Searching for your first professional job during an economic downturn so severe it’s being compared to the Great Depression is bad enough, but doing so during a pandemic? That’s nightmare territory. It’s also the exact dilemma that many young adults are facing right now. Even before the coronavirus, they weren’t entering the workforce in a time of great economic mobility. In fact, they were facing delays in getting started at all — Gen Z are less likely to be working than previous generations did at their age, in part because Americans are retiring later, which also means millennials are lingering in lower-level positions longer, making it harder for the youngest adults to find and keep jobs. Now, though, the numbers are particularly dire. In July, the national unemployment rate was around 10.2%. That same month, the unemployment rate for those between 16 to 24 years old was 18.5%. These unemployment numbers are even more stark when you consider that they don’t include everyone eligible to work, only those who are actively seeking work.
While Gen Z workers are just a few years removed from childhood, dreams of what they “wanted to be” when they grew up are fading increasingly into the rear view mirror. They’re not alone in this — few people’s dream jobs actually become a reality. Only about 10% of adults say that they currently hold their childhood dream job. A variety of different factors temper our wildest career dreams into a middle-ground of engaging-yet-feasible. But even that seems out of reach right now.
It’s no wonder then that many young people living in America are fed up with antiquated ideas about work. They don’t want to perform unpaid work before they move up the ladder — it’s a system they can’t afford. Some are skeptical about the value of a college education. Some are figuring out who they are beyond their identities as students or employees. Many of them recognize that they don’t want their jobs to be their whole personality — and yet, at the same time, they want to hold employers to higher ethical standards. Ahead, Refinery29 spoke to five Gen Z young adults on what it’s like to start a career during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Yansha, 25, California
Yansha graduated in 2018 with a major in global studies and a minor in women’s culture and development. By the time she left school, she had already submitted her application for the Peace Corps. “That was my whole plan for post-grad,” she says. But extenuating circumstances forced her to delay her plans and apply again the year after graduation. “So in between that, I did substitute teaching,” she says. “I was pretty devastated, but I just needed something to fill the time. I worked as a waitress as well.”
This spring, she was finally able to leave for her placement in Madagascar. “And then after a month, the coronavirus hit — and we all got evacuated back to America,” she says. “My life was just in shambles.”
“The Peace Corps was my dream since I was a freshman in college,” she says. Her project in Madagascar was supposed to focus on agriculture extension, helping implement more sustainable farming methods in the local community. “We were going to plant small gardens in our communities,” she says.
“When we found out we were coming back, everyone was crying and devastated,” she recalls. “We literally were ready to leave our lives in America behind, sold everything, donated all our clothes. People quit their jobs, too. I knew some people who already had their master’s degree and had a really good corporate job — they quit their job, saying, ‘Oh this is going to be this life-changing experience for me, I’m going to go do something different because I’m over the corporate life.’”
Everything happened very quickly. “My flight was the day before they were gonna close Madagascar’s borders,” she says. “I transferred four times across two days of traveling, because so many airports were shut down. I remember transferring in Istanbul and if you looked at the screen, every single flight was canceled, canceled, canceled.” The airports themselves were crowded, panicked pandemonium. “It was kind of like Black Friday,” Yansha says.
Back home, both her brother and mother had also become unemployed due to the pandemic. “My dad’s in China, and he’s just stuck there,” she says. She tried to help her mom apply for unemployment benefits, but the phones were always busy. “I was calling every single day from 8 a.m. to 12 p.m. I swear, hundreds of phone calls a day. I think after a month I finally got through,” she recalls. That’s when they found out that her mother’s social security number had been stolen and used to apply for disability benefits back in 2008 — and no one in the family had realized it until that moment. She still hasn’t been able to receive any unemployment payments. “We stopped calling, because I wasted so many hours of my life trying to get through to them,” Yansha says.
In the meantime, she’s picked up hobbies outside of career interests. “I saw some TikTok videos of people longboard dancing, so I’ve been learning how to longboard dance,” she says. “I do that almost every day. I’m also taking music production classes.”
As a child, her career dreams had fluctuated. “Oh, I wanted to be an ice cream factory owner because I really liked ice cream,” she says. “And then when I was 11, I actually lived in China for a whole year, and I was like, ‘I’m gonna be president one day.’”
Just as those plans gave way to others, she’s working on accepting that the Peace Corps just might not pan out. Yansha cites a Chinese saying that essentially advises people to “go with nature.” “If the river is flowing in one direction, and you’re swimming so hard and fighting it — you can swim as hard as you can, but it’s trying to take you somewhere else,” she explains. “Why not let the river take you somewhere new? You might discover a beautiful city you’ve never known before. I’m trying to adopt this [view]. Because so many things are out of my control.”
She used to believe her ideal career had to be overseas, which is partly why she wanted to join the foreign service program. “But now, I could be okay staying in America if I’m still making an impact,” she says. “Honestly, with all the stuff going on in our country right now, the George Floyd protests — it opened my eyes. There’s so many problems that we have in our own country. We have this whole idea of a white savior complex, that we’re gonna go help these other people in these other countries. But we have so much to fix in our own country.”
She’s continuing to apply to jobs, mostly in non-profits, but she doesn’t want to just work anywhere. She wants a fulfilling job where she’s helping people — and at the same time, a job that doesn’t consume all her energy is key. She sees this as a generational divide. “You know that concept of ‘live to work’ versus ‘work to live’? I think we very much want to work to live,” she says.
Jennifer, 22, Texas
Jennifer became an arts and A/V teacher at a Texas high school only recently. It’s not what she intended to be doing. In college, she majored in communications with a focus on media arts and journalism, and had a minor in photography.
Like many other college seniors, she graduated this past May in a virtual ceremony. “It was really weird,” she recalls. “You wait for this day your whole college career. I had pictured what dress I was going to buy.”
Her original plan was to get a job related to film: “I wanted to be involved with just any type of film festival. I really wanted a job with South by Southwest or the Austin Film Festival. I applied to the Austin Film Festival and had an interview and everything.”
Then, of course, the pandemic came. “Late March or early April, I got an email saying that the position was eliminated. So I was like, ‘Is there a way for me to do these things that I like while also having a job that's at least somewhat stable?’ That’s when I decided to get the teaching certificate,” she says.
While a job as a high school teacher may be a lot more stable than one in the film or festival industry right now, it has also become one of the most dangerous and emotionally trying jobs of the pandemic. Jennifer’s school has a lot of low-income students who don’t have all the technology necessary for virtual learning. “It’s really hard to connect with these students,” she says. “The school has to work really hard to get this technology out to them.” On the other hand, she’s felt really supported by the other teachers and parents.
The first three weeks of class were taught online, but now, in-person classes have begun. “Students were allowed to choose whether to come back or stay virtual,” Jennifer says. “Not too many chose in-person learning, so I only have about a max of six students in any given class.”
Though she’s glad to have a fulfilling job right now, it’s been a challenge adjusting to a reality that doesn’t match up with her original plans. “I was always one of those kids who just pictured all of my dreams coming true and doing whatever I wanted,” she says. “If you had asked me in high school, I would have been like, ‘Yeah, I'm going to go to Columbia in New York and then I'm going to live in New York and I'm going to be some, like, posh movie writer.’”
And while she’s altered course on her career for now, there are some jobs she could never see herself doing. “I would rather work a service industry job than be working some corporate job where I sit in a cubicle and my mental health goes down the drain,” she says.
“One big thing, especially for me, is working for an ethical company,” she says. “I think people older than us, like the people over 40, were just cool with getting a secure job, even if it meant working for some man who killed all the rainforests. I’ll look into a company and see what’s up. If they don’t support the things I support, I won’t even consider them.”
The pandemic has changed her perspective on other things as well. “I think something that I've really learned is to remind yourself that a career and your accomplishments don't mean as much as people say they do,” she says. “I was one of those kids who based my self-worth on my grades, my GPA, getting offers from these internships. Now with the pandemic where everything's just being pulled out from under you — I needed to find who I was outside of school and outside of accomplishments.”
Skylar, 22, New York
Skylar recently received some good news — she was called back part-time to her job at a chocolate shop. “I’m not, like, officially back,” she says. “I've just kind of been going in a little bit when they need extra help, which is better than nothing. I love working there. It's very small, it's just the owners and a couple employees.”
Her original plan was to transition into a full-time theater management job after graduating this past May with a degree in theater design and management. That, of course, did not happen.
“I was at my job at the chocolate store when they announced that Broadway was getting shut down,” she recalls. “At that point I feel like everyone was expecting it to be a month-long thing. At the time in March, I was applying for fellowships and internships for the fall. [Now] I don’t even know if the theater companies are still going to be around.”
“I'm still hoping to be able to stick it out until something comes back,” she says. “I think theater will be fine. We've had theater forever and it's survived other plagues before. But it's just the waiting game.”
“Of course, there's been people who aren’t in the arts industry who have said, ‘Now it's time to find a real job. Now it’s time to find a stable, realistic career,’” says Skylar. She usually replies to this by asking, “What have you been doing during quarantine? And they always answer that they’ve been watching movies and TV shows. I’m like, who do you think is making that? That’s what I want to do. I feel like there’s always that kind of attitude about people working in the arts. But also, it’s not just the arts industry. I have friends who are business majors and they can’t find a job either.”
It wasn’t like she had unrealistic ideas about what it would be like to start a career in theater. “I always expected to have some sort of retail or service job to support the work in the arts until I got some more experience,” she says. “But I expected to be able to work in the field that I graduated in. Especially being in New York — this is the best place to get entry-level theater jobs because there's so many theater companies and opportunities. They're always looking for people who can work for a little bit cheaper.”
But she’s been recognizing more and more that this is a double-edged sword. Young, passionate people too often accept extremely low pay (or sometimes no pay at all) just to get a foot in the door. “It’s a really archaic system,” she says. She recalls having an unpaid internship during school that took three full days of her week. “It definitely puts a class barrier to get into art industries. And I'm hoping actually that there’s a reset when we go back, that we had all this time to talk about these things — as well as other issues in the theater, like racism and sexism. I hope that we don't just go back to the exact model that we had before.”
Like others, Skylar is wary over allowing a career to eat up all her time. “I think that I would want a job where I feel fulfilled, that I am excited to go to — but also one that doesn't dictate my entire life,” she says. “I don't want to only live to work. [I want to] make enough while I'm there, and also be able to have a family or travel.”
“I’ve especially seen it in the arts industry, this idea of hustling your whole life,” she continues. “When you’re just starting out you might need that extra hustle to get ahead, but I see people in their 30s and 40s and they don’t see their kids, if they even have kids. As much as I want to work in the arts, I don’t really want that.”
Skylar has also been pursuing new hobbies during quarantine. “I think identity has been something I’ve been thinking a lot about. I’ve been a student my whole life — that’s been a big part of my identity. There’s been a lack of closure for that,” she says. “I think it has been good to figure out who I am other than being a student, or other than being a worker in the arts. I got back into reading for fun instead of just reading for school or work, and finding other outlets through art that I'm not getting paid for.”
One of the biggest differences Skylar sees in the way her generation treats work is marking a clear line between work and personal lives. “I actually was just talking to one of my former professors about this, about how she was seeing that my generation has been setting stricter boundaries about what is our job and what isn’t our job,” she says. “I shouldn't be expected to answer an email within 15 minutes, 24/7.”
Christian, 22, Massachusetts
Even if you don’t want to be defined by your career, college debt often means that, long after you’ve graduated, you’re defined by the choice to pursue post-secondary education. You need a well-paying job not just for living expenses, but also to slowly chip away at your student loans. It’s one reason why Christian went down a different path.
“Coming out of high school, I wanted to do computer science,” he says. So he went to college — for a semester. “I didn’t really like it there.” Eventually, he found an apprenticeship as a pipefitter at a government shipyard and began working there full-time.
“I did that for about a year, and we had academic classes during the apprenticeship that we had to take,” he says. While completing an assignment, he found out about a program called Apprenti, which connects people to apprenticeships at tech companies with a focus on helping women and underrepresented POC get into the sector. “I ended up in the first cohort of their software development apprentices,” Christian says.
The exorbitant cost of college was definitely a deterrent for him, but he also realized college wasn’t a good fit because of the pace. “When I'm interested in something, I'm hyper-interested in it,” he says. “When you go to college, you have to take all those gen ed [classes]. There are some subjects that I'm not super interested in, and it's hard to hold my attention.” Apprenticeships, on the other hand, hone in on exactly the knowledge and skills you’ll need for this job. And in a sea of unpaid internships, apprenticeships pay you for the labor you do while learning on the job.
Apprenticeships haven’t been very widespread in the U.S., but the number of programs has been growing. The Department of Labor recently began expanding state apprenticeship programs across the country, encouraging more people of all ages to pursue a career path that doesn’t necessitate a prohibitively expensive college degree. After all, it’s not all that useful to advise young people to reject the traditional college experience unless there are plenty of alternative pathways in place.
“I think most people just don't know of [apprenticeships] yet, in all honesty,” says Christian. “Out of high school, people are like, ‘Well I want a tech job, so I have to go to school,’ but it’s not like that anymore. Personally I think it's just the best way to learn something. You get thrown right into the fire.”
After he got accepted into the apprenticeship, he went through an 18-week coding boot camp. He admits it has been difficult adapting to a new job and career remotely. “You can’t quickly ask a question to a coworker as you pass them in the hallway. “You don't have that immediate feedback that you would have if you were in the office,” he says.
But, especially when COVID-19 has become an ever-present reality leading to long-term unemployment for many, Christian is glad he took the apprenticeship route into the tech industry. “I’m very grateful for the whole thing, knowing I wouldn’t have to worry about paying my rent or food or things like that,” he says. And in a time when many young people are having to readjust their expectations, Christian feels he’s ended up in the same ballpark of where he wanted to be as a child, when he wanted to grow up to be a videogame designer.
The best career advice he’s gotten so far came from the manager he was placed with during the apprenticeship: “He pretty much just told me to take it one at a time, because there were so many different things that I was going to learn over the entire experience.” The mentality of taking it day by day is, of course, useful in all aspects of life right now.
Christian too believes that his generation looks at careers differently, shaped largely by forces out of their control. The cost of a college education is one big issue. “But I think, also, my generation looks for more camaraderie in a job,” he says. Not just as a place to hustle and make lots of money, but a space to forge meaningful friendships, if possible. Americans today spend less time with coworkers than they used to in decades past, even though studies have shown that having a close friend at work is important to job satisfaction.
Christian also feels that the work-life balance these days can tip worryingly toward the work end. “The other day I was working and something that caught up to me was that, back when you were in school, you’d go to school during the week, you’d have the weekends, and then you’d have vacations,” he says. That’s not possible in the working world. American adults work all week, sometimes work during the weekends, and hardly ever take vacations.
But he’s hopeful that COVID-19 will help workplaces embrace more flexibility for good. “Once this pandemic blows over, I think many companies are going to see that working from home isn't necessarily an unproductive thing,” he says.
Rohan, 19, Virginia
Rohan was a second-year student attending college in Virginia when the coronavirus became a national emergency. “I was living in the dorms. We went home for spring break and then our entire life kind of changed within a few days,” he says.
He’s studying psychology with an emphasis on medical humanities and environmental health disparities — but he’s also an environmental health activist working who works to connect issues of climate justice to health justice.
His personal stake in environmental health comes from his father. “My parents came to this country from India. India has pretty bad pollution, but they came to this country — and everyone thinks America’s such a godsend, you know? But I noticed that when my dad commuted and spent his day in D.C., he’d come home and he’d cough himself to sleep,” says Rohan. “I used to have the bedroom right next to my parents’ room. I think his lungs were trying to catch up from the day’s damage. I feel like minorities in this country are putting their quality of life on the line for a paycheck.” He realized that Black and Brown communities in America routinely suffer from environmental health disparities.
“I've done a lot of work over the past few years in this field,” Rohan says. He’s currently the director of research and development at the youth-led non-profit Climate Cardinals, which works to make climate crisis information accessible in as many languages as possible. He also recently founded The Community Check-Up, an organization dedicated to framing the climate change discussion as a public health emergency. “But a lot of [the work] is unpaid, and unfortunately not as valued in I guess what you’d call ‘corporate America’ or the traditional job market,” he says. He has yet to be paid for any of this work.
“I was actually supposed to intern over the summer at the Department of Health and Human Services,” he says. And though it got canceled because of COVID-19, it was going to be unpaid. “That was something I was really debating,” he says. “Before it got canceled I was like, ‘Is it really worth it? Should I just work?’”
Currently, Rohan is working at a fast-food restaurant to pay the bills and keep a roof over his head. “I don’t get very much sleep, to be honest. And that’s not the healthiest thing, I know. [Older people] see that youth have so much energy, they have the momentum to make change, but oftentimes we’re also just trying to pay our bills,” he says. “You can’t just keep exploiting youth labor.”
He believes a collective recognition of just how much Gen Z labor is exploited has grown during the pandemic. “I've been really fortunate that I've even had those opportunities, but it would be nice to really be able to do something in your field and contribute without just giving free labor,” he says.
According to Rohan, this is why we’re seeing more youth-led initiatives and movements. If they’re not getting paid working for someone, they might as well go their own way. “Especially for the climate crisis,” he says. “I can’t wait until I’m 30 years old when I have a solid paycheck coming in.”
Despite his father’s persistent cough, his own parents didn’t connect it to an issue of climate justice at first. “When I talked to my parents about climate change, initially they were like, ‘Why are you wasting your time with this kind of stuff?’”
But since he started engaging in environmental health, his parents have come around. They began to see the connection between climate, public health, and communities of color where there’s less investment, less stringent environmental regulations. “I'm not going to say my parents are the most ‘woke’ people,” says Rohan. “I’m not sure if that’s ever going to be true. But it’s getting there. The work [we do] is not only valuable to American society, but it’s especially valuable to the Asian diaspora, especially our parents.”
“I don’t really want to get to the point where work is just for money,” he says. “A lot of immigrants especially are told, you just gotta keep working, keep hustling. And it’s hard to reckon with that sometimes.”
“I think the worst advice I’ve gotten is to follow a cookie-cutter method of success,” he says. “Go to college, go to grad school, XYZ. That cookie-cutter method really doesn't work anymore. It might guarantee you a job somewhere, but it might not be rewarding, it might not even actually pay your bills, nor will it be something you’re proud of.” Knowing this is “equally refreshing, equally frustrating.”
On the other hand, the best advice he’s gotten is “to stay authentic to your roots.” “I come from a certain background, and I know my experiences with that background,” he says. “You don't have to save the entire world. But you can make an effort to save part of it, and I know where I can make the most impact — and that’s within the Asian diaspora.”
When he envisions an ideal job in the future, he knows what kind of culture he doesn’t want. “I don’t want to be used as token diversity,” he says. “They're hiring [POC] at such low positions, where they just take all the credit for their work or they just use them as a diversity example on their website. Oh, look, this is our chief diversity officer. I was reading this study that by 2050, most people will actually be mixed. The demographics of the U.S. are changing, and so should work culture — to really value minority youth labor.”
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