Gen Z, who are between the ages of 11 and 26, will make up nearly one-third of the U.S. workforce by 2030. And they’re already shaking up the workplace, from demanding their companies take a stand on societal and environmental issues, to the way they dress in the office. And then there’s Coco Gauff.
The 19-year-old tennis prodigy took home her first Grand Slam title at the conclusion of this year’s U.S. Open on Saturday. Earlier in the tournament, Gauff went viral on social media for calling out an umpire turning a blind eye to her opponent who was bending the rules. Gauff’s willingness to advocate for herself and her maturity in handling the situation has elevated her beyond the world of tennis and into a Gen Z icon, earning the praise of TikTokers, a former president and first lady, and white-collar professionals alike.
She even displayed a typically open-minded Gen Z response when a group of climate activists disrupted her semifinal match, with one of them gluing themselves to the concrete: “I always speak about preaching about what you feel and what you believe in,” Gauff said. “It was done in a peaceful way, so I can’t get too mad at it.”
And then there was her run-in with the umpire. In a first-round match on Aug. 28, Gauff stormed up to the chair umpire after she had served and her opponent had thrown her hands up, claiming she wasn’t ready.
“She’s never ready when I’m serving. She went over the clock, like, four times. You gave her time violation once. How is this fair?” Gauff argued to the umpire in the third set of the match.
“I don’t care what she’s doing on her serve, but my serve, she has to be ready,” Gauff added.
”She stood up for what was right and she was able, with conviction and clarity, to say ‘this is wrong and this is why it’s been wrong,’” Ellen Weinreb, managing director of sustainability-focused recruiting firm Weinreb Group, a recruiter with 25 years of experience evaluating talent, said at Fortune’s Impact Initiative conference in Atlanta on Wednesday. Weinreb added that there’s a clear “message” to employers from this: “To listen and to be active listeners because they [Gen Zers] are standing up and they have good things to say.”
The day of the confrontation, ESPN posted a video of the argument on TikTok which went on to amass over 23 million views and more than 2.7 million likes. In a press conference after the match, Gauff said she had no regrets on how she handled the situation, only that she should’ve spoken up sooner.
“I actually watched the video back when I was taking an ice bath,” Gauff said. “Because sometimes you have these emotions, you forget what you said. And I would still say everything that I said in that moment again.”
Everyone from TikTokers to the Obamas, who were present for the match, praised the young player for standing up for herself and for her maturity in handling the situation.
Gen Z’s ‘righteous anger’
Gen Z is pushing to find more meaning at work, and it’s no wonder why: They’ve lived through financial crises, survived a global pandemic, and wrestled with the shadow of climate anxiety, all in the first couple decades of their life. Gen Z is angry in light of their experiences, and that’s why they’re laying down their terms—establishing work-life boundaries, demanding fair pay, and pushing their employer’s to take stands on societal issues like sustainability and diversity.
“I think that it is the standard position of the status quo to dismiss Gen Z’s anger as naive, as misplaced,” Ziad Ahmed, the 24-year-old founder and CEO of JUV Consulting, a Gen Z consulting firm, said at Fortune’s Impact Initiative. The purpose of his consulting firm is to make people “contend with Gen Z’s anger as righteous, as necessary.”
Every young generation of the past has looked at the world with a sense of “moral clarity and freshness,” but Ahmed says that Gen Z has “outsized power” because of the internet, which they use to amplify their causes instantaneously.
Being born into a world of computers, smart phones, and social media, their digital-nativeness is like a “superpower” that “the rest of us had to catch up to understand,” Peter Carter, executive vice president of Delta, said at Fortune‘s Impact Initiative, emphasizing the importance of embracing their unique skills. And some companies are taking strides to do so, like establishing “shadow boards,” a committee of younger employees whose advice supplements executives and the C-suite.
Gen Z is inspiring others to do the same as they unapologetically redefine the status quo. Ninety-three percent of employees say they’ve been influenced by coworkers in their twenties across these causes and more, according to the 2023 Edelman Trust Barometer report, and 61% say that their Gen Z and young millennial coworkers have influenced their willingness to pressure their employer to change things they don’t approve of.
“Historically, we were told, ‘For 20 years you learn, for 30 years you lead, and maybe for 20 years, if you’re lucky, if you live this false American dream, then you get to live,’” Ahmed said at Fortune Impact Initiative. “Gen Z is taking the microphone back and saying, ‘Hell no. I want to learn, I want to lead, and I want to live simultaneously. And you’ll be damned if you tell me otherwise.’”