At my company, whenever there’s an announcement about an employee departure, a long email chain follows. Without fail, my inbox balloons with “We’ll miss you dearly” and “Remember when” and “Thank you for your” notes. When I started working at my first and current job — in March of 2021, from a wobbly Wayfair desk in my apartment — I used to scroll through these emails, hoping that I would be able to write meaningful messages about my colleagues one day, the kind made possible by the accumulation of tiny interactions and the coincidences of the everyday. More selfishly, I hoped that someone would be able to write such a message about me.
It’s been a year since then, and I don’t crave this the way I used to. And I’m not the only one — as hybrid work becomes encoded into our future, there’s a growing contingent of Gen Z knowledge workers who are test-driving a new version of adult social life — one centered outside the workplace. It’s a model that just might be healthier for us all.
Put simply, workplaces will never be the social hubs they once were. On the most basic level, the new normal of hybrid work means that we’ll be spending less time with our colleagues. This matters for several reasons, but one of them is that perceived belonging to a community is often what encourages people to do more than is required of them.
None of the young people I spoke to — from a range of careers and backgrounds — were against making friends at work or integrating into a company community post-pandemic. But the pandemic has shifted long-term thinking about the necessity of weaving together one’s work and social lives. Sandra Li, a recent college graduate, told me that she when moved to a new city two years ago, she expected to rely on her workplace and her cohort of new hires to get to know people. But I found myself nodding along as she discussed how she has adapted to the reality of not having made close work friends in a remote world and “can’t really imagine it changing now.” Even those who had experienced in-person work pre-pandemic and made genuine friendships on the job expressed similar sentiments.
Thus, many young knowledge workers now rely more heavily on other sources of social life: high school friends, college friends, friends of roommates, the ever-resilient house party.
There’s evidence that this will continue, even as returns to offices rumble forward. Ellie Singer, who took a pandemic gap year from college to work at a nonprofit, told me, “I think the pandemic really taught people . . . new ways to function with a friend group that is not necessarily surrounding you.” While long-distance friendships aren’t necessarily a replacement for in-person interactions, today’s young adults are well equipped to stay in touch with high school and college friends in a way that past generations couldn’t. As such, we can afford to be more selective about postgrad friendships.
Others, like Jacqueline Sun, who started her first job last year in consulting, pointed out that the pandemic has made young people more willing to embrace unconventional methods of making friends, such as Bumble BFF — which is like a dating app but for platonic relationships — further reducing reliance on the workplace to find like-minded humans.
We already know that the pandemic has seismically altered, and in many ways improved, many Americans’ relationship to work. It has, among other things, reduced the frequency of long commutes, offered caretakers increased flexibility, and given women and people of color more chances to be judged primarily on the quality of their work. Embracing the fact that our social lives shouldn’t be rooted in the workplace is the logical next step, reminding us that the workplace is, primarily, a source of income. For young knowledge workers in particular, Gen Z’s questioning of the centrality of labor is giving us space to reimagine the possibilities of adult life.
It’s a healthier way to work. After all, it’s easier to gently reject a task that doesn’t fall within your responsibilities when you’re not friends with the person asking. It’s easier to negotiate a raise if you’re not friends with your boss. This isn’t to say that people shouldn’t seek community within the workplace or develop genuine friendships there. But clearer boundaries can help us better identify when we’re being overworked or not compensated fairly and make it easier to speak up when we notice these discrepancies.
As we return to a hybrid office, I’m excited to form memories with colleagues and even have the occasional note to contribute to those farewell email chains. But I also hope to carry the lessons that I’ve learned about separating life from work into this next chapter, and continue striving for a life where I find fulfillment both on and off the job.
Katherine Hu is a Washington, D.C.-based writer and assistant at The Atlantic.