At 25, Kimi Kaneshina isn’t where she thought she would be in her career. After a year working as a product manager in Southern California, she was laid off in June. The job was great, but the experience of getting axed shifted her priorities. Now, on the job hunt, she isn’t messing around.
Instead of worrying about company culture or whether the job sounds exciting, the first thing Kaneshina looks for when job searching is the salary. “Right now there’s this whole salary-transparency movement. So a lot of the roles I apply to I know about the pay right off the bat,” she said. Once satisfied with the pay range, Kaneshina digs into the company — are they doing work she has experience with? Then she checks whether the opening provides room for growth — how long until she could get a promotion? For her to apply, all three factors have to line up.
More young people are saying the same thing: Salary and career growth are the most important things about a job. And it could explain why Gen Z workers are so much more unsatisfied with their jobs than their older colleagues. Only 44% of workers under 30 told Pew Research in May that they were very satisfied with their job, compared with 67% of workers 65 and older. This is also a shift from when older generations were young: In a 1995 survey by the consulting firm Wyatt Co., under-30 Gen Xers — the “works sucks, I know” generation — were actually the most satisfied with their jobs than any other age group. Over the past few years, the gap between young and old has widened.
Research has found that Gen Zers have different priorities from those of their boomer bosses. While pay and career progression are critical for the newest workers, older folks care more about whether the job itself is enjoyable. Age plays a role in explaining the gap, but Gen Z is also entering the workforce at a unique time. After witnessing millennials being sold on the false promise that landing a job and clocking in the hours would lead to a steady climb up the career ladder and pay scale, and all the chaos that wrought, Gen Zers are much less apt to entrust their futures to their employers. As Business Insider correspondent Aki Ito wrote, the loyalty contract between employers and employees is broken. Now, during a time of high inflation and massive student-loan debt, Gen Zers are taking their futures into their own hands by prioritizing high pay and progression above all else.
“In the past, people were provided with really great jobs, pensions, and careers that they could grow at a company for 20 years. That’s not how it is today,” Kaneshina told me. “I’ve just come to terms with what adulthood is actually like.”
Priorities change over time
One thing has remained true across generations: What we value about our work changes over time, Julia Kensbock, a professor of management and organization at the University of Bremen in Germany, told me. She published a paper in 2019 that found pay was especially important for young people’s job satisfaction.
“When we are young, we worry more about our long-term future,” she said. As we get older, we tend to shift our focus toward short-term goals that help us maintain positive feelings and mental well-being. “We also want to contribute something back to society or to our organizations that we work at,” Kensbock added.
We are going to advocate for ourselves more because we really don’t know how our employers are going to help us in the long run.
A Bain & Co. study published in July found something similar. Workers over 62 said that interesting work was their top priority on the job, but workers in the 18-to-25 age bracket said they prioritized good compensation, followed by learning and growth. While everyone says that a good salary is important, its significance tends to decrease as people get older. Kensbock’s research also found that younger employees’ job satisfaction was primarily linked to output. If they sense they have been underrewarded, or their efforts haven’t translated to satisfying financial returns, they feel worse about their job. On the flip side, senior workers’ job satisfaction is primarily linked to input — if they contribute meaningfully to a task, they’re more satisfied with their job.
Kensbrock told me that this phenomenon was largely due to age — not generation. “There’s a tendency of mixing up these generation effects with the age effects.” However, she added, “there are, of course, societal trends on a broader basis that affect how we as a society perceive work.”
And the past few years certainly have seen a seismic shift in the workplace, which has left Gen Zers reeling.
So what’s new with Gen Z?
In the past, new workers were told that if they stuck with one company, that company would reward them. The way to climb the ranks and get that coveted paycheck was to put your head down and work for it. But today, that no longer holds true. Over the past several years, remote work, the “Great Resignation,” and a flood of layoffs have shifted how people see their jobs. Employers demonstrated their infidelity to their staff by paying loyal workers, on average, 7% less than new hires — 20 years ago, salaries were largely the same between new and longtime employees. None of this was lost on those just entering the workforce. In 2021, junior workers rated their companies 2.4% worse than their senior colleagues did, Revelio Labs found in an analysis of employer reviews on sites like Glassdoor. By November, that gap had increased to 4%.
“Now, there’s almost this distrust in our employers,” Kaneshina told me. “We are going to advocate for ourselves more because we really don’t know how our employers are going to help us in the long run.”
The dollar went a lot further when baby boomers were entering the workforce. It doesn’t go as far now.
Without the promise of high returns for their loyalty, Gen Z has learned to follow the money. In CFA Institute’s 2021 survey of more than 15,000 recent college graduates, 45% of 18- to 25-year-olds said that a “good salary” was the most important criterion for a job. In its 2023 survey, that jumped to 62%. In a survey of graduating college seniors conducted last year by the staffing firm LaSalle Network, 54% of Gen Zers who were just entering the workforce said they expected to secure their first promotion within one year on the job.
While all generations had to start somewhere, Gen Zers face record-high costs for housing, college, and basics such as food. For many people, getting a good salary is just a matter of being able to cover costs. In EY’s 2023 Gen Z survey, more than 50% of Gen Zers said they were “extremely worried about not having enough money.”
“It’s not about the money when it comes to being greedy,” Corey Seemiller, a professor of organizational leadership at Wright State University, said. “It’s about the money and being able to pay for living expenses, which is reasonable. The dollar went a lot further when baby boomers were entering the workforce. It doesn’t go as far now.”
Gen Z is also keenly aware of the long-term financial challenges they face, with many targeting six-figure salaries early in their careers to save up for buying a home and retirement. In a Cigna survey of 12,000 global workers, 39% of Gen Zers identified financial insecurity as their top stressor, the highest of any generation. “They know that, later on, choosing a certain career path will have economic impacts that the rest of us didn’t have to worry about,” Seemiller said.
This generation also has unprecedented access to information about the working world. Before the internet, it took time for new workers to learn about the ins and outs of their respective fields — the only option was to learn on the job. But influencers on TikTok, YouTube, and LinkedIn have gained hundreds of thousands of followers by sharing tips on how to ace interviews, negotiate salaries, and handle performance reviews. And by watching people on the internet advancing through their careers quickly, young people gain the confidence to pursue that themselves.
“The horizon and the possibilities have changed, making it transparent and visible what people can do,” Felizitas Lichtenberg, the global head of diversity and inclusion at the fintech company SumUp, told me. “Because of social media and the pressure that teenagers have nowadays, it’s so outward-facing that this is also impacting what people are looking for in terms of growth opportunities.”
Seemiller said Gen Z’s desire to be promoted shouldn’t rub older generations the wrong way. “Wanting to be promoted within a year or two is reasonable for anyone,” she said. “Older generations have a very short memory because we wanted to be promoted in that period of time too. Let’s be honest.”
Not all eggs in one basket
When a raise and promotion don’t hit swiftly, Gen Z is quick to jump ship. In a 2023 survey by ResumeLab, 83% of Gen Zers said they considered themselves job hoppers, meaning they took “a dynamic approach to their careers that often involves frequent job changes.” And in a 2022 survey from the payroll company Paychex, about half of Gen Zers said they were employed at two or more places — more than any other generation. “It’s becoming harder and harder with both organizational culture and bureaucracy red tape to be promoted from within,” Seemiller said. “So what happens is you pretty much force young people to have to leave.”
For much of Gen Z, a job is just a job. In a Deloitte study from March, only 61% of Gen Z participants said their work was important to their identity. That’s compared with 86% of their bosses. Kaneshina, for one, said she no longer saw work as a core part of her identity. “Where I live, people don’t necessarily meet you and ask you immediately what you do for a living,” she said.
But Gen Zers “haven’t lost the passion for what they want to do,” Seemiller told me, adding: “They just might not put all their eggs in the basket.”
Instead, America’s youngest workers are focusing on the two things that will help them be secure in a shifting economy: a salary and upward momentum.
Eve Upton-Clark is a features writer covering culture and society.