Gen Zers no longer subscribe to the American dream—and it’s shaping how they chart their career path

3 people in professional clothing sitting onstage

Ziad Ahmed, founder and CEO of JUV Consulting, left, Peter Carter, executive vice president of external affairs at Delta, center, and Ellen Weinreb, a managing director at Weinreb Group Sustainability Recruiting, right, speak at Fortune’s Impact Initiative conference on Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2023.

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By 2030, Generation Z will account for nearly one-third of the U.S. workforce. While a sizable percentage of this cohort still has yet to emerge in the talent market, they’re already taking a far different approach to career growth than their predecessors. 

That’s due, in part, to the fact that Gen Z, much of whom is still under age 18, is accumulating debt at higher rates than any other generation. The cohort is least likely to think they will ever be able to retire and is generally concerned that climate change will rob them of any chance at a normal life or career. Understandably, they’ve ditched the so-called American dream that hard work and determination will land them financial success and are taking a different approach to career growth.

“Historically, we were told, ‘For 20 years you learn, for 30 years you lead, and maybe for 20 years, if you’re lucky, if you live this false American dream, then you get to live,’” Ziad Ahmed, founder and CEO of JUV Consulting, a Gen Z consulting firm, said at the Fortune Impact Initiative conference in Atlanta on Wednesday. “Gen Z is taking the microphone back and saying, ‘Hell no. I want to learn, I want to lead, and I want to live simultaneously. And you’ll be damned if you tell me otherwise.’”

It would behoove employers to pay keen attention to Gen Z’s expectations.

“Understanding Gen Z as the up-and-coming, entry-level positions at these companies is really valuable,” said fellow panelist Ellen Weinreb, a managing director at Weinreb Group Sustainability Recruiting. Gen Zers tend to be very invested in activism and expect their employers to match that passion. They not only seek out companies publicly commenting on these issues but also ask about corporate commitments to social activism in interviews and explore what others have to say about the organization online.

Companies that meet that demand will be better able to retain their Gen Z talent, invest in and develop them, and help them ascend to the C-suite in a matter of years. ”The message to employers is to actively listen…because [Gen Zers] are standing up,” Weinreb said.

Some employers are doing so by connecting the top levels to their entry-level talent. At Delta Air Lines, leaders have an open-door policy where employees can speak candidly with executives, says Peter Carter, the airline’s executive vice president of external affairs. Periodically, new hires appear on his calendar.

“It will be somebody we’ve just hired who wants to sit down with a leader and say to me: ‘What’s your vision? What’s my role? And how can I really grow in this company?’” Carter said. “Now, that’s something that a baby boomer would never do. And Gen Xers may or may not. It really is a leaning in that we haven’t typically seen quite in the same way.”

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