Here’s what Gen Z students want in their future careers

What college career counselors have to say about Gen Z and work

Recently, I invited a group of Gen Z college students to a WeWork coworking space here in New York City. We weren’t just there for the complementary espressos and cozy sofas. I had joined economics correspondent Paul Solman to shoot a piece for PBS NewsHour (which you can stream here). Our idea: Getting these kids off campus and into this temple of the gig economy would help them open up about what they really wanted from their future careers. And boy did they. Our small focus group told Paul and me a lot, but to capture the broader effects of these seismic changes, I reached out to some experts—career counselors from colleges across the country—to get their take.

Why Z is different

First, let’s back up and consider two things that set apart Generation Z (those born after 1996) from millennials (1981 to 1996). Number one, there’s the Great Recession. Although the oldest Gen Zers are graduating into a robust job market, they grew up watching their parents—mostly Gen Xers like myself—lose their income, their retirement savings, and their homes in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. Then there’s that whole Wi-Fi thing: Gen Z is the first generation born into a world that’s wirelessly connected, everywhere and at all times. That’s two major economic and technological shifts—and they color the way these kids view everything, including how they intend to make a living.

Let’s start with the recession. After seeing how fragile the job market can be, it’s no surprise the kids in our segment have taken a practical approach to their future careers. For them, college isn’t just an intellectual buffet, it’s a meal ticket. According to a 2017 Accenture survey, about 9 in 10 college grads chose a major with the job market in mind. Our Gen Z core sample fell in line with the stats: a pair of psych majors, a premed, a kid burnishing his credentials for government service.

Tempering that, though, is an understanding of just how unstable job stability can be. The career counselors backed that up. “During the recovery, students were interested in getting a job and were concerned more with immediate security,” said Deborah Jones, director of career development at Kentucky Wesleyan. “That began to shift fairly quickly as they were very aware that security was not a guarantee. I think one of the major impacts of the recession was the greater awareness that a job does not necessarily mean security.”

As digital natives, Gen Zers understand that the best laid career plans can easily be “disrupted” by emerging technology—like AI and other forms of automation.

“They are looking at jobs as truly ‘what’s next,’ as opposed to ‘this is rest of my life,’” said Karin Hanson, Michigan State’s interim executive director of career services. “They think, ‘I want to be flexible. My job today might not be available in 10 years.’”

So being practical these days means preparing for a shifting lifetime of work, not a single job. “In fact, statistics show that the average person will change careers five to seven times during their working life,” said Kaitlyn Weiss, associate director for career services at Rutgers. “That’s careers, not just jobs!”

Which brings us back to wireless connectivity. Digital technology gives Gen Zers opportunities to take control of their evolving careers in ways we never could have dreamed—and some aren’t even waiting for graduation day. “With online and gig opportunities, starting a ‘career’ can, and sometimes does, start while the student is completing a degree,” said Jones of Kentucky Wesleyan. Likewise, education doesn’t end your first day on the job. Gen Zers—including our PBS group—are adept at learning new skills on sites like Khan Academy and YouTube.

Yet, there’s evidence that gigging might not be every Z’s cup of tea. Monitoring the Future, a long-running University of Michigan survey of high school seniors, found that Gen Zers are actually less interested in working for themselves than their parents were at their age. (Although they might not have much choice in the matter. Leslie Moore, director of the Piper Center for Vocation and Career at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn., pointed out that, “based on data from the IRS, by 2020, 40% of the U.S. workforce will be contractors.”)

What they want

Still, for all their ambivalence about the gig economy and skepticism about job security, Gen Zers are hardly jaded about their future careers. Maybe it’s a reaction to the cynicism of their “slacker” Gen X parents, but the young people in our focus group were as idealistic as they come. When we asked them to rank five job traits—mentorship, good salary, meaningful work, health insurance, and diversity—there was a clear winner, and it wasn’t a big paycheck.

“What we are seeing here is Gen Z wants to do work that they believe is meaningful,” said Moore of St. Olaf College. That sentiment was echoed in conversations with career counselors around the nation. In fact, a newly published survey from Bates College and Gallup found that four out of five mostly younger college graduates say finding a sense of purpose in work is “very” or “extremely” important. As Rocky Campbell, director of the career center at Lewis & Clark in Portland, Ore., put it: “They’re looking for global impact at a mission-driven organization.”

Talking about money can leave you tongue-tied. My weekly newsletter is full of financial conversation starters.

Defining purpose

But what exactly does Gen Z mean by “meaning”? For one, they want what we all want: to be taken seriously. “Regardless of career field chosen, all of the students I am seeing want to make an impact, and they have their own ideas about how to do that,” said Kentucky Wesleyan’s Jones. The best way to keep a Gen Zer at a job, according to a 2017 survey of 5,000 college students, is to offer an empowering workplace. And that means everyone’s input is valued. We’re talking about the most diverse generation in U.S. history, in which nearly half identify as belonging to a race other than non-Hispanic white. No surprise, then, that our WeWork group ranked “diversity” just behind “meaningful work.”

So, Gen Zers want to make meaningful contributions at their jobs. But they also want their work to have an impact outside the office. Career counselors kept saying the same thing: Many recent grads are drawn to “helping” professions. As Monica Ware, Arizona State’s assistant director of Career and Professional Development Services, said: “Interest in nonprofits is at an all-time high. Often, anecdotally, students engage with our office stating that they want to ‘help people.’”

How can the rest of us help Gen Z? Again, it comes back to taking them seriously. “We need to provide them guidance,” said Kentucky Wesleyan’s Jones. “But we also need to listen to their ideas for change and allow them the opportunity to try out those ideas.” Which is why, Michigan State’s Hanson said, the career services folks in Lansing are trying something new this year. “For new student orientation, we’re doing a ‘purpose’ workshop for the first time ever,” Hanson said. “What is important to you? What are your interests?”

If Paul Solman’s ’60s generation wanted to change the world, my ’80s cohort was chasing the almighty dollar, and millennials just needed to pay off their student loans (stereotypes, I know), Gen Z might be a healthy mix of pragmatic and idealistic. “They see money and social impact as the same, not either/or,” Lewis & Clark’s Campbell said. Smart, because finding work that pays the bills and makes a difference? That’s what turns a job into a career.

career digital natives digital technology diversity future career gen z generation z gig economy Great Recession job security meaningful work social impact students work

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