Highlights from Chapter 2 in our forthcoming book.
We surveyed REAL Gen Zers to discover what it’s like to launch a career, with or without training or college courses, in today’s world. Our narrators hail from across the United States and around the world. They work in politics, retail, fashion design, education, and pornography. We’re proud to highlight them in our book. Meet the first 23 here, and stay tuned for more in-depth profiles to follow!
Not Their Parents’ or Grandparents’ Work-World
Our survey revealed vivid ways in which this generation differs from their predecessors. We’ve grouped respondents’ stories into similar experiences, as follows.
Twenty-three-year-old transgender male Kyle works in Tampa, Florida as a lube tech for Hyundai, changing the oil in cars, rotating tires, checking air filters, and refilling windshield and coolant fluids. Striving toward his goal of becoming an auto mechanic, he’s the exception in noting that his parents and grandparents all worked in “physically relaxed” desk jobs, while he “loves the people” and the “hands-on, physically demanding work” with cars.
We heard from far more Gen Zers who expect the opposite: For example, Michael from Taylor, Michigan, says, “I expect my labor to be mental as opposed to the manual labor that my parents and grandparents are engaged in. Moreover, I foresee myself in a workplace that is constantly changing and not doing a job that is repetitive from day to day (e.g. law as opposed to factory work).”
Twenty-one-year-old Siddhant notes, “Everyone in my family has been service-based, [such as] in the jewelry business or serving for the Army, but I am trying to serve in healthcare for people.” His dream job is to be a pediatric cardiologist, and he’s on his way now as an unpaid intern at his local hospital in Los Angeles, California. He feels the weight of great expectations from his parents to become a doctor and earn a lot of money. Majoring in biology and minoring in Spanish and Japanese, Siddhant wants to coach soccer on the side.
Mia, a 21-year-old from San Antonio, Texas, says, “I hope to truly love what I do”—unlike her mother, who quit her teaching job to raise her children, and her father, a lawyer who wishes he were a teacher.
Marie, a 23-year-old cinema concessions clerk in Newark, New Jersey, wants to own a business someday and believes that, unlike her parents and grandparents’ generations, women now can “be the boss.” Her biggest obstacle is her student loans. Virtually all of our survey respondents have felt stress and limitations due to academic debt.
Seventeen-year-old Daniel (a woman) from the biblical town of Beer Sheva, Israel, dreams of being a lawyer or FBI agent—something her parents and grandparents would never have aspired to be. “It is my dream, and I plan to achieve it,” she resolves. She works in the office of a summer camp. “I am also responsible for other logistical stuff, calling people, making sure they paid for the camp, calling other candidates to fill out an application, organizing everything,” she says.
She shares what it’s like to be on her side of her company’s outreach. “My phone is constantly going crazy with emails, calls, and texts. I don’t like being serious all the time at my job. I also don’t like it when people don’t answer my phone calls … Don’t hang up in my face, that’s plain rude, and it is my job to be nice to you. Don’t yell at me for things that are out of my control, because sometimes I really want to help but they don’t even give me a chance.
“With all that said, I love my job, it’s fun, and I feel really professional working in an actual office.”
Constant Adaptation to New Technology
Gen Zers face a work-world their parents could not even have imagined. For example, 21-year-old Parker works full time for a nonprofit organization, The Representation Project, as the manager of the social media platform the “Youth Media Lab,” a new kind of social media for activists ages fourteen to twenty-four. Her role entails marketing for the app, moderating the app, managing, hiring, and facilitating app “Ambassadors,” and implementing new strategies. She makes $20/hour and says, “My work for this job differs day to day.” When her parents were starting off, there were no such platforms as apps and social media.
Sydney, from Rye, New York, says that, “New technological advances in the workplace produce great shifts. I want to pursue music, an industry that is rapidly changing and morphing to the new advancements being made in streaming.”
Twenty-year-old Chase in Santa Cruz, California cites advanced technology as what will set her career apart from her predecessors. Her dream job is photography, and her path toward that is in food service. She started off as a runner for a Hawaiian restaurant and now works as a hostess/busser at a fine dining restaurant on a golf course, which hosts the sort of weddings and special events she hopes one day to photograph.
For now, she makes minimum wage and says, “I love the social aspect of it and meeting people from all over the world and forming a team with my coworkers. It is very hard work, and going out of your way to meet peoples’ needs can be challenging but also a good skill. I have learned many things while working in the restaurant industry. I have learned how to manage my time, to have patience, to multitask and be flexible, and that communication is key and that people can be very demanding.”
This 16-year-old summer camp counselor in Israel expects her career to be “way more connected to social media, way more global, and very fast-changing and unique.” Her current job “is the most exhausting yet rewarding experience,” she reflects. “I get to work with kids every day. I learn a lot from them, and I can always see how good kids are on their basic level. They are also very needy and require full attention and dedication. I love my job. I have a job environment that respects me and my rights and is made out of people my age that I can relate to and get help from.”
Working from the Ground Up Toward the Dream Goal
Eighteen-year-old Ariel from Boston dreams of a job “where I make everything I need to survive (grow my own food, provide my own energy, sell produce on the side to buy things I need). That would be the ultimate and unattainable dream.” She says she’s got a long way to go from the job she just quit: “I last worked in a restaurant as a hostess, I made $13/hour, everything about it sucked.”
Melissa, a 20-year-old Ulta beauty advisor working in Huntington Beach, California, will be the first in her family to graduate college. She hopes to make more money and work as a nutritionist, but for now she enjoys “being surrounded by all things beauty” in a “fun and easy environment.”
This 19-year-old video production intern in Redwood City, California, notes, “As occupations become more specialized, I feel like it is harder to know where I will end up than it might have been for my parents.” Currently he’s in his final year of high school and earning money on the side as a front-desk clerk at a climbing gym. “The worst part of my job,” he laments, “is probably cleaning the hair out of the bathrooms at the end of the day, but I feel like I’ve become a little numb to that at this point.”
Twenty-four-year-old Joanna from Ft. Smith, Arizona, is working her way through graduate school with a career goal of guidance counseling. As a full-time teller at a credit union making $13/hour, for Joanna it’s all about the people. “What I love about my current job is the interactions I get to have with our members,” she says. “I love making personal connections with them as well as helping them the best I can with their accounts. What I do hate, however, are rude members. Members who think they are entitled whenever there is an issue and refuse to work with us.”
Becka, a 23-year-old from Michigan, started off as a gas station pizza cook. She feels stuck in her current job in manufacturing and unable to work toward her dream job of editing and marketing books for independently-published authors.
“I spend more time daydreaming about the side gig than actually working on it, as most of my awake time is stuck being present at something completely irrelevant to what I would rather be doing,” she says. She sees a direct correlation between her unfulfilling job and the contribution she wishes to make to the world.
“I’m a girl stuck in an environment she hates: one that doesn’t care about flexible hours, employee development, or even rewarding us when we do a good job. Who I want to be is a woman who gets to work remotely, have no income limit, do work that I love, and do it with honesty and genuine compassion. I want to help people help themselves so they can achieve the same happiness I so desperately crave in my everyday life.”
Instinct for Entrepreneurism
The generation after Millennials grew up during the recession, witnessing the collapse of the housing market and their parents losing jobs. They’re under no illusions that there is such a thing as a completely secure job.
As Jacob Morgan, author of The Future of Work, says, “Job security is a complete myth, as is long-term employment. Companies lay off employees in droves…by the thousands! They just make sweeping cuts when they need to. The average employee tenure is under five years and for millennials, it’s under three years.”
Gen Zers seem to have innate entrepreneurial zest—for example, 20-year-old Kian, who dreams of being a fashion editor, already works toward that goal while in college—first as a marketing intern for makeup company SEPHORA and now contracting out his own design projects for his friend’s swimsuit line.
Jazmine, a 23-year-old from Detroit, Michigan, didn’t wait for anyone to bestow her dream job of being an executive director for a nonprofit organization: She launched Urban Outdoor Outreach in 2016. Her mission is to introduce urban youth to the transformative powers of the outdoors and close the “racial and economic ‘adventure gap’ to benefit not only the youth themselves, but also American conservation.
“I manage everything for the organization from funding, to programming, to filing tax paperwork,” she says. “Right now, I do not earn anything. The top aspect of my job is that I am doing what I love and helping others. I hate that my job is demanding and even in cases where the maximum effort is put in (such as with grant writing) there are sometimes no returns.”
There’s a certain hustle energy about this generation; rather than feeling daunted at the lack of security and benefits in the workplace, they thrive on making their own rules, schedules, and benefits.
Drive Toward Impact over Money
Our survey respondents ranked stability and making an impact above salary and fame. Unlike many of his cohorts, Matt strives for fame above all else—perhaps in part because of his chosen field, screenwriting. Currently, he works as an assistant to the CEO of an entertainment company in Los Angeles. “The job oftentimes is stressful and requires long hours,” he says. He makes $18/hour ($1,000/week) and loves the people he works with, which he says, “I’ve found to be crucial” to his wellbeing at work.
Gen Zers view themselves as global citizens. Many might agree with 19-year-old Sydney from Brisbane, Australia, who says, “I want to work as an international teacher. I do not want to stay at home. I want to live in different cities and see the world. I want to travel and be able to say that I wasn’t born in the same city I grew up and died in.” For her, work equals freedom. “I crave independence,” she says, “and I know the first step to gaining this independence is getting a job.”
Ella from New York City is seventeen years old. So far, she’s worked only in unpaid internships. Her number one goal is to make an impact, through politics, at the United Nations.
Kylene from Birmingham, Alabama dreams of becoming a psychologist to veterans. “I want to help individuals be the best version of themselves,” she says, ranking “making an impact” as her highest career goal.
Facing Age Discrimination
One obstacle Gen Zers face is inherent in the way some coworkers perceive them because of their age. Donna works two jobs en route to her dream of being an interior designer: as a retail associate, assisting customers as they shop and runs the cashier as customers check out; and as a design intern, shadowing and assisting two designers in deciding and planning interior spaces.
“I love the opportunities I am gaining from my two jobs,”” she says, “but also don’t like how I am not taken very seriously at my internship because I am young and don’t have much experience yet.”
The Insecurity of the Gig Economy
Their parents may have worked a side job or two to pay the rent and put food on the table; but Gen Z may begin and end their careers in the gig economy. Chloe wants to be a partner at an accounting firm, but for now she works as a DoorDash driver. Catering to companies and families when they order food on the app, she “loves the flexibility of picking my own hours, but I do not like how unorganized and how badly designed the system is for us.
“We often are underpaid,” she complains, “because of an app flaw. They also lack a support center to deal with our issues. At the end of the day I make around $18/hour, but it comes with a lot of annoyance.” Working amid the flux of evolving technology, her generation will always experience firsthand the bugs that accompany new technology.
Cover image used with permission from and gratitude for Ryoji Iwata via Unsplash.
Note from the authors:
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–Suzanne & Sanam