCAST but dropped out, because quote unquote “it didn’t satisfy my creative needs and I wasn’t seeing it going anywhere”. She decided to carve her own niche, instead, finding a way to make money with what she calls a “basic gig” while trying to find a way to monetise her love of fashion.

“My family suggested I go work for one of the big brands as a cashier, but where’s that going to get me? Not like I’m suddenly becoming their buyer, or something. And I don’t want to waste years studying business or anything. I want to be the main character in my life, so it has to be my own fashion brand or nothing.”

Martha is very decisive about what she wants. What if it doesn’t work out, I ask?

“Something will always work out. I will continue doing these jobs that let me check out as soon as my shift is over so I have the energy to build on my projects. There’s no reason it shouldn’t work out.”

Martha is not the only one chasing the dream. With nearly half of Malta’s young people preferring to be self-employed, work-life balance being a priority according to a resounding 98% and job mobility being at an all-time high, it looks like Malta’s employers have their work cut out for them when it comes to attracting and retaining the Gen Z workforce.

The figures were revealed by the latest Eurobarometer study that was released in April, and they point towards an ever-shifting employment landscape that has very little to do with what millennials and Gen X before them experienced. That Gen Z is turning the lifestyle status quo on its head has been the subject of multiple news reports. It started by slowly reinventing the online dating scenario, giving structure to relationship practices that those aged 30 and over may have experienced without properly acknowledging. Think beige flags, zombieing, benching and quiet dumping for those who didn’t want to get confrontational about genuine red flags.

The reinvention extended to methods of self-care – bed-rotting, for example, shows a  willingness to disconnect from the outside world that many older professionals wished for but couldn’t find in themselves to actually do. So it’s hardly surprising that we’re seeing these trends towards self-care reflected even at the workplace.

‘I no longer feel the need to prove myself all the time’

Marketing consultant Johann Agius

Marketing consultant Johann Agius is one of the young professionals who is enjoying an overall better quality of life since becoming a full time freelancer earlier this year. Having spent a whole month planning the way forward and initiating meetings with prospective clients, he officially took the plunge in February. Since then, he has found that his anxiety and stress levels surrounding work and career expectations have gone down significantly.

“The rigid 9 to 5 grind from Monday to Friday never really appealed to me. My productivity levels tend to constantly change depending on my state of mind, and how full or empty my creativity bucket is. Determining my own schedule as a freelancer, albeit sometimes tough and chaotic, has been both a relief and a learning experience. Above all else though, what satisfies me the most about being a freelancer is being able to build stronger and more trustworthy connections with my clients. I no longer feel the need to have to prove myself all the time, unlike when you are an employee and you end up doing everything you can to constantly impress your manager,” he explains.

Although a millennial, rather than Gen Z, Johann is part of an ever-growing movement of young people who, in his own words, are “successfully navigating their own self-determined careers both locally and internationally”. That said, he acknowledges that a successful freelancer is someone who has spent enough time gaining experience from different roles and work settings before they take the plunge.

“While I am happy to see more young people not being afraid to pave their own path instead of succumbing to corporate expectations, I think there could be more power in doing so after having built up as much knowledge and skills as possible from being an employee,” he states.

Johann advises anyone thinking of leaving employment to do their own thing to plan ahead as much as they can, without letting the planning turn into a procrastination. He emphasises the importance of peer support, building a small network of fellow freelancers you can go to for advice or merely for a chat when it’s needed. 

He describes the simple step of starting to freelance fulltime as his proudest moment so far, after unexpectedly ending up unemployed just before Christmas last year. This turned out to be exactly the shock his system needed to drive him towards realising his freelancing aspirations, which in reality had been accumulating within me since the pandemic. Rather than looking for an alternative employment, he decided that the time was ripe to strive towards his professional dream.

“I had been working in marketing full-time with different agencies and companies since 2016. With enough encouragement from everyone around me, I started to build my portfolio and realised I had gathered enough experience to at least try to do it on my own and see what happens.”

Contrary to what he expected, the biggest challenge turned out to be making sure he does not fall into the trap of overworking. 

“I’m fine with my brain randomly wanting to work after 10pm on one day and on a Sunday morning on another day, but only as long as I’m still taking the necessary time to relax and enjoy life outside of work at other points in my week,” he concludes with a smile.

But the drive towards self-employment is not the only one being witnessed among younger professional. Perhaps a more surprising aspect is the fact that the traditional values and validation that motivated the older workforce – money and success – is totally failing to incentivise Gen Z. 

‘We’re not as motivated by money and status’

The Growth Bully founder Stephen Ellul

Stephen Ellul, founder and CEO of The Growth Bully, a self-styled “Gen Z powered agency” mentions precisely this when I ask him about the strategies his company uses to motivate and retain team-members.

“I’ve been in the industry for about seven years, and I can tell you that Gen Z looks for  flexibility, work-life balance and mental support, most of all. We’re certainly not as motivated by money and status compared to previous generations. As employees, we’d want the company culture to align with our values, and we insist on transparency. A Gen Z employee wants to know exactly what’s happening, what the next step for the company is, what meetings are taking place with which client…”

Stephen explains that, as an employer, he translates these values into practice in different ways. There are no ‘employees’, there are team-mates and colleagues. Mental health check-ins are part of the standard three-month evaluation. There are no mandated team-building activities; instead, management takes note of what the team values and offers that instead.

“I’ve been in that position, where you have to attend drinks under the guise of company culture, and it all feels a bit extra. My team values time off, so we prefer to offer that. Everyone has a say in what the company does. It’s all about the ‘human’ perks, rather than commodities. In-house cafeterias are useless, if the team feels that the company isn’t quite aligning with what they believe in,” he says.

In practice this sounds like a tall order. It’s practically impossible for a company to ensure that values stay aligned with those of the entire team. In Stephen’s case, he maintains that they don’t just take on any clients. The need to believe in their product, have similar values and operate upon mutual respect.

“We have dropped good clients just because our work ethic didn’t align. We move forward after a discussion with the team. This works for us because of our size. Is it scalable to bigger companies? I’m not sure about that, but one of my values is to keep the team focused precisely so we can shape operations according to what we believe in.”

He applies this approach to company clients, explaining that when the client is targeting Gen Z recruitment they are encouraged to have such elements in place. Asked whether the recruitment industry in Malta is catching up on these trends, Stephen admits that in most industries there is still a huge leadership gap between employer and employee, with the old way of ‘ruling with an iron fist’ approach maintained, with the exception of gaming, fintech and AI.

“I’ve seen people leave for a lower salary simply because they didn’t like the company’s approach. Gen Z is looking for leaders, not for employers. Unfortunately, the longer a company has been around, the less likely it is that such practices will be in place,” he adds.

One way his company bridges this gap by dedicating the last 20 minutes of performance reviews, which take place every three months, to a ‘roast me’ session’, where the entire team is encouraged to give feedback about the way leadership is being tackled.

“It’s a very powerful tool. I just give the team the mike so they can tell me what they’re thinking.”

The jargon alone is completely different to what millennial management would be used to. While, to some, this may appear superficial, reality is that it is indicative of an entirely different mindset. Micro-managing likewise has gone out of the window – “we foster trust through team spirit,” Stephen says. “If someone isn’t pulling their weight, it affects the entire team and that’s the motivator.”

In a few short years, Gen Z will be doing more than influencing the employment landscape via trends. They will be controlling it, shaping it and deciding what’s next. How does Stephen see this future as shaping up? “It will always be about trust. I see a shift towards inclusivity, mental health becoming a standard part of wellness programmes, an approach that is overall more human,” he concludes.

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