Gen Z is struggling. They entered the workforce in the middle of a global pandemic and now have to deal with rising inflation, a possible recession, geopolitical conflicts, and climate change. Not to mention the already difficult task of navigating their 20s. McKinsey’s American Opportunity Survey (AOS) reveals the generational gap in the workplace and highlights how Gen Z and other generations view themselves, their ability to work effectively, and their hopes for the future.

Generational Gap

The AOS surveyed 1,763 Americans between the ages of 18-24. The survey found that Gen Z respondents who are in the workforce are more likely to have independent jobs or multiple jobs than their older counterparts.

Gen Z respondents are also less inclined to believe that this period of financial insecurity will end, and they are increasingly more doubtful that they will be able to buy a house or retire.

26% of Gen Z respondents say that they do not feel that their wages provide them with a good quality of life. They are also less likely to report feeling fairly recognized and rewarded for their work. 77% of respondents say they are looking for a new job.

Only 37% of the Gen Z respondents believe that most people in the country have economic opportunities, which suggests significant pessimism about their own future job prospects as well as those of other Americans.

Unstable Employment Patterns

A little more than half of the Gen Z respondents are currently employed, but their experiences in the workforce have been very different than those of other ages. For starters, they are more likely to have a second or even third job. 25% report that they have multiple jobs.

51% of them report doing independent work, compared to 36% of other age groups. 28% of respondents say they do independent work because they enjoy the work, and 24% do it for the autonomy and flexibility it offers. 56%, however, say that they would prefer to work as a permanent or noncontact employee.

Gen Z is also less confident about its financial security. 45% are concerned about the stability of their employment compared to 40% of respondents in other age groups. They have also reported being less likely to be able to cover living expenses for more than two months if faced with unemployment than other age groups.

Retiring or Owning a Home

Almost 25% of Gen Z respondents report that they do not expect to retire, and only 41% believe they will own a home one day. An optimist might say that young people enjoy the work they do and simply don’t want to retire, prefer to invest their money in assets other than a home, or want to be able to move around and travel without being tied to a mortgage.

It is also plausible that young people are so far away from the age of retirement that they can’t envision themselves reaching that life phase.

A more pessimistic view would be that young people expect their financial insecurity to continue almost indefinitely. Gen Z’s fear of failing to reach traditional economic milestones may be a reflection of greater pessimism and hopelessness than other generations have experienced.

Stressed and Depressed

A shocking 55% of young people in the survey have either been diagnosed with or are currently receiving treatment for a mental illness. Respondents aged 55-64, who have had decades more to be diagnosed and treated for such illnesses, only report this is the case 31% of the time.

There are also large variations across race and ethnicity in the different age categories. For example, Asian Americans aged 35-54 report diagnosis and/or treatment rates at less than half the rate of their white counterparts.

Gen Z respondents were also three times as likely to report seeking treatment for thinking about or planning to take their lives between late 2019 and late 2020.

The higher percentage of young people battling mental health challenges could be attributed to an increased awareness of mental health, a greater willingness to get help for mental health issues, or living in an environment that aggravated mental health issues.

US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy’s public advisory stated that although mental health concerns regarding youth have been rising in recent years, the pandemic did nothing but accelerate the problem.

“The pandemic added to the pre-existing challenges that America’s youth faced. It disrupted the lives of children and adolescents, such as in-person schooling, in-person social opportunities with peers and mentors, access to health care and social services, food, housing, and the health of their caregivers.”

A Brighter Future

Despite its many worries, Gen Z thinks overall that the economic future is brighter than most other age groups. According to the McKinsey Economic Opportunity Index, a scale that measures Americans’ perceptions of past, present, and future economic opportunity, Gen Z scored 100.4. A score of 100 represents a neutral outlook. Gen Z’s response is higher than every age cohort except the one directly above it.

On top of that, Gen Z’s optimism only decreased by 1.6% over the past year, compared to 3% for respondents of other ages. The only group that is more optimistic than Gen Z is those in the 25-34 age group. These are the slightly older young people who have already settled into careers and have had more time to carve out a place for themselves in society, which could explain their bright outlook on the economic future.

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