While corporate America was never really a party, if it was to be one, it certainly seems to be dying down between return-to-office mandates and rounds of layoffs. No need to tell the freshmen, or Gen Zers, that it’s not worth going to the rager as the night dies down—they’re ready to work for themselves.
One in three Gen Zers think the best way to get ahead financially is through “some form of self-employment,” per Instagram’s year-end 2024 Trend Talk, which surveyed 5,000 Gen Zers in India, Brazil, South Korea, the U.K., and the U.S. The sentiment is a step away from the American Dream narrative, which entailed building wealth by moving up the ranks in one company forever and buying a white-picket fenced home. Now, young adults are becoming less sold on the dream, as weathering the housing market becomes an uphill battle and getting a raise often involves finding a new job.
The youngest workers are typically more economically vulnerable since they’re usually earning lower entry-level salaries. Coupled with a way too expensive economy, it can lead to many feeling uncertain or overworking to make ends meet. With wages just starting to meet the pace of inflation, it’s likely that Gen Z assumes working for themselves could pay off more than working for someone else.
“What they have seen, if nothing else, is organizations will cut back, take steps in order to keep their profitability in a heartbeat,” she said. “They’ve seen it happen to their parents, they’ve seen it happen to millennials, and in the last few years, many of them have experienced it themselves.”
That leaves Gen Z carrying a mistrust of companies amid a backdrop of a will-it-or-won’t it recession, thwarted student loan forgiveness program, and general economic fatigue. Many feel as if the economic game is different than it was for their parents, and fear for their financial future—after all, experts say $1 million is no longer enough to retire comfortably.
While they’re still relatively early on in their career trajectory, Gen Z is already tired of the system. A striking 98% of 18-to-24 year olds are experiencing worker burnout, per Cigna 360’s Global Well-Being Survey 2022. They were also the most likely to report being stressed. Perhaps that’s partly because a paycheck isn’t always enough to cover the bills these days, forcing young adults into side hustling, even if it still doesn’t allow for much discretionary income. Nearly half of them have tacked on another part-time or full-time gig in addition to their main job, a Delotite survey found. And the majority (70%) of Gen Zers consider freelancing a viable alternative to a typical 9-to-5 job, per a 2023 Fiverr survey.
Some of the entrepreneurial generation has found a new streak of opportunity in social media, turning to TikTok and other platforms to try and strike it big. The idea is much like the American Dream with its veneer of equal opportunity; but if you do find success as a self-employed content creator, there’s the promise of fame, money, and a flexible lifestyle.
“For Gen X, the rock band or the garage band was the dream of how you make money,” Merriman continued. “For this generation, it’s being an influencer and having more followers than anybody else.” Followers aren’t just social currency; they can equate to real millions of dollars, as in the likes of Emma Chamberlain.
Whether it’s a side-gig, influencing, or a self-employed lifestyle, Gen Zers wary of getting burned by companies are left looking to greener (or better paying) self-employed pastures.