Debunking Neurodivergency in the Workplace

I recently began rewatching Mad Men for the first time since moving to New York. When I accepted the position that spurred my expatriation from the Midwest, I told my brother that my life would be the leftist version of the show. A boomer born in 1995, he furrowed his brow and retaliated, “No it’s not, Molly. That’s the point of the show — there is no leftist version.” Then, I was irritated that Andrew had not gotten any of my jokes in 22 years. Now, I’m irritated because he was right. 

Staying true to Gen-Z form, my introduction to conversations on mental health was through social media. While Tumblr circa 2010 was antithetical to mental health, it was the epicenter of my learnings. My generation shares similar introductions: for a decade we have been confronted with the realities of mental health through the lived experiences of others (many of those years prior to the “TW” flag) while obtaining vernacular to understand our own. Even without the country clubs, Memorial Day barbecues on Long Island, and after-hours trips to speakeasies, our world is so much larger than generations before us. To be connected to millions of people at once alters an individual perception of reality. But for all those millions of people to also interact with one another’s individual perceptions alters it further. This gross scale of interconnection leaves treacherous consequences. Unlike Don Draper, Gen Zers will not gaslight one another out of seeking therapy, but we are all too quick to send “going to work…KMS” to the group chat. 

When people say that Gen Zers are hard to work with because of our “mental health,” I hesitate. Certainly, the employees of Sterling Cooper would have aneurysms if they walked into JUV’s office and saw “slay of the day” written on our whiteboard. But the obstacles that I see for cooperating with our mental health are more complicated (for our non-fictional, current societal members). Of course, my generation must understand the extremely particular, phy-gital ecosystems we were raised in. Those currently in charge were not provided literacy in talking about mental health, let alone understanding their own well-being. What we certainly have been vocal about is complacency from these folks who refrain from using widely-accessible resources to understand. If 10-year-old Molly can read fanfiction about Harry Styles and still quote paragraphs 14 years later, Fortune 500 CEOs can understand ADHD. To me, this is the root of the issue. 

Working with Gen Z really just means that priority is placed on people rather than work. When we approach situations where an employee did not meet a deadline with the question, “What obstacles were in place that prevented you from delivering?” rather than, “Why wasn’t this done?,” we mitigate further mistakes because the person would be cared for. It seems a logical answer, but I keep in mind how my friend (and co-worker), Afreka Ebanks, describes Gen Z’s mental positioning: “awareness of collective burden.” This idea is the elevator pitch for the ways our childhood made us attune to the trials and tribulations of others: our hyper-awareness also made us hyper-sensitive. That’s right (in the red sense), Gen Z are snowflakes! Because we know how extensively mental health impacts our lives, we take lived experiences into account constantly. While I am not advocating for everyone to be under the collective burden Gen Zers certainly are, I expect employers to begin adopting a human-first approach in the workplace. 

Neurodivergence is a human truth, not an obstacle. Complacency in understanding it is the obstacle. For a generation that was born into recessions, political turmoil, housing crises, drug epidemics, and impending climate doom, do we think it’s reasonable to expect the same working environment of 1950s Madison Avenue? Using the origins of our decrepit 9-5 (Dolly Parton, you are not being @ed) to judge modernity is reductive when the lived realities of each period are accounted for. When employers begin doing so, they will realize what Andrew ascertained: the modern Mad Men is for naught. Today is now, and demands attention from the people living in it.  

Molly Kilbourne