Editorial: Gen Z Works for the Money—And You Should, Too

Pictured: Gen Z workers eating lunch/iStock, Seven

Pictured: Gen Z workers eating lunch/iStock, Seven

The youngest generation to enter the workforce has mastered working to live, not living to work. Adopting this mindset made me not only more fulfilled, but more successful in my career.

Pictured: Gen Z workers eating lunch/iStock, SeventyFour

For much of my adolescent and adult life, I had one goal for my career: to make a difference.

Much of that came from my upbringing. My father, a police officer and part-time minister, and my mother, a public school teacher, raised their children to understand the importance of being a public servant.

As time passed and it came time for each of us to choose a career, they urged us to consider more lucrative paths than the ones they chose. But the early teachings of public servitude stuck and led us to the careers we now hold: my brother, a minister; my sister, a teacher; and myself, a journalist.

This goal—to do good—echoed in my mind throughout my early career, from writing for the local paper at 16 to graduating from journalism school in 2020 at 22. But as is often the case, the real world didn’t care much about the 5- and 10-year plans with actionable steps and goals I had meticulously laid out for my career. After a COVID-19–induced layoff, hundreds of rejected job applications and a semi-failed attempt at managing a bar, I was left with plenty of time to consider where I went wrong and what I really wanted from my work.

The answer to the latter—what I want from my career—is much simpler now than it was before: to make a living. And the more time passes, the more I wish I had accepted this truth much earlier.

We’re often told to seek out a career in which we can find purpose and passion. But working for the money has not only brought me an unparalleled sense of freedom, but it’s also upped my productivity, making me a better colleague and employee at work and a better friend and partner at home.

The Corporate Black Sheep

I’m not alone in this revelation. The COVID-19 pandemic spurred many to rethink their values in terms of work-life balance, and even before then, Gen Z—a generation that began one year before I was born—was spearheading the movement toward a life where career is just a part of one’s identity, instead of a defining characteristic.

But Gen Z’s managers aren’t entirely on board with this mindset.

In a recent survey of 1,300 managers by Resume Builder, 75% said that Gen Z is more difficult to work with than other generations, and 65% of employers said they must fire them more often. Respondents cited myriad reasons for this, from a short attention span to a lack of communication skills. One manager said his biggest gripe with Gen Z is that they’re too easily offended, and he fears getting angry one day and being “freaking canceled.”

These complaints are likely valid, as many Gen Z-ers recently landed their first in-office jobs as the COVID-19 pandemic waned. But I think these managers’ real issue, whether conscious or unconscious, lies in their employees’ motivation.

Though there are always exceptions, as a whole, Gen Z doesn’t live to work. Many of this generation grew up watching their parents or older siblings do everything right regarding their jobs and still lose out. And so, they took a different path: they work to live. And that’s not something managers are used to.

According to the Pew Research Center, before the pandemic, Gen Z was expected to enter the workforce with a strong economy and record-low unemployment. But just as the oldest in the generation (ages 18 to 23) entered the workforce, the COVID-19 pandemic hit the U.S., and half of American Gen Z workers said they saw themselves or someone in their household lose a job or take a pay cut, according to a Pew Research survey.

This was higher than the percentage of Millennials (40%), Gen Xers (36%) and Baby Boomers (25%) who said the same. Pew Research also reported that Gen Z workers were more vulnerable to job loss even before the pandemic, as they were overrepresented in high-risk service sector industries.

That’s not to say that Gen Z workers don’t care about making a difference. A 2022 LinkedIn Workforce Confidence survey found that 80% of Gen Z workers surveyed want a job that better aligns with their values than their current positions do. But as of 2023, a Gallup report found that only 21% of U.S. employees strongly agreed that they trust their organization’s leadership, down from 24% in 2019.

This could reflect that though Gen Z workers want to align their career goals with their personal convictions, they don’t trust their employers enough to prioritize this. So, they focus on what they can control—their lives outside the workplace.

Good is Never Good Enough

As an elder Gen Z-er myself, these statistics are highly relatable.

I, too, entered the corporate world as the COVID-19 pandemic took off. But just as I began my first full-time job, I, along with many others at the company, was laid off. After applying to hundreds of jobs in my field and discovering that no one in the industry was hiring, I fell back to my plan B: the service industry, which I had fortunately been working in while I obtained my degree.

I choose to view these setbacks as blessings in disguise. My idea of personal success and fulfillment aligned directly with my success at work. But when I experienced failure after failure in my career, I found that—surprise, surprise—it was healthier for me to focus on the parts of my life I could control.

When I started to view my job as something I do instead of who I am, I braced for my productivity and output to take a nosedive. After all, what better to motivate me to do my best at work than the acknowledgment that I have nothing outside of it?

Instead, I found the opposite was true. And I suspect the same may also be true for you, even if you work in the life sciences.

While my job consists of choosing the right words, biopharma workers’ actions can ultimately make the difference between patients living and dying. And thus, it may seem that being passionate about your job is appropriate.

But in my view, the pressure to be good can only get you so far. And it will never be good enough. In the life sciences industry, one FDA decision or failed funding round can make or break a company’s bottom line. This means that no matter how important the work is, it can end at anytime, and workers have little control over big-picture decisions.

While an unexpected job loss or career transition can be jarring for anyone, it doesn’t have to equate to a personal failure. There’s no morality attached to having a successful career. Making a mistake or suffering a loss at work most often has little or nothing to do with who a person is as a whole.

All workers, especially those who chose to pursue their passions in their careers, should take a page from Gen Z’s book and care a little less.

Rosemary Scott is an editor at BioSpace, focusing on the job market and career development for professionals in the life sciences. You can reach her at rosemary.scott@biospace.com and on LinkedIn.