Gen Z and the Art of Incentivized Self-Actualization


When the pandemic hit, Gen Z-ers—born between 1997 and 2012—were just entering adulthood. After enduring a particularly difficult time during lockdowns, today they face an acute mental health crisis. As a result, in 2024, many will be asking more from their work life.

When my research team at Harvard University interviewed 80 Gen Z college students, we noticed an overwhelming desire to double down on their efforts to live authentically. This means doing work they are passionate about, building meaningful bonds with peers, making public their private selves—whether that means their tastes and preferences, their sexual identity, their past traumas—to those who surround them, as and when they are so moved.

Overall, Gen Z-ers are also far more skeptical about the pursuit of the American dream than their elders. For instance, many view homeownership as not only out-of-reach, but also as one more consumer trap—a part of the addictive “hedonistic treadmill” to be avoided. They do not want to subordinate their personal priorities to profitmaking nor hide crucial aspects of their identity in order to perform the “ideal self” that has traditionally been expected by employers. In the past, this has often required dedicating oneself fully (upward of 40 hours a week) to externally dictated objectives. That’s no longer the case.

The Gen Z college students we interviewed have specific asks of their employers. They are aiming to combine their passion for hard work and entrepreneurship with self-actualization, work-life balance, social inclusion, and political engagement. The usual incentives for employees won’t do.

In order to continue to attract these young, reluctant workers as boomers retire, employers will have to foster organizational cultures that facilitate what I call recognition—rendering others visible and valued. As such, “seeing others” will have to become a new managerial mantra. In this context, formal “affinity groups” of workers who share similar interests or identities will become particularly important. This will enable people in increasingly diverse workplaces to talk about how they experience their work-life together, what they aspire to, and how things could be made better.

In 2024, this pursuit of self-creation and actualization will mean that therapeutic culture will play an even more central role than it did in the past. Workers and managers alike will focus less on “working more” than on “working better,” and think more about speaking to what motivates employees beyond economic imperatives.

The gig economy, as well as opportunities for self-employment that can be used as an entrepreneurial tool, is also giving Gen Z-ers a way out from the doldrums of work routines.

Yet, important differences exist across social classes. In a study on how middle- and working-class college students responded to Covid-19, the first group was more likely to view themselves as leaders of social change, whereas the second saw their aspirations constrained by the reality of having to support their families. They also operated with a much shorter time horizon and perceived pandemic challenges in the context of a long history of facing crises. Against this background, in 2024, the pursuit of passion will continue to be viewed as a luxury by many with fewer resources, while the divide between the college-educated and the rest of the population will continue to deepen, including their quest for dignity through work. If we want to live in healthy societies, we must extend recognition to those without a college education—and learn how to truly see others properly.

WIRED has teamed up with Jobbio to create WIRED Hired, a dedicated career marketplace for WIRED readers. Companies who want to advertise their jobs can visit WIRED Hired to post open roles, while anyone can search and apply for thousands of career opportunities. Jobbio is not involved with this story or any editorial content.


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