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Gen Z in the workplace: Embracing an uncertain future

When prompted in a written reflection, two Gen Z students in our undergraduate career class captured the zeitgeist of this generation’s approach to traditional careerism. The first student wrote: “Why would I give my entire life to work when most organizations give us little in return?” The second student wrote: “COVID has really changed my values about life and work. For me, I realized work is not everything and it is important to enjoy life and relax; work is something that should be flexible, not constricting.”

Both responses represent a change in how today’s students are viewing the future of work. Diminishing returns for traditional approaches to work and career (e.g., “Pay your dues,” “You will be rewarded for hard work and dedication”), coupled with the challenges of the ongoing global pandemic (Aarts et al., 2021), have shifted notions of the meaning of career for many Gen Zers. Writer Charlie Warzel refers to this phenomenon as the development of career skepticism (Warzel, 2021). We coin it the opt out generation. Whatever the language used to describe this trend, a central theme emerges: Gen Z will be working and living differently than their predecessors.

As authors, we explore these issues in our recently published text, Mapping the Future of Undergraduate Career Education. Included below is an excerpt from the edited volume, which summarizes recent findings about the career aspirations of Generation Z, and how career development educators might better address their needs and support their decision-making processes. 

Career aspirations

Now that some members of Generation Z are beginning to move through their first decade in the professional world, information has emerged about their aspirations, styles and interests. The Millennial generation was found to have high expectations for career (Ng et al., 2010). Generation Z has expressed aspirations along the same lines, including the desire for social impact and a commitment to finding a career they will enjoy (Broadbent, 2017; Seemiller & Grace, 2016; Seemiller & Grace, 2019; The Center for Generational Kinetics, 2017). What perhaps makes Generation Z unique, then, is their profile as digital natives, who may be able to leverage technological skills, creativity and entrepreneurship as a means to reconcile their high expectations with the market’s stark realities. Indeed, we see that their interest in innovation and entrepreneurship continues to grow.

Book cover: Mapping the Future of Undergraduate Career EducationBroadbent et al.’s global study (2017) provided a sense of their motivations. Across all countries surveyed, Generation Z respondents rated opportunities to develop skills (24%), substantial pay (23%), opportunities for advancement (19%), opportunities to travel and meet new people (15%), and the ability to have a positive impact on the world (13%) as the most important factors when thinking about career. The authors noted that seeking celebrity status and fame was not a key driver for respondents, given that only 3% selected this as the most important factor. Seemiller and Grace (2019) also raised this tension of perception vs. reality, when it comes to members of Generation Z seeking fame or notoriety. Though we often hear about Generation Z’s active presence on social media, survey data paints a somewhat different picture of their perceived hunger for celebrity status. Certainly, some members of Generation Z may pursue social media influencing or other forms of celebrity as a career path, but there are still many members of the Generation who are less interested in high-visibility careers.

One Northeastern University national innovation report found that 63% of Generation Z student respondents wanted colleges to teach entrepreneurship, and another 42% expected to work for themselves at some point (Northeastern University, 2014). This figure may be closer to 30% for members of Generation Z in Asia (ADECCO, 2014), yet still a substantial interest. Seemiller and Grace (2019) explored Generation Z’s interest in entrepreneurship, suggesting that it may be the result of a combination of unique experiences, such as their observation of earlier generations’ successful use of entrepreneurship as a path through educational and professional challenges, and that they may see potential for social impact. During the COVID-19 pandemic, one survey found that 65% of Generation Z respondents already in the workforce hoped to be running their own business in 10 years. They ranked “generate original thought and ideas” as their primary characteristic of an ideal career. The survey summarized their findings on Generation Z’s entrepreneurial interests by stating that “Gen Z will likely seek dynamic, challenging and meaningful careers that see them solving community problems by working collaboratively across borders” (EY, 2021, p. 11).

“During the COVID-19 pandemic, one survey found that 65% of Generation Z respondents already in the workforce hoped to be running their own business in 10 years.”

The so-called “gig” economy describes the varied, flexible work options that had begun to proliferate in the global market and expanded dramatically following the start of the COVID-19 pandemic (Parker et al., 2020; Ruyter et al., 2019). This form of work offers some of the things Generation Z may be looking for, if one ignores the financial instability of temporary employment. As with any form of work, there are some who have chosen the gig approach and others who may not be able to access full-time work. Though many have celebrated gig work as a more flexible alternative to traditional 9-5 work (Carleton, 2018), the emotional and physical risks of “gig” work have received media attention (King, 2019).

Regardless, we know that Generation Z aspires to use their creativity and familiarity with technology to design their work. Many have expressed an interest in invention and content creation, drawing on their talents for creativity and collaboration (Gentina, 2020; Seemiller & Grace, 2019). Creativity has grown in value in the global market, rising to the third most valued skill in 2020, from 10th in 2015 (World Economic Forum, 2016). Seemiller and Grace (2019) also name creativity as a unique strength of Generation Z, suggesting a fortuitous match as this generation moves through their careers.

Communication and collaboration in the workplace are areas of potential evolution. Some members of Generation Z are pushing back against email and other popular forms of communication and collaboration (June, 2021), citing their inefficiency and tendency to exacerbate stress and burnout. This argument is not a new one. Cal Newport (2016, 2021), who self-identifies as a Millennial, and others have argued for an evolution of work structures and tools for several years, yet an influx of Generation Z workers, and the seismic impacts of COVID-19 and the social justice movements following the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, may represent a tipping point. Common tools will likely evolve, as work itself changes and more members of this generation move into the workforce.

Evolving career development and challenging the status quo

As reflected in the two responses from our undergraduate students in the introduction of this piece, Gen Z workers will continue to re-examine the role of work in their lives. What is evident to us (and supported by other scholarly observers) is that Gen Z workers will likely hold perceptions of career that may differ from previous generations. As Warzel noted: “The pandemic has left people sick, tired, exhausted, and rattled. It has also changed peoples’ priorities and upended their notions of what is possible. For the first time in a while, they’re starting to ask questions about the status quo” (Warzel, 2021, para. 19).

This critical challenge to traditional careerism can be directly applied to what we are seeing among many Gen Zers. Career development practitioners stand in a unique position to support and challenge Gen Zers to explore what is possible during this uncertain time.

Melanie V. Buford and Michael J. Stebleton, PhD., are career development educators at the University of Minnesota-Cities. They are co-editors (along with Michael J. Sharp) of the text Mapping the Future of Undergraduate Career Education: Equitable Career Learning, Development and Preparation in the New World of Work, published by Routledge (2023). More information can be found at: https://www.routledge.com/Mapping-the-Future-of-Undergraduate-Career-Education-Equitable-Career-Learning/Buford-Sharp-Stebleton/p/book/9781032081144
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Melanie V. Buford and Michael J. Stebleton, PhD., are career development educators at the University of Minnesota-Cities. They are co-editors (along with Michael J. Sharp) of the text Mapping the Future of Undergraduate Career Education: Equitable Career Learning, Development and Preparation in the New World of Work, published by Routledge (2023). More information can be found at: https://www.routledge.com/Mapping-the-Future-of-Undergraduate-Career-Education-Equitable-Career-Learning/Buford-Sharp-Stebleton/p/book/9781032081144
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