Our ‘Unprecedented’ Twenties: A Conversation with Gen Z

By Haley Prince, Intern

Gen Z has felt like a “buzzword” for some time. We are the generation of unprecedented events. Beyond that, what else defines us? For one, we are a massive emerging consumer group with an estimated buying power of $360 billion. But keep in mind, as a consumer group we are unwaveringly socially conscious. In general, we are highly engaged in social and political issues. This theme was solidified in the 2020 presidential elections, where young voters played a pivotal role. According to election results, in multiple states young voters were the key to Biden’s success. Additionally, Pew Research claims Gen Z is on track to be the best-educated generation to date. This is all to say that Gen Z has arrived as a social, economic, and political force – not just a buzzword – and is not going anywhere.

In the past few years, Gen Z has stepped onto the world stage. The question remains, are we ready? Recent college graduates entering the workforce have inherited some unfavorable conditions: record-high living costs, an impending potential recession, increasing social and political unrest, and COVID-induced uncertainty that has upended many expectations that held true until March 2020. However, one advantage persists, a booming job market. Hiring rates are rebounding with gusto since the 2020 drop-off. Jobs are emerging and evolving with every passing day, especially as the market demands more intellectual capital. So, how is Gen Z doing? Are we thriving, struggling, or oscillating somewhere in between? Well, why not just ask? 

To gain awareness of current Gen Z attitudes and draw insights into how brands and employers can better understand the circumstances facing my generation, I surveyed my social media following for answers. Analyzing my profile analytics, I found that my follower base is 80.4% “Gen Z” –  the vast majority between the ages of 18-24 – making them a convenient sample from which to poll. I asked my followers how they are feeling about employment, housing, the economy, and our nation. I received between 450 and 500 responses per question. Think of these results as a straw poll, rather than a truly scientific study. In other words, it is very possible my Baby-Boomer-great-aunt responded to the survey as an outlier, compromising its focus on a solely Gen Z audience. So, this article by no means claims to be a definitive source, but rather an exploratory one… one that tells you with reasonable accuracy where Gen Z stands, where we are going, and why you should care. To not understand Gen Z is to ignore our boundless power. 

Note: In this article, I am using the term “Gen Z” to identify a cohort of my followers and to inform personal anecdotal knowledge supported by studies. My intention is not to generalize or broad sweep, but rather to bring awareness to emerging patterns. 

Question: Finding a job is ___. 

Response: Easy: 18%, Hard: 82%

Despite an above-average job market, post-grads report finding a job is challenging. So if it’s not the market that’s making things difficult, what is? Perhaps, it is just inherently difficult without any exacerbating factors. In the application process, we must be incredibly persistent and resilient. Finding our bearings post-pandemic has been difficult. One minute I was a sophomore in college, with no idea what I wanted to do. I went on spring break in March 2020, returned to a virtual school experience, and suddenly found myself as a senior (still with little idea of what I wanted to or could do). 

Rather than finding any job, it might be more accurate to say finding the right job is where the challenge lies. Job-hopping is more common for Gen Z workers than for any other generation. Figuring out what we want to do after college and following through is hard. Figuring out who we are in the “after” of college should be a complex question and answer. But rather than complain, there is value to facing the challenge head-on. Reframing “I have to figure out what I want to do” to “I get to figure out what I want to do.” I urge my fellow Gen Zers to accept the challenge that lies before us and to accept it without pessimism or self-pity. 

Why you should care: 

Many successful people have overcome the challenges that come with being a “recession graduate.” However, that may not be the reality or fate of Gen Z as this fit of economic hardship could pass. So what does this survey say about Gen Z’s headspace? As both a member and observer of Gen Z, I believe we are tired of being the “unlucky” ones. If everyone keeps telling us what a bad hand we’ve been dealt, we will surely start to believe it. So, in communicating and engaging with Gen Z, keep it light. Not only do we want optimism, but we need optimism. We want to be applauded for resilience and persistence to find the right path, rather than pitied for our circumstances. A forward-looking approach could have a watershed impact. Acknowledge and empathize with the past, but end on a positive note (and please ditch the “unprecedented times” angle.) 

Question:  Finding an apartment is ___.

Response: Easy: 10%, Hard: 90%  

New York City is the top post-graduate destination for my university specifically and age demographic at large. The median rent in Manhattan for new leases is $4,000, a 25% year-over-year increase. According to a study by Credit Karma, 32% of Gen Z is spending nearly half of our income on rent. In the eyes of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, this means many in my generation are considered “severely rent burdened.” In my poll, roughly 9 out of 10 respondents say finding housing is a challenge. This is a statistic I do not find surprising after being on the receiving end of some apartment hunt horror stories. Not only is finding an apartment near impossible but keeping an apartment is equally challenging in the new “post-COVID” economic environment. Breakwater Strategy Associate, Claire Wootton, commented on her experience with New York City housing saying, “I was the lucky benefactor of a ‘covid rate’ when I moved into my apartment last year, but that year is up in September, and with the new lease would come a 15% rent increase. So instead, I’m moving again!” 

Why you should care:

Gen Z does not have much of a financial safety net and many of us are likely to emerge from college with student loan debt, the future of which is uncertain. Most of what we are or will be making is consumed by the present cost of living. Individuals in this age range tend to have low savings and high debt. Immediate costs are more urgent than those off in the distance. This is not to say Gen Z is frivolous. Many studies have found the opposite. Experts have reported that out of all generations, Gen Z has proven to be the most fiscally conscious at this stage of life. Therefore it seems that Gen Z is not careless, but rather the cost of living is all-consuming at the moment. It is not that we do not want to save but rather we can’t. So what does this mean for groups engaging with Gen Z? As an employer, provide empathy and programmatic support to support talent in more expensive locales. As a politician, provide relief. As a business, provide solutions or alternatives. Lighten the burden where you can.

These next two questions we will look at side-by-side.

Question: I am worried about the economy.

Response: Yes: 66%, No: 34%

Question: I am worried about the direction our country is going in.

Response: Yes: 91%, No: 9%

Despite an economy worthy of concern, Gen Z respondents are more concerned about the direction of our country than the economy itself. In the face of a financially-uncertain point in our lives, the larger concern is with the world we are living in rather than what we are paying to live in it. With deep partisan divides, threats to democracy, and general social upheaval, there is cause for concern, and it is wearing on us. But isn’t everyone living in the same social moment? Is Gen Z jaded from the past few years of polarization and upheaval as we are coming of age or just honest about what we see from our perspective? Given the politically and socially active nature of Gen Zers, it is clear that my generation cares deeply about social issues to a unique degree and is ready and able to act based on our values. Right now, concerns about the direction we’re headed take precedence over economic uncertainty. A news notification about a school shooting is more salient for my generation than an inflation report.

Just because my poll found that a larger share of Gen Z worries about the direction of our country does not mean there is no concern for economic issues. Well over half of the respondents said they were stressed about the economy and finding a job that could help pay for housing. Gen Z has undoubtedly felt the pinch of inflation every time we fill up our car tank or purchase groceries. 

Why you should care: 

Social issues go farther with Gen Z than economic ones. When discussing economics, it is wise to introduce it in the context of existing social concerns. A study by brand consultancy BBMG and strategy firm GlobeScan found that Gen Z does not trust businesses to act in the best interest of society. Consequently, we are more likely than other generations to reject businesses that do not present a social agenda that aligns with our own. In fact, one study found that the vast majority will even pay 10% more for a product that does align with Gen Z values than a more affordable alternative. To be truly “in” with Gen Z, businesses and leaders must be socially conscious and develop strategies to communicate these views clearly to the growing population of consumers. Now is a critical time for businesses to prove their benevolence and social conscience. Communicate and market in a way that resonates with Gen Z by leading with a personal narrative rather than an economic report, making and sharing strategic decisions in the best interest of a social cause instead of the bottom line, and setting a clear vision for the brand’s social positions and sticking to them. Most importantly, when Gen Z is loud, you should also be loud.

To conclude: So, overall, how is Gen Z doing? Pretty good considering! We are at a point of personal growth, as we should be. Perhaps we are underprepared for the real world because the pandemic stunted our professional growth. Perhaps the odds (and economy) are against us. But, we are tenacious and have overcome so much already, all while having a great sense of humor on social media. We are at a time where we would benefit from hope, but that does not make us remotely close to hopeless. It is important to remember that Gen Z is healing. Debilitating mental health struggles have plagued my age demographic over the past few years. A survey by McKinsey found that Gen Z respondents were two to three times more likely than other generations to report thinking about, planning, or attempting suicide in the 12-month period spanning late 2019 to late 2020. The CDC even reports that suicide is the second-leading cause of death in Gen Z. But Gen Z is getting stronger every day. We are a force to be reckoned with as more of us find our way into the workforce. We will fight for the kind of world we want to live in and reward those who fight alongside us. The findings in this article are not groundbreaking, but rather a reminder. A reminder that Gen Z is not a victim but a survivor.