Jun 23, 2022 - Politics & Policy

What Gen Z really wants

Illustration of the letter Z made out of overlapping ballots

Illustration: Natalie Peeples/Axios

They crave work-life balance and mental health support. They dread getting stuck in a dull job. And they fault today's decision-makers for downplaying the issues that move them, like school shootings and racism. Meet Gen Z, as depicted by a new report.

Why it matters: Gen Zers — those born between 1997 and 2012 — will soon be the biggest U.S. voting cohort, and they vote in record numbers.

  • Plus, they'll make up 27% of the workforce in three years, per the World Economic Forum.

Driving the news: The report, from the Walton Family Foundation and Murmuration (an educational inequality nonprofit founded by Emma Bloomberg), paints a picture of a generation that prizes family and well-being over money-making, isn't afraid to job-hop, and sees civic participation as vital to advancing their values.

  • They "have low expectations that the government, corporations, and other institutions will prioritize them or take their needs into consideration," the report found.
  • They're "less conservative than previous generations and take a more progressive stance" on issues like social justice and climate change.
  • And they "see standing up for the voiceless as central to their identity, more than any other generation in America."

Like other young people before them, Gen Zers are down on how their elders are running their schools and workplaces. But unlike their predecessors, they're primarily focused on flexibility, personalization and emotional support.

  • Gen Z "wants to feel connected to issues that they care about," says Romy Drucker, director of the Walton Family Foundation's education program. "They want a sense of purpose in their work."
  • When it comes to school, "they don't feel like their education is preparing them for the kind of future they want to have," she tells Axios.
  • To better serve them, educators "need to find more experiential, immersive ways to connect," she said.

What they're saying: Members of Gen Z "talk openly about not wanting to follow the path of their parents and grandparents — working to exhaustion, little time for family and individual pursuits, pledging loyalty to one job or industry, etc.," per the report.

  • "This gives them motivation to challenge tired corporate policies and redefine work-life harmony."

By the numbers: Gen Zers are different...

Professionally: They spend an average of only 2 years and 3 months at any given job, per CareerBuilder. Compare that to 2 years and 9 months for millennials, 5 years and 2 months for Gen Xers, and 8 years and 3 months for baby boomers.

Politically: Unlike prior generations, Gen Z "has not experienced a moment when America was united," the report notes.

Demographically: They're "the most racially and ethnically diverse" cohort in U.S. history, per the Pew Research Center. 52% are non-Hispanic white, compared with 61% of millennials in 2002 (when they were in the same age range), Pew says.

Gen Z is also "in the midst of a mental health crisis," the report finds.

  • Compared with other generations, Gen Zers are about twice as likely (42% to 23%) to say they experience depression and feelings of hopelessness.
  • And they're three times as likely (18% to 5%) to say they've considered self-harm or suicide.
  • By the time they were ready for school, "red alert lockdown drills and school shootings were expected — and soon they would see too many members of their community lose battles to opioids and depression."

Jennifer's thought bubble: What a difference a generation makes. At the cusp of the baby boom/Gen X transition, kids were so career-focused that "fully 40% of the 1986 Yale graduating class applied to [work at] a single company — the investment-banking firm First Boston," according to Geoffrey T. Holtz's 1995 book "Welcome to the Jungle."

The bottom line: Gen Z "will have an outsized influence on the future of the nation, and society more broadly," the report found. Evidence includes "the pressure they are putting on employers" and how they're "taking to the streets to protest gun violence or promote reproductive health."

  • With midterm elections on the horizon, "this is a critical moment to be better understanding youth," says Drucker.
  • "The big message from young people is, 'please listen,'" she said. "We have good ideas about what makes us feel excited, what unlocks our love of learning, what we’re passionate about."

Methodology: The Walton Family Foundation/Murmuration report is based on a national survey of 3,805 Americans between age 15 and 25 — and 1,108 people over age 25 for comparison — as well as town hall-style focus groups in various cities.

If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (En Español: 1-888-628-9454; Deaf and Hard of Hearing: dial 711, then 1-800-273-8255) or the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741.

Go deeper