Gen Z college students say this is the No. 1 most important thing to them in a new job

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College graduation ceremonies are a few months away, and plenty of Gen Zers are looking for one thing in their first jobs: some stability, for once.

Students from the class of 2023, having experienced the majority of their college years through Covid, are resilient and adaptable but also want some semblance of normalcy: 85% of Gen Z job seekers say they're prioritizing stability in their job search, according to a new report from Handshake, a career site for college students and recent grads.

It's a notch higher than 81% who say benefits are important, and 80% who say a high starting salary is a big motivating factor, according to the survey of 1,853 job seekers on Handshake between August 30 and September 18, 2022. On average, Gen Z job seekers define a "high" starting salary as paying $82,000 per year.

These young professionals will enter a job market that even the most seasoned experts can't quite explain: prominent layoffs are in the news even as unemployment numbers remain historically low, and more than a year of recession warnings have yet to materialize while millions of jobs go unfilled.

As spring gets closer, many soon-to-be grads are leveraging resilient job market data, public salary ranges and other economic indicators to go into the job search feeling empowered, says Valerie Workman, chief legal officer at Handshake.

Grads are confident about finding a job even if it's 'messy getting there'

A previous Handshake report about the class of 2023 indicated upcoming grads were feeling short-term anxious but long-term optimistic about their job prospects in the current market.

That describes Ben Telerski, 22, a senior at Georgetown University who plans to go into political work after graduating in the spring.

Sometimes he feels stressed applying for jobs on top of his schoolwork and internship, but is ultimately "feeling genuinely optimistic" and "very excited to enter the real world and figure things out."

Ben Telerski, 22, is a senior studying government at Georgetown University.
Courtesy of subject

Growing up surrounded by pressing issues like Covid, climate change and gun violence, Telerski says, "there's a Gen Z mentality of: OK, throw it our way, and we'll make it work."

That mindset will be important in his field, where campaign jobs can change from month to month. "Who knows what will happen? Things are going to work out, and I'll find something even if it's a little messy getting there along the way," Telerski says.

He's pretty confident he'll be able to find work after school but wants to be able to balance work he's passionate about with making a living. He's considering nonprofit or community work, which might mean supplementing a low salary with his side hustle making social media content — not ideal, but something he's willing to do for a fulfilling day job, he says.

Despite headlines of corporate downsizing, most workers have plenty of leverage in the current job market, and college seniors are paying attention, Workman says. They see that there are tens of millions of job openings on the market, she says, making them less worried about finding employment in general and "more concerned about finding the right job that keeps them engaged."

The idea that young people focus on job-hopping for advancement is a myth, she adds: "This generation cares about the work they do and wants to be at a place that appreciates their talent, and that they can stay with."

Gen Z workers are driving salary transparency talks

Gen Z workers want stability to grow their careers, as well as to protect themselves against rising costs and a potential recession, Workman adds.

"They know salary matters in terms of having the type of lifestyle they want. They want to live on their own and support themselves," she says. Put another way, new grads "don't want to be caught in a role where their needs are not met," both professionally and financially.

Young professionals today have more information than ever to steer their careers and salaries.

Melina Ressler, 21, is a senior at the University of Missouri and hopes to land a public relations job in Los Angeles after graduation. She already knows how much money to expect in her first job out of college based on conversations with alumni and friends. She says TikTok is a great resource for job-search and negotiation tips. And now that she's applying to jobs on LinkedIn, she'll sometimes see the salary range listed, though it's still not fool-proof.

Talking about money and salary expectations isn't the most comfortable thing, Ressler says, but having more open discussions "makes whatever fears I have about income go away, knowing that all my friends and I are in the same boat."

Melina Ressler, 21, is a senior studying strategic communications at the University of Missouri.
Courtesy of subject

Workman says Gen Z's aptitude for talking more openly about pay — and advocating for livable wages amid rising inflation — is something to be applauded.

"They understand the business economics, the macroeconomics, and how their salary plays into how they'll be living. This generation of talent is making a difference in the workforce because they know these things" and are willing to talk openly about it, Workman says.

Women enter the workforce with lower salary expectations, and employers play a role

While salary discussions are becoming less taboo, gendered expectations still contribute to the pay gap as soon as women enter the workforce.

Women, on average, set their "high" salary expectations $6,200 lower than men, according to Handshake data.

Cultural and social norms at play mean that "women historically continue to value themselves less than their male counterparts," Workman says.

Differences in what men and women study in college also play a role. Ressler, for example, notices a difference in how her guy friends (mostly finance majors) versus girlfriends (across the journalism school) talk about future earnings based on where they want to live and whether they expect to need roommates.

And according to Handshake, salary expectations are highest among students going into engineering, a field known for its high-paying jobs, but also an industry where women are in the minority.

While the issue of gendered expectations won't change overnight, employers can play an immediate role in narrowing pay gaps today by listing salary ranges, Workman says. Instead of telling women to ask for more, "the faster way to narrow the gap is to post the pay so women don't have to wonder."

Salary transparency is getting better: In 2022, 38% of full-time job postings on Handshake included a salary, up from 29% in 2020.

Salary transparency laws have rolled out across Colorado, New York City and California, with more on the way. Even if not required by law, Workman says employers have more to gain than lose by going public with their ranges, especially if they want to hire and retain young workers who care about pay equity and will talk about it regardless.

"This is a new generation where people are very comfortable talking about numbers, which is another reason why companies might as well go ahead and share the salary ranges, because candidates are going to talk about it," she says. "A few years ago they wouldn't. Now, it's harder to hide the numbers."

Check out:

From 'relief' to 'not too devastated': Why some laid-off workers aren't rushing to find new jobs

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

How Gen Z is rewriting dating, marriage and family plans for their 20s: ‘I have so much stuff I have to worry about’

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How this 21-year-old earns and spends $93,000 a year in Chicago
How this 21-year-old earns and spends $93,000 a year in Chicago