Gen Zers are preparing for a lifetime of financial insecurity

Gen Zers are preparing for a lifetime of financial insecurity

For young Americans entering the workforce between a global pandemic and a likely recession, financial uncertainty is quickly becoming a way of life.

Members of Gen Z—those born between 1997 and 2011 or 2012—constitute the most anxious, burned out, and isolated generation there is. They are also more likely to have unstable employment, which has big repercussions on how Gen Zers plan their finances.

Around half of Gen Zers say their salaries are unstable, and many do not think they will ever be able to reach traditional personal finance milestones like retiring comfortably or buying a house, according to a new study by consulting firm McKinsey. In interviews with 1,763 Americans ages 18 to 24 last spring as part of its American Opportunity Survey, the company found that most Gen Zers are mentally prepping for a lifelong state of financial uncertainty.

Nearly a quarter of Gen Z Americans say they will be unable to put aside enough retirement savings, up from an average of 16% across generations. And as many as 59% of Gen Zers do not expect to own a home at any point in their lives, nearly double the cross-generational average.

The survey’s authors noted that the startling statistics could be explained away as common trends of youth in any era, but also pointed to a much bleaker reality.

“A more pessimistic interpretation may be that young people expect their current job instability and financial insecurity to continue as their lives progress,” the survey authors wrote. “Gen Z’s fear of never reaching traditional economic milestones may reflect greater pessimism and hopelessness than other generations have experienced.”

Gen Z’s cheerless outlook

America’s youth would be forgiven for thinking the cards have been somewhat stacked against them.

Saddled with a staggering $1.75 trillion in student debt, Gen Zers entered a job market in which remote work was quickly becoming the norm, contributing to a general sense of loneliness and isolation. More than eight in 10 Gen Z workers have never had an in-office job, and while many say they like it that way, several studies also found that most Gen Zers crave in-office interactions and prioritize other things over remote work, including flexibility and better pay.

The types of jobs most young Americans have aren’t doing much to help ground them either. More than half of Gen Zers say they do “independent work,” according to the McKinsey survey, defined as serving as contractors, freelancers, or in temp jobs. A quarter of Gen Zers also said they work multiple jobs at one time.

Because of this, 45% of Gen Zers say they are not financially secure, compared with 40% of all respondents. Gen Zers were also more likely to say their salaries do not allow them a good quality of life.

Unable to make big purchases like homes, a rising number of young Americans have identified themselves as “forever renters.” They expect to perennially lease rather than own property, citing their insufficient incomes, fear of falling into debt, and even concerns about climate change risks.

A lifetime of instability

More Americans—of all income levels—are now living paycheck to paycheck than before the pandemic. The country’s personal savings rate is the lowest since the 2008 recession, and Gen Z is feeling lonelier and more financially hopeless than ever. 

Taken together, it means that many young Americans are anxious. Almost two-thirds of young Americans are fearful about the future of the country’s democracy and society, according to a recent Harvard University poll, and crises including climate change and the next pandemic have pushed many young Americans to forgo saving altogether and focus on living life in the moment.

To be sure, Gen Z’s attitude about the future may just be part of youth, according to the McKinsey survey. The authors pointed out that many Americans in their early twenties simply may not be at a point in their lives when they can envision buying a home or retirement, and that other generations may have felt similarly in their youth.

But what is clear is that those traditional financial milestones are seen as increasingly unrealistic for many, with home sales declining and retirement increasingly delayed over the past several years. If these trends continue, the instability and financial insecurity Gen Z is now accustomed to might become the norm.

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