Talent   //   June 21, 2023

‘Anti-meaningless work’: How Gen Z are redefining traditional career paths

Gen Zers are forcing employers to evolve their ways of working. And rather than lamenting today’s youth, older business leaders would be wise to accommodate the workforce’s youngest generation better. 

Moving away from traditional career paths to encourage non-linear development makes sense for all parties in 2023. A new approach and fresh thinking are critical. “Logic will get you from A to B,” said Albert Einstein. “Imagination will take you everywhere.”

Events spurred by the coronavirus crisis have upended many norms. Still, it is arguably the Gen Z cohort that has suffered the most through disjointed education, severely limited early-career opportunities, and a lack of in-person work and play experiences, in addition to the psychological impact. Now, Gen Z is in the driving seat to propel meaningful change and usher in a new work paradigm.

“The last three years have enabled Gen Zers to reap the flexibility benefits of remote working with many more deciding to optimize for a lifestyle as a digital nomad,” said Charlie Rogers, a London-based executive team co-ordinator at The Portfolio Collective (a global community of 8,000+ portfolio professionals) and founder of Mastery in Your 20s, a community platform to equip people in their third decade with the skills to take “their own pathless path.”

Rogers argued that the uncertainty triggered by the pandemic exposed “a fundamental weakness” of relying on a single income stream. Moreover, increasing doubts about whether particular careers or employers are a good match has led “those in their 20s to embrace a portfolio career from an early age to place several, rather than one bet on their future,” he said.

Donna Helphrey, vp of talent acquisition at Salt Lake City-headquartered e-learning provider Go1, developed this theme. “As traditional career paths may not always be secure, many Gen Zers may pursue a ‘portfolio career’ with multiple income streams.” She stated that self-preservation meant this generation is now prioritizing “flexible and remote work, purpose-driven careers, digital skills, and entrepreneurship.”

“There is a common misconception that Gen Zers are anti-work. But in reality, they are anti-meaningless work.”
Lea Karam, senior behavioral consultant and scientist at Behave.

Unique attitudes and expectations

Lea Karam, senior behavioral consultant and scientist at business consultancy Behave, agreed that the shifting social mores and technology-enabled flexibility have combined to inform what Gen Zers want – and need – from work. “There is a common misconception that Gen Zers are anti-work. But in reality, they are anti-meaningless work,” she said.

Karam pointed out that Gen Zers are “entering the workforce with unique attitudes and expectations and at a time of significant change … [having] grown up in a world where technology is ubiquitous, education is more accessible and wealth disparities are more pronounced.”

Digging deeper into the science, Karam said that from a behavioral perspective, Gen Zers’ approach to work is influenced by a “diverse and globalized upbringing” fueled by a bias called the illusion of “explanatory depth.” She explained this is an “observed psychological phenomenon that states that people think they understand the world, subjects and topics more than they actually do, based on what they are frequently and inherently exposed to.”

Offering employers an insight into the minds of Gen Zers, Karam added: “Gen Z’s early exposure to modern digital platforms has provided what they deem as a fair and accessible worldview. This is shaping their perception of work and making money and has influenced how they view work.”

The “frameworks” to guide and assist Gen Z careers “are few and far between,” according to Rogers. For example The Portfolio Collective uses four groups – side hustler, freelancer, multi-hyphenate, and focused-expert – to categorize the possible career paths. However, these are not useful to Rogers’ peers who are in the formative stage of their work journey. “They are focused mostly on later-stage professionals who already have over ten years of experience,” he said.

Rogers has crafted The Triple Portfolio Model, which is freely available on his Mastery In Your 20s Substack. This is a “framework for those in our 20s who struggle with having too many interests, too little money and never enough time,” he added.  

Workshop phase of live

There are three complementary yet separate focuses to this model. First, “the earner” takes up most time – between 20 and 50 hours a week – and generates short-term income while “teaching you the skills you need for the long term.” Next, “the passion” encourages people to explore their “intellectual curiosity” for up to 20 hours a week. Finally, by committing the same amount of time as the passion, “the hobby” enables someone to “perform your best in the two other focuses” by providing “space to relax and recharge.”

Gaby Mendes, the founder of Talk Twenties, a media and events company, said young Gen Zers should be wary about being pigeonholed. “The goal of your 20s is not to get it right the first time,” she said. “This decade is all about understanding yourself.” It is when a person should determine their “likes, dislikes, passions, ambitions, failures and everything you love in the world.” Mendes added: “This is your workshop phase where you set the table for the feast you’ll enjoy in your 30s.”

Organizations must move with the times, stressed Meghan Haines, head of U.K. employer partnerships at San Francisco-based recruiting software firm Handshake. “It’s an incredible opportunity to embrace the changes Gen Z is accelerating in the ways we work, including flexibility and hybrid working, but also company values, DE&I, mental health, wellness, and sustainability,” she said.

Behave’s Karam advised that making the workplace exciting and safe would be critical. “Gen Zers are willing to work hard, providing it doesn’t come at the expense of their psychological safety,” she said. 

Underlining the openness required by incumbent bosses, Karam added: “Developing a safe space that encourages Gen Z to create and change norms while also acknowledging current leaders don’t know it all and have plenty to learn themselves is key.”