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What Career Ambition Means to Gen Z

The workforce’s next generation has a very different view of the corporate ladder

As the first generation of true “digital natives,” Gen Z is basically Generation Truther. And while they’re disillusioned with just about every traditional institution imaginable, their constant ability to access the internet is an institution in-and-of-itself. As such, most of them have experienced a (young) lifetime’s worth of social media content and are well-versed in the sheer volume of lifestyles visible online — as well as the internet’s skewering of certain conventions, traditions and archetypal symbols of power.

In other words, they’ve seen a lot of memes and know what the fuck is up.

They supported Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders as presidential candidates, both of whom resonated with them because of their iconoclastic attitudes toward government. Sanders wanted to undo the vast economic inequality that’s become synonymous with the American experience and Trump wanted to blow up seemingly everything.

On a more personal level, they don’t want to be miserably overworked, divorced or cranked up on the same depression drugs as their parents. Gen Z hasn’t only witnessed the issues their parents burnout at work and home, they’ve also come of age during the proliferation of “self care” as a mainstream value. In a culture full of dysfunction that manifests in a constant stream of violence (from school shootings to sexual assault) and an endless news cycle talking about such violence, more and more youth are choosing to prioritize their health and wellness over their economic potential.

While their disinterest in climbing corporate ladders — or their flat-out rejection of the ladder altogether — has earned them a reputation for being lazy in some corners, it doesn’t mean they’re not ambitious. It’s more about how they value their identity outside of work. That is, they’re not willing to sacrifice their health for a company, especially if it’s not a company they own. For Gen Z, Adderall binges, all-nighters and bragging about burning the candles at both ends — typical behaviors of millennial professionals at one time — are no longer interesting or acceptable. More precisely, they’re not well, as in the wellness industry.

To get a better idea of why — as well as what ambition looks like to the next generation of the workforce — I reached out to two Gen Zers and a trend forecaster who has long been at the fore of understanding what comes next. Here’s what they had to say…

Kayla, 20, an L.A. native studying music management at Columbia College Chicago: The core of my ambition is to achieve something better for myself in the future. Right now, my ambitions involve attaining happiness, feeling passionate about my career and living with a lot of confidence in my own body. I’d also like to make a name for myself as a progressive figure in the music industry.

My ambition, though, isn’t driven by money. I’ve talked to people from older generations and heard stories about how they put their happiness aside to attain what other people considered successful, even if that wasn’t what they wanted for themselves. I’m not willing to do that. My generation has witnessed the trauma this can cause, and I believe we’re more aware of the importance of mental and physical health because of it. My peers and I are ambitious, but we aren’t down to forfeit our health and happiness in pursuit of our career goals. I’m prioritizing my happiness and hoping that money will follow.

Our political awareness influences this, too. I know a lot of people my age who see the bigger picture — in terms of capitalism and the way society works — and are discouraged to follow their ambitions because of it. I’ve certainly had moments when I’ve let go of my ambitions because I feel powerless — or at least at the whim of the world. This is a mental health thing as well. In that sense, it can be hard to maintain my ambitions when I’m constantly being updated on horrible things happening in the world.

Sean Monahan, a cultural strategist and trend forecaster who was a founding member of K-Hole, the art and business collective behind “normcore”: Gen Z has a more holistic idea of success. As a result, professional ambition is tempered by other desires for family, fame, fun and freedom. In other words, career is just one pillar holding up their life’s ambitions. Gen Z is ambitious, but they’ve seen older generations struggle through the Great Recession. They still have an “I can do anything I put my mind to mindset,” but they presume the journey to success will be more difficult and require trade-offs. They’re pragmatists at heart.

Manu “Swish” Goswami, a 21-year-old serial entrepreneur from Toronto who Forbes named “one of ten Gen Z experts to follow”: People say Gen Z is lazy and entitled, but those are over-generalizations. You can give me one example of a person my age that’s entitled, and I can give you examples of people within your generation who are entitled, too.

But sure, we do choose to go about living life differently than many of our ancestors. My parent’s generation doesn’t understand the value of receiving an online education as much as my generation does, for instance. These days, people can get virtual degrees from places like the Khan Academy. It doesn’t make someone less ambitious to receive their training or education from alternative, digital sources than traditional schools — at least not from my perspective. But my parents didn’t have access to such tools.

I think members of every generation have the basic goals of trying to make the most of life for their future selves or their families. The difference is how we go about getting that. The traditional college experience is a great way to develop interpersonally, but it’s usually just about hanging out and meeting other people. I paused my own college education — and definitely miss hanging out with my friends and playing on intramural sports teams and stuff like that — but I’ve learned way more from YouTube and starting my own organization. Seeing how far you can get without falling flat on your face is a great way to learn.

I have a lot of dreams. The more I fulfill my ambitions, the more I’m motivated to go after some of my larger goals. And so, I wake up every day excited to collaborate with like-minded people on projects that have a tangible impact on other people’s lives.