86% of Gen Z interns think a recession is coming—and it's changing their approach to their careers

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Cassidy Case is a few months into her fall internship, but she's already planning ahead for summer. The 20-year-old is a junior at Arizona State University studying marketing and is completing her second internship with Circle K, the convenience store chain, fresh off another internship over the summer. As she interviews for summer 2023, she's clear with her intentions: She doesn't expect just a few months of typical intern work — by the time she graduates in 2024, she wants a full-time job with them.

Case says her dad taught her to be proactive about shaping her burgeoning career, but she also has another concern on her mind: a potential recession on the way.

"I don't want to be in a position where I'm having to make tough decisions right after I graduate," Case tells CNBC Make It. She says one friend recently completed an internship with the expectation of landing a full-time offer afterward, "but they didn't give it to her because of what's going on in the economy," Case says. "That stresses me out for my graduation plans and thinking of the longevity of my career."

Cassidy Case, 20, is a junior at Arizona State University studying marketing.
Courtesy of subject

Concerns about a potential downturn are reaching the youngest people in the workforce: 86% of college interns believe a recession is on the horizon, according to Goldman Sachs' 2022 global internship survey of more than 2,470 interns over the summer.

In response to the economic tumult, the graduating class of 2023 describe themselves as as anxious, worried, stressed and concerned about their post-college job prospects, says Christine Cruzvergara, chief education strategy officer at Handshake, the job-search platform for college students.

As young workers search for stability and meaning when entering the working world, they're changing their behaviors and mindsets to "recession-proof" their futures.

Gen Zers want interesting work, good colleagues and flexibility to explore something new

Gen Z interns surveyed by Goldman Sachs say their biggest priorities when taking a new job are what their day-to-day will look like (34%), as well as who their colleagues will be (21%). That's notably higher than other draws of a job, including salary (13%), the company's purpose (12%) and opportunities for advancement (8%).

Today's youngest workers are willing to relocate for a job, and a slight majority believe success means being able to move around rather than setting down roots or becoming a homeowner.

At this stage of their lives and careers, Gen Zers want flexibility in the way they live and work most of all, Cruzvergara says.

"Many new grads want to [work] in-person to have those social connections and community bonds, especially when just starting off in their career," she says. "At the same time, they like being able to have some flexibility and autonomy to work from home" when needed, whether to fit their schedule on a certain day, to save on gas or to live somewhere with a lower cost of living.

Recession-proofing grad plans

Today's college students are motivated to figure out what they want and be upfront about it with potential employers. For example, Case has a few strategies for figuring out whether an internship could turn into something more.

She's clear with recruiters about her career goals in marketing, and asks: Does the company have a budget to hire interns into full-time roles, pending they do well? What are the company's plans to hire in the next two to four years?

She prefers to interview with larger global companies she thinks can withstand potential economic shocks in the future.

At the University of Arkansas, 21-year-old senior Oliver Sims also has his summer work plans locked in. He recently accepted an offer to return to Dell as a finance intern, which will make his third stint with the tech giant.

He's optimistic about his future with them after school. This past summer, he says the company told interns they were undergoing an external hiring freeze, but that interns were well positioned to be first considered for any open roles in the future.

Oliver Sims, 21, is a senior at the University of Arkansas studying accounting.
Courtesy of subject

Sims is recession-proofing the next few years of his life in another way: He'll graduate with a degree in accounting in May and go straight into the Walton College of Business' competitive program to earn a master's degree with one additional year.

College enrollment tends to increase when jobs are scarce. More students and recent grads may consider earning advanced degrees to wait out economic shocks, says Jade Walters, 23, a Howard University grad who now runs the Ninth Semester, an early-career resource for Gen Z professionals.

She often hears young job-seekers express "fear and anxiety" about their job prospects in a gloomy economic forecast. Many lament of entry-level jobs that already call for several years of experience, or applying to a slew of jobs but never hearing back. For some, grad school and finding more internships throughout, is a safer bet: "It's just easier to be a student than navigate finding a job in this market," she says.

Short-term anxious, long-term optimistic

Early career workers were some of the hardest hit during the Great Recession, with lasting consequences on their socioeconomic wellbeing, health and mortality, research has shown.

But today's young professionals are entering a job market that looks nothing like it did during the 2008 financial crisis: Jobs are booming, employers can't hire fast enough, and work conditions are getting better for many, says Sarah Wang, 21, a senior majoring in communications at UCLA and interning with Worklife ventures, a venture capital firm investing in "future of work" companies.

She says she and her peers are pickier about the jobs they want knowing the many ways work can be done: "During the pandemic, we saw what was possible," she explains. "You could work remotely from your parents' house for a company with an office based in New York." Managers became more flexible with schedules and accommodating to what was going on in their employees' lives. In general, "employers are more compassionate about understanding everyone's situation," she says. "It's possible to redefine what work looks like."

Sarah Wang, 21, is a 2023 UCLA grad and negotiated several communications internships throughout college.
Anika Chakrabarti

Cruzvergara says this feeling — short-term anxious about the job market but long-term optimistic about careers and the world of work — is pretty common among Gen Z students right now. An overwhelming 81% of students believe they'll find a well-paying job after graduation, 82% believe they'll find it fulfilling, and 86% think they'll find a job in a field they're interested in, according to Handshake's report on 2023 grads.

Young workers also know opportunities abound beyond the traditional workforce, which can take some of the pressure off of finding a "perfect" corporate job out of school.

"With the rise of the creator economy and side hustle era, the typical 9-5 career isn't the only viable path for people my age," Wang says. If she can't find a job that suits her passions, she can design one herself: "With technology at our fingertips, if there aren't opportunities out there, we can create them."

Young people like Wang believe those opportunities can take them far, literally and figuratively. "I see work as an opportunity to travel and live in different places around the country," Wang says. "I might do Seattle for two years, then I might go to the East Coast for grad school or work. Or maybe I'll be a digital nomad and find a remote or hybrid-friendly job."

Check out:

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