By Allison Schrager / Bloomberg Opinion
Every generation thinks it has it harder than anyone else, but Generation Z — the young people who are now graduating from college and entering the labor market — may actually have a point.
A few months ago I saw a tweet from a professor who wrote that when he taught in Lebanon at the American University of Beirut, one of his students complained that her parents “have no idea how complicated and stressful the world has become.” When he pointed out that her parents had lived through the Lebanese Civil War, she said, “Yeah, but we have like the internet and stuff.”
It sounds absurd, but Gen Z actually does have it harder than previous generations; even if not on par with a violent civil war. Their college and high school lives were rocked by the covid pandemic and now, just as they’re trying to get their careers going, they’re entering an uncertain economy where a recession is likely. Both of these experiences can have a lasting impact. Graduating during a recession can mean lower earnings for decades. And a covid-dominated college term robbed them of important socialization and the chance to learn how to manage their time and interact with adults.
Thriving in today’s economy is still possible, but to do so, young people are going to need to let go of the idea that they have been taught from birth that the world is unforgiving and allows no room for mistakes.
It’s understandable why they feel that way. Everything we do is captured for prosperity on social media and judged in real time by our peers. The economy itself feels much more high stakes, with a tiered system driven by a few successful companies that pay people very well and provide a good professional network. So if you don’t get on that train early, go to the right school, get a job at the right company, you are doomed to a lackluster career.
Their parents and grandparents had the luxury of acting like idiots in their immature youth without leaving a permanent public record of it. If you didn’t get into the right school — or go to college at all — you could still get a good job. Each generation seems more anxious and pressured than the last. One survey found half of respondents between 24 and 39 (millennials) had left work roles at least partly for mental health reasons, and that rose to 75 percent for people between 18 and 24, compared with 20 percent of the general population. Other surveys also show fear of failure and high rates of anxiety.
But the idea that you can’t fail at anything if you want to be successful is a damaging myth. The world still does offer second, third and even fifth chances, and in fact; the more risks you take, the more you learn and the more likely you are to succeed.
There are legitimate reasons to think the economy is harder and less forgiving, but the worrying is becoming a vicious cycle. No wonder the younger generation is less rebellious than previous generations; it seems like there is no margin for error. They are less likely to experiment with drugs or alcohol, have sex or drive. They also spend much more time with their parents. But the lack of rebellion and experimentation may be fueling their anxiety and belief that setbacks are catastrophic. Vassar College psychology professor Abigail Baird explained that taking risks as a teenager is an important part of brain development. Testing limits and experiencing setbacks trains your brain to cope with risks and bad outcomes when you get older. If you miss out on this experience, taking risks will be harder as you age.
But as more Gen Zers join the workforce in the coming years, they can still thrive if they can let go of the idea that they might never recover from early mistakes. We don’t say it enough, but your first job is not your destiny. And even if a looming recession makes it harder to find your dream job, economic slowdowns can also be a time of new entrepreneurship and reorganization.
We often hear terrifying statistics about people who are underemployed (and underpaid), or recent college graduates who are forced to take jobs that don’t even require a degree. But those early-stage anecdotes don’t capture the fact that graduates tend to have better overall career trajectories. They eventually end up in a better job or advance much faster in the job they have. They also have much lower rates of unemployment, even in a recession. Careers are the product of a lifetime of experience, and as long as you’re learning something, any job is worthwhile. When you stop learning, rather than mentally checking out on the job, just move on.
The best careers often feature many setbacks, including layoffs, firings and trying out different jobs that don’t fit. In other words, people make mistakes and find themselves in the wrong place, so then they move on.
Contrary to popular perception, young people don’t change jobs more than previous generations. Changing jobs is how wages traditionally grow and often how your career advances. And while technology can be a burden, it also opens up possibilities. It’s much easier to connect with new people or stay in touch with old colleagues to build a network that can help you find your next job.
I’m optimistic that Gen Z will find a way to buck the trend of increased risk aversion. The current economy is making it clear that there are no guarantees, even if you do everything right. Many of the companies that were supposed to be that golden ticket —- big banks and tech firms — are laying off workers or calling hiring freezes.
Covid disruptions dealt young graduates a huge setback and lots of disappointment, but it also required them to adapt with technology, and do it quickly. There was certainly damage done, but perhaps that experience will also leave Gen Z better equipped to deal with whatever shocks the job market throws at them.
Allison Schrager is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering economics. A senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, she is author of “An Economist Walks Into a Brothel: And Other Unexpected Places to Understand Risk.”