Youth can be an exhilarating time but also one of high anxiety, as young people struggle to establish themselves economically and find their place in society. While each generation may encounter struggles and doubts as they join the workforce, Generation Z1 has entered the working world during a global pandemic and amid concerns over rising inflation rates, recession fears, geopolitical conflicts, and climate change. The latest iteration of McKinsey’s American Opportunity Survey (AOS) reveals a generational gap in the workplace, with marked differences among how Gen Z and other generations view themselves, their ability to work effectively, and their futures.
Our spring survey of 25,062 Americans included 1,763 respondents (see sidebar, “Our methodology”) in the Gen Z age range of 18 to 24. Our survey shows that Gen Z respondents who are working are more likely to have independent jobs or multiple jobs than older workers. Unlike other generations, they are less likely to expect this period of financial insecurity to end and have high levels of doubts about their eventual ability to either buy homes or retire.
Employed Gen Z respondents are more likely to report that the pay they receive for their work does not allow them a good quality of life (26 percent, compared with 20 percent of other respondents) and are less likely than others to report feeling fairly recognized and rewarded for their work (56 percent, compared with 58 percent of other respondents). A remarkable 77 percent of Gen Z respondents report looking for a new job (almost double the rate of other respondents). While some degree of job churn in early careers is expected, the economic pessimism reported by Gen Z—only 37 percent believe that most people in this country have economic opportunities—suggests a deep malaise about their own prospects and those of other Americans.
Some of the differences in how the generations respond to survey questions suggest concerning levels of distress among young people, including an astounding 55 percent reporting having either been diagnosed with or having received treatment for mental illness (compared with 31 percent of people aged 55 to 64 reporting the same). US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy issued a public health advisory in December 2021 to address the “youth mental-health crisis” exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.2 Our research underscored the urgency of these problems.
Some other differences between age groups are also notable. Young people report physical-health issues as an impediment to effectively performing work at higher rates than the general population, which includes people decades older than them. In fact, on every metric that interferes with effectively performing work, Gen Z reports more struggles than the general population.
The AOS gives us a window into the mindset of the newest generation to enter the job market. Employers and other stakeholders may want to reflect upon this research and use it to gain a deeper understanding of how Gen Z feels about itself and its place in the working world, and how they can best support this cohort in the workforce.
Worrying about the mindset of the young has been popular at least since the times of Aristotle and Socrates and likely long before that. Some of Gen Z’s reported distress will sound familiar to all who have lived through the apprehension and doubt of launching themselves into economic independence.
However, the high rates of reported mental-health challenges and other major obstacles to effective work that emerged from this research invite reflection. Gen Z respondents report alarming levels of negativity about themselves, their confidence in the future, and their ability to find contentment in American life.
Gen Z respondents report alarming levels of negativity about themselves, their confidence in the future, and their ability to find contentment in American life.
While Gen Z is not the only generation facing mental-health challenges, their rates of distress may give employers, educators, and public-health leaders pause. These stakeholders may want to consider the sentiment of this emerging generation as they plan for the future. Employers who want to win their fair share of talent from all age groups in the workforce can use these insights to target their support for this critical group.