Career motivations of Gen Z: Top 4 takeaways from a national survey.

Posted November 02, 2020 by

By James W. Lewis, President of NSHSS

The National Society of High School Scholars (NSHSS) conducted the most current, in-depth research on the preferences, attitudes, and goals of high-achieving high school and college-aged students in areas of education, employment, international experience, career planning, and social and civic dedication.

This focused look at Generation Z offers a useful resource for employers working to engage and retain diverse talent who promise to bring distinct skills and expectations to the workforce.

Hanover Research recently conducted a survey to learn more about the state of youth perspectives on careers and their futures. The research revealed the preferences and attitudes about education, career and employment aspirations, and civic involvement.

Conducted from March 17 to April 7, 2020, the survey asked questions of more than 14,000 high school and college-age students, representing every ethnicity and all 50 U.S. states, DC, U.S. military bases overseas, and U.S. territories of American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Our high-achieving student respondents had an average GPA of 3.72.

The 2020 Career Interest Survey, fielded at a unique point in history, captures a glimpse into how geopolitical changes are beginning to shape the opportunities and attitudes of those young people born after 1997–Generation Z.  This young, upcoming and talented cohort is making its way with a great deal of optimism and skill, while their path has been equally marked by uncertainty from the Great Recession in 2007 to the unprecedented COVID-19 global pandemic. As an emerging work and political force, Generation Z seeks stability and has high expectations for itself, its government, and its employers.

Getting to Know the New Workforce

As the first generation born into the internet age to enter the workforce, Generation Z may require a profound shift in how employers attract, hire, promote, and retain employees. However, insight from the 2020 Career Interest Survey reveals that their career expectations and job seeking behaviors are not drastically different from those who came before.

Despite their comfort with technology, social media, and mobile devices, this generation still craves person-to-person communication, seeking career advice from parents, peers, counselors at their schools, and personal connections. In addition, when looking for career opportunities, they rely on more traditional forms of communication–websites, email, and job fairs–rather than social media, texts, or direct messages.

On the job, this generation seeks experiential learning and personalized career paths. They value professional development opportunities and chances to grow their skill set on the job.

Having seen the gig-economy come alive and numerous work-from-home solutions, they have witnessed many alternative work arrangements and want the flexibility to achieve a work-life balance.

Where this generation may differ the most from others is their connection between personal values and career expectations. While they are acutely aware of the financial implications

of their career choices, they also consider social justice issues like the ratio of women and people of color on the leadership team at potential employers. They also want to work for employers who they view as egalitarian, treating all employees fairly and taking social responsibility seriously.

As this generation enters the workforce, they will bring their high expectations to bear on an economic landscape still reeling from its own global challenges. With their digital acuity, dedication to advancement, and commitment to positive change, Generation Z seems poised to make its own impact, rewarding those companies and organizations that are willing to engage them in creating solutions to the world’s biggest problems.

4 Themes Shaping Gen Z

  1. Economic Uncertainty. Economic challenges shaping Gen Z’s view about finances and money include:
  • Great Recession
  • Student Loan Debt Crisis
  • COVID-19 pandemic

This uncertainty shapes Generation Z’s attitudes toward college selection, major/minor choices, advanced degree programs, and even job selection.

Unlike the more financially cavalier Millennials, Generation Z has a keen sense of responsibility when it comes to money, and this is reflected in their higher education and career choices.

Generation Z has seen wild fluctuations in the U.S.’s economic prospects from the Great Recession of 2007-2008 to the subsequent period of economic expansion and low unemployment to the arguably even greater threat from the COVID-19 global pandemic. High school NSHSS scholars are concerned with minimizing student loan debt with nearly two-thirds (65%) expecting to have a job while in college and 90% seeking scholarships to help fund their education. Despite their optimism about their post-collegiate job prospects (84% expect to find a job within one year of graduation), over half (56%) expect to be living at home when they begin that first job.

2. Catalysts for Change

In a world overwhelmed with challenges from climate change to inequality to a global pandemic, Gen Z sees themselves as catalysts for change. Although most have not been involved in politics or activism in the past, many say they have experienced bullying/violence, racial/ gender inequality, or issues related to climate change. NSHSS scholars plan to translate these experiences into action, with more than three-quarters (76%) expecting to be at least somewhat involved in politics or activism in the future. In addition, almost all (91%) of those who are registered to vote are planning to do so in the 2020 Presidential Election, which will be this generation’s first opportunity to have a major impact, making up 10% of eligible voters. Perhaps due to the #MeToo Movement or the wave of female politicians in the 2018 mid-term elections, activism, advocacy, and political engagement are even more likely among female NSHSS scholars.

This generation has developed a sense of empowerment that comes from seeing social movements like #MeToo, #BlackLivesMatter, and #NeverAgain rise up around them. These social issues have shaped their worldview and made them acutely aware of the injustices of the world around them. Unlike past generations, Generation Z does not separate these global challenges from their personal ambitions but rather see them as intertwined and interdependent.

3. Learning by Doing

Growing up with a mobile device in hand and a sense of responsibility to solve the world’s problems, it is no surprise that Generation Z is interested in hands-on learning opportunities. Almost three-quarters (74%) have already or expect to participate in an internship where they hope to develop their skills and receive further training. In addition, most (72%) suggest that the most important consideration in a potential employer is gaining skills to advance in their career. Although the percentage of NSHSS scholars looking to enter graduate school has declined from 76% in 2018 to 62% in 2020, it is clear that this generation is interested in continuing their learning in less conventional ways.

Finally, Generation Z is often considered the first digitally native generation, born into technology with endless information at their fingertips. Not surprisingly, they are demanding more hands-on learning opportunities outside of the classroom and are looking to STEM-related fields for further training and careers. Coupled with their sense of social responsibility and the overwhelming needs created by the COVID-19 outbreak, this generation may tend more towards medical technology and healthcare-related fields in the future.

4. Medicine and STEM

As with previous waves, STEM careers are in high demand among NSHSS scholars with four of the top six intended majors falling into a STEM field. Perhaps as a reflection of their desire to make a positive impact and the coverage of the COVID-19 global pandemic, Gen Z scholars are gravitating toward medical fields of study and careers.

This year, health/medicine has jumped into the top spot both for intended major (30%) and intended career (37%). In addition, hospitals now occupy the top three spots in the list of most desired employers and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has surpassed the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) as the most interesting government agency. Medical fields of study are even more desirable for women and people of color, groups which have traditionally been marginalized in STEM fields.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


We believe that every student and recent grad deserves a great career. Get a personalized proposal for how best to reach your target candidates by entering your info here. We will respond within one business day.

Thank you for submitting your request to College Recruiter for a proposal for how we can help you hire students and recent graduates of one-, two-, and four-year colleges and universities for part-time, seasonal, internship, and entry-level opportunities.

We will likely respond within a couple of hours and definitely within one business day. Should you need assistance even faster, please call us at 952.848.2211 or email us at [email protected].

Posted in Advice for Employers and Recruiters, Career Advice for Job Seekers | Tagged