Could Gen Z Free the World From Email?


CreditCredit...Genevieve Ashley

Despite the reasonable qualms of older generations, Generation Z — generally defined as people born between 1997 and 2012 — is pioneering the return of chaotic trends like low-rise jeans, pop-punk and Ed Hardy.

But members of Gen Z do seem to agree with their elders on one thing: Email. Ugh.

And, if we’re lucky, maybe they can one day save everyone from overflowing inboxes.

According to a 2020 study from the consulting firm Creative Strategies, there’s a generational gap in primary work tools. The survey found that for those 30 and above, email was among the top tools they used for collaboration. For those under 30, Google Docs was the app workers associated most with collaboration, followed by Zoom and iMessage.

Adam Simmons, 24, prefers to communicate using “literally anything but email.” Mr. Simmons, who is based in Los Angeles, started his own video production company after graduating from the University of Oregon in 2019. He primarily communicates with his eight employees and his clients, which are mostly sports teams, over text, Instagram messages and Zoom calls.

“Email is all your stressors in one area, which makes the burnout thing so much harder,” he said. “You look at your email and have work stuff, which is the priority, and then rent’s due from your landlord and then Netflix bills. And I think that’s a really negative way to live your life.”

The turning point for Mr. Simmons was when a work email from the Seattle Mariners got lost in his spam folder.

“It’s actually crazy how outdated it is,” he said of email, becoming increasingly animated during the interview that we set up over text. He noted that messages show up in spam that aren’t spam and that he has to upload video clips elsewhere before emailing them. “It’s painful to use Google Drive.”

“Part of the whole reason I don’t want to work for someone else is because I don’t want to constantly check my email and make sure my boss didn’t email me,” Mr. Simmons said. “That’s the most stressful thing.”

In a recent survey by the consulting firm Deloitte, 46 percent of Gen Z respondents reported feeling stressed all or most of the time in 2020 and 35 percent said they had taken time off work because of stress and anxiety.

Members of Generation Z are often portrayed as constantly glued to a phone without questioning the cost. But Gloria Moskowitz-Sweet and Erica Pelavin, who co-founded a nonprofit focused on youth and technology, explained in a 2019 article that digital natives are perhaps best equipped to think critically about digital habits. Members of Gen Z “are remarkably perceptive about the ways that technology has changed their world and have a much more nuanced view than adults give them credit for,” they wrote.

Inbox stress is, of course, not unique to people born after the email rom-com “You’ve Got Mail” hit theaters (’98) or who were entering kindergarten at the dawn of the Gmail era (2004).

In April, in response to a reader callout on pandemic burnout, The New York Times received dozens of messages specifically about email, or what one reader described as “the eternal chore.”

Another said: “It has, on the worst days, brought me to tears.”

Others put it more bluntly: “Every time I get an email, it is like getting stabbed. Another thing for me to do,” a student wrote.

The shortcomings of email have only been exacerbated by the pandemic because it has replaced too much: Decisions that were once made by stopping by a co-worker’s desk have been relegated to inbox ping-pong. Some people wrote about feeling a sense of guilt for not being able to reply faster or for adding emails to their colleagues’ inboxes. Others described how responding to a barrage of emails caused them to lose track of other tasks, creating a cycle that’s at best unproductive and at worse infuriating.

“After the email is sent, I have to think hard about where I was and what I was doing. It’s the digital equivalent of walking into a room only to forget why you went there,” wrote Vishakha Apte, 46, an architect in New York.

Some have been trying to get rid of email for years. Writers like Cal Newport, whose book “A World Without Email: Reimagining Work in an Age of Communication Overload” was published in March, have long argued that the “tyranny of the inbox” causes us to lose our ability to concentrate. Switching rapidly between email, Slack and other tasks creates a pileup in our brains. “We also feel frustrated. We feel tired. We feel anxious. Because the human brain can’t do it,” Mr. Newport told The Times’s Ezra Klein in March. He has been singing this same song since at least 2016.

In 2017, a study found that the average inbox had 199 unread emails. And here, almost 16 months into remote work for many white-collar employees, inboxes have only become more bloated.

But younger workers, who were disproportionately hard-hit by the instability of the pandemic, appear to be reassessing their professional priorities. And maybe they will really be able to do what the work of Mr. Newport — who at 39 is on the elder cusp of millennial — has not been able to do.

Harrison Stevens, 23, started a vintage clothing company while attending the University of Oregon and opened a brick-and-mortar location after graduating in 2020. He started giving clients his personal number and has them text or call him, which he says helps alleviate the load but introduces a new problem of not having clear work-life balance.

Emailing is “almost like a social anxiety people have,” Mr. Stevens said. “I think a lot of people find it easier and more convenient to send a text than compose an email. It almost feels like there are other eyes looking, like, I have to be so professional in this setting and make sure everything is perfect,” he says, noting that there’s something less formal about using your fingers and thumbs on a phone keyboard, rather than a computer keyboard.

For some people, adding texting can complicate communication, introducing multiple ways to be expected to get in touch with someone.

Aurora Biggers, 22, a journalist who recently graduated from George Fox University, said she used to give out her personal number but was getting so many texts that it was infringing on personal time. She thinks her generation is less inclined to use email as their main form of communication. While she likes the work-home boundaries that email offers, she said what she finds most difficult is that there isn’t one standard form of communication. The main problem with email then is not necessarily that there is too much of it, but there is too much competition.

“It’s impossible to expect email to be the main form of communication because so many people aren’t working office jobs or are sitting in an office with an email notification coming through,” she said. “I don’t think it’s the most relevant way to expect people to communicate with you.”