Members of the inaugural class of MissionU are pretending to be newborn kittens, laughing and rolling around on the floor of an airy industrial loft in San Francisco. The group of about 30 students just finished a hackathon, and they are now in the midst of an improv workshop—all part of a yearlong program designed to turn them into highly employable workers. Among them is Eric Dew, a 20-year-old who spent two years studying computer programming in South Dakota. “I just didn’t feel like I got even near the value I had paid for,” he says of his associate’s degree. Dew will pay no upfront tuition to MissionU as he is trained to be a data analyst. Instead, he has agreed to give the private company 15% of his income for three years after he leaves, a business model that makes sense to him. “One isn’t successful without the other being successful,” he says.
Dew is part of a cohort that has grown up during mass disruption. The post-millennial generation best known as Gen Z—individuals now in their teens and early 20s—looked on as their parents lost jobs during the Great Recession. They’ve seen older millennial siblings drown in student debt. Since they could eat solid food, they’ve watched one promising technology displace another, and, along with older generations, have questioned everything from the gig economy to the state of democracy. Now they’re entering adulthood with a willingness to experiment.
“The old systems we used to rely on aren’t working anymore, but new systems haven’t necessarily been put in place,” says Melissa Lavigne-Delville, founder of the trends and research firm Culture Co-op, which specializes in generational attitudes. “Parents aren’t even sure about how to direct their children, because too much is up in the air.”
According to a survey by her firm, 78% of Gen Z-ers say getting a four-year degree no longer makes economic sense, and hundreds of programs, from apprenticeships to boot camps, have cropped up to offer an alternative path. New types of work are possible too. Research has found that teenagers are getting their driver’s licenses later and doing less traditional work-for-pay than previous generations. But while they might not be tearing tickets at the local cineplex, they may be starting a popular YouTube channel from their bedroom. Culture Co-op found that nearly 60% of Gen Z-ers, ages 13 to 22, say they are doing some form of freelancing. Dew, for one, didn’t have a job in high school but did teach himself to code and is building websites on the side while he attends MissionU.
The digital natives of Gen Z observe the world through their smartphones, and many became highly attuned to the nuances of identity at an early age. Take Ose Arheghan, a 17-year-old from Ohio who describes themself as a queer, nonbinary Nigerian-American and says discussions about diversity shouldn’t leave out economic status or religion. On tours of college campuses, Arheghan (who does not identify as male or female) often asks whether there is gender-neutral housing—and gets weird looks from parents. “But I have to ask,” says Arheghan. Equality-signaling is a factor for these young people in determining what’s next, and for how long.
Workplaces are just beginning to feel the influence of Gen Z. Early observations suggest that these young people may opt for headphones at work, collaborating and socializing in chat rooms, rather than in the open spaces set up by millennials. Experts who spend their days thinking about office dynamics say that while members of Gen Z may not have the formal writing skills or emotional intelligence of baby boomers, they’ll be able to teach older coworkers how to learn new tools and skills on the fly—the same way they have all their lives. There’s also some promising research suggesting that young women with no work experience are demanding and receiving equal pay more often than women who have been in the workforce for years.
“There’s this expectation of diversity in everything they do,” says Lori Goler, head of HR for Facebook. That includes the work itself. Gen Z-ers are accustomed to flitting between apps and expect that they can go online and teach themselves anything they want, without sticking to any one task for too long. If millennials helped usher in an era in which it is normal to go through several careers and have flexible schedules, Gen Z-ers may find ways to have all those careers at the same time.
“With Gen Z, I think we have these superhuman expectations for ourselves,” says Larissa May, a 23-year-old in New York who is coaching older executives on how to use social media, consulting for a direct-to-consumer candle company and running a multimedia platform called #HalfTheStory. “In the past, if you were young, you sort of went up the ladder. You didn’t say much your first two years on the job, and you just had to listen. But we can really provide a different perspective,” she says. (Millennials rankled Gen X workers by refusing to pay their dues before they got a seat at the table, and there may be more rankling to come.)
Doing it all becomes increasingly possible as workplaces go virtual, expectations of working 9 to 5 go by the wayside and the concept of failure takes on an increasingly upbeat patina. Young people have “a growth mind-set, where even if they mess up once, they’re not going to let that mess-up define them,” says Neha Sampat, who runs a workplace consulting firm called GenLead|BelongLab. That’s especially true at the startups this entrepreneurial generation is founding. When asked what she expects from employees at her virtual-reality company, Entrypoint VR, 25-year-old Carissa Flocken says the bar for quality of work is high, “but when and where you do it doesn’t matter.” In Culture Co-op’s survey, 61% of Gen Z-ers said they planned to start their own business or work independently within the next five years.
Jumping into the freelance economy means taking an uncertain path, as is betting one’s future earnings on a educational program no one has tried before. Almost $2 billion has been invested in “last mile training” efforts like MissionU, according to private-equity firm University Ventures, but many young people are still opting for college. Plenty of people of all generations still view a BA as a prerequisite for success in life. But Dew says older people “get stuck” on the fact that he has no intention of getting a bachelor’s degree. Where they see risk, he sees a chance to help prove that a new idea has merit—to be a pioneer. “There’s always going to be something special,” Dew says, “about being the first.”
Due to a production error, an incorrect version of this story was published online. It has now been updated to reflect the correct version that appears in the Dec. 25 issue of the magazine. Among other changes, this version corrects a misspelling of Melissa Lavigne-Delville’s name and the description of her firm; Culture Co-op is a trends and research firm, not a marketing firm. It also corrects the name of Neha Sampat’s firm; it is GenLead|BelongLab, not GenLead. In addition, the spellings of #HalfTheStory and Entrypoint VR have been corrected. The original version of the story also misstated the amount of money that has been invested in alternative programs like MissionU; it is almost $2 billion, not more than $2 billion.