Economics 101 for Young Americans Entering the Workforce

A new generation comes of age as a financial force.

11 mins read

In 2023, the oldest members of Generation Z celebrated their 26th birthdays. Many of them kissed goodbye to their parents’ health plans and Netflix accounts this year. While the youngest members of the cohort are still in grade school, battling their principal for fair phone usage policies, a sizable percentage have gone off to college. Some of us have recently entered the American workforce.

Art credit: Dominique Greene

In May, I received my undergraduate diploma from a top-ranked university. The ceremony took place in Bridgestone Arena, a stadium positioned smack in the middle of Nashville’s infamous street of live-music honky tonks. Sitting next to thousands of students close in age, many of whom I would never see again, I understood what it meant to be part of a societal generation.

From that sea of white plastic folding chairs, I understood how an invisible bond could, and did, exist between my peers and I, as different as we were. Together in the stadium, our personalities enveloped each other until we became one collective life form. Together we emerged, as a generation that was coming of age, like one young debutante dressed in white, a diploma and resume in hand, handed next to only the most alluring suitors.

What would society say about her, this otherworldly Gen Z creature comprised of 2,000 Vanderbilt graduates and 70 million young Americans? Was it true that Generation Z was bad news, largely associated in the media with TikTok, revised pronouns, environmental doomism, anti-capitalism, and fragile mental health? Or was it possible that like generations before it, there would be nuances worth noting?

Two recent large-scale studies — one conducted by American University and the other a collaboration between Gallup and The Walton Family Foundation — tracked the sentiments and behaviors of thousands of young Americans across 50 states. The researchers found similarly optimistic results about my generation. It is one that cares about its financial future more than anything else.

Over 80% of about 1,500 respondents to the American University study said that financial success is “absolutely essential” or “very important” to their definition of the American Dream, and more than 76% of the roughly 3,500 young people surveyed by Gallup reported that they have “a great future ahead of them.” An even greater share said they expected to achieve the goals they’ve set for themselves, and wealth accumulation is chief among these goals.

Shaped by the Great Recession, the rise of populism and isolationism, and the Covid-19 pandemic, my generation understands the concept of volatility, instability, and uncertainty. We are a risk-averse bunch, conservative and pragmatic by nature. We are also a progressive bunch, zestful champions of the five day work week and the taming of late-stage capitalism. Ultimately, though, progressive sociopolitical stances do not drive the Gen Z value compass the way mainstream media purports it to.

So, what does Gen Z actually care about, if the media has the wrong idea? Many of us Gen Zers want to find a panacea for our burgeoning financial anxiety. We aspire to be financially literate, to start retirement savings as soon as possible, to afford a car and the expenses that come with it, and one day, to become a homeowner. For a complex and misunderstood generation, our aspirations are simple–and increasingly out of reach, particularly for recent graduates like myself. Despite promising economic indicators that the market is overall on its way to recovery, those in their early twenties are experiencing a different reality in the labor market. 

After a slew of overhiring during the pandemic, many favorited employers of top universities – Wall Street bulge bracket banks,  “Big Four” consulting firms and FAANG tech giants – reneged on their offers to young grads, postponing or altogether canceling their start dates. 

Six days before my graduation, I watched my best friend, a bubbly engineering major named Amy from outside of Philadelphia, open an email from a boutique management consulting firm. The email informed her that her July start date would be pushed to the July of the following year, 2024. 

Amy had just gotten out of the shower, rinsing off the stubborn sand of Panama City Beach. We were at senior beach week in Florida, a celebratory rite of passage for grads-to-be. Six months later, Amy has been unable to find a job with a salary that she can afford to accept. For now, she works as a full-time nanny.

Gen Z is hardly the first generation to be confronted with economic downturns and the failure of institutions (hello, college graduates from 2008), but they are rightful to be anxious of the unsavory economic conditions they have inherited. In Amy’s case, she had planned to use her signing bonus to pay off a large sum of her student loans during the six-month grace period, thus avoiding payments on interest. 

Going away to college at the same moment inflation soared to historic levels, Gen Z owes the highest average balance of student debt at $20,900, 13% more than millennials owed at the same ages. For Black and African American college graduates of all generations, the average balance is significantly higher, and more than double that of white students after four years of graduation

Despite such unsettling conditions, Gen Z’s determined mindset has helped myself and other graduates persevere. To remedy the combination of low wages and high student loan balances, Gen Z works multiple jobs and internships year-round. To compete in the cutthroat labor market, Gen Z tacks on double majors and minors, pairing qualitative disciplines with the technical, like finance or data science. Many work blue-collar gigs by day and peruse fresh LinkedIn postings in the comfort (or discomfort) of their childhood bedrooms. 

None of this is sustainable, not for Gen Z or any other generation. With rescinded job piling up contagiously for ’23 and ’24 grads, it comes as no surprise when mental health is the first to go. But that is part of Gen Z’s nature. With so much to worry about — joblessness, disease, school shootings, social media manipulation, and climate breakdown — these young adults are used to living in a state of heightened stakes and compromised mental health.

While our parents and our managers tell us wild stories of a “gap year” after college, working as a ski bum or for the Peace Corps, we do not have the liberty of slowing down or taking time off to learn about ourselves. We fear that even a three-month gap on our resume might destroy our chances of that right next stepping stone, and the pragmatists we are, we would rather not take that risk. 

Instead, we behave like Taylor, an upcoming Class of ’24 graduate at Georgetown University. When she skipped classes in the first semester of her senior year, it was not to hang out on Healy lawn or sip beer at her favorite business frat. It was to study for highly competitive investment banking interviews, after her summer internship failed to give out full-time offers as they typically do. At one interview with a top-tier firm in New York City, a director told her that she was one of six candidates flown in for a final round interview from an initial pool of 1,200.

As the entry-level job market continues to be defined by fierce competition, skimpy salaries, and unreliable job offers, it seems likely that Gen Z will continue to be a generation defined by their piggy banks, fixating on lucrative careers and wealth accumulation above all else.

With exorbitant student loans back on the table after the Supreme Court’s strike-down of President Biden’s loan cancellation plan, more prospective undergraduates will question whether a college degree is still the right choice for them — a trend we have seen before. More and more Gen Z students will question if the market value of a designer degree from a top university is holding up in today’s economy. 

Beyond the designer degree, we will question the degree in general. If Ivy Leaguers cannot get traction in the current job market after going all-in on their $300,000 diplomas, the seas of chairs everywhere should no longer bank on their diplomas to stand.

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