The No. 1 reason Gen Z workers are leaving their dream jobs behind—and what they're seeking instead

Gina Fahrenholz, 22, left her childhood dream job of criminal justice to become a nurse once she realized she would be more financially stable.
Photo by Gerry Raymonda | Graphic design by Gene Kim

After advising thousands of college students on their career paths, Christine Cruzvergara "doesn't truly believe in only having one dream job."

It's not that she's jaded or disillusioned. Rather, Cruzvergara, the chief education strategy officer at early-career job platform Handshake, says, "The reality is your dreams can change."

That held true for 22-year-old Gina Fahrenholz.

Since her childhood years, Fahrenholz knew she wanted to be a detective. She grew up devouring shows like "Criminal Minds" and so when it came time to choose a college major at Hartwick College, the choice was easy: criminal justice. Then, reality hit.

"The more I learned about that role [of detective], I realized that income would have been an issue," Fahrenholz tells CNBC Make It. She thought she could go to law school to stay in the field but in a more lucrative sector, even if it was not directly her passion. She picked up two more majors — psychology and sociology — to hopefully gain a leg-up in the law school application process. She dedicated 100 hours to LSAT studying and scored well. Then reality hit again.

"I would have been in a lot of debt," she says. "It wasn't worth it to go somewhere and spend $200,000 at a law school if I wasn't 100% OK with being a lawyer at the end of it."

In 2021, after going through some health issues and seeing the medical field firsthand, she started to poke around at the idea of nursing as a new career path that could offer real financial stability. After taking a few anatomy classes, she was hooked.

Fahrenholz, who graduated in 2022 with degrees in criminal justice, psychology and sociology, is now on her way to an accelerated nursing school program.

"I think passions can always change, but the financial stability thing is set in stone," she says.

The 2023 definition of a dream job

Fahrenholz is not alone in her decision to abandon her childhood dream job in favor of stability.

According to a May report from Handshake, the class of 2023 is prioritizing stability in response to the flurry of layoff headlines and talk of a looming recession. Plus, they are graduating from a college experience marked by the instability of a global pandemic.

Nearly half of the 954 students surveyed in March said they are applying to more jobs because of news about economic uncertainty. And 36% said they are opening their job search to other industries, companies and roles. That has led to stark increases in interest in fields like government, nonprofit and retail.

Cruzvergara, who previously managed the career centers at Georgetown University, George Mason University and Wellesley College, has seen this shift up close.

Her pre-pandemic conversations with students often revolved around the biggest tech companies like Meta, Amazon, Apple and Google.

"Stability was definitely not as prevalent of a factor or conversation topic. People wanted fast growth — they wanted a sexy company that was going to be really successful," she says.

According to the Handshake report, students' interest in a fast-growing company has declined by 20% since last summer. Instead, Cruzvergara says, students are looking at brands "that have stood the test of time" like Raytheon, Capital One and Nike.

'I want a job where I'm happy and I want a job where I'm compensated'

The shift in how young workers approach the job hunt also translates to a pivot in how they think about work at large.

Manny Contomanolis, the director of Harvard University's career center, says nowadays young people are less likely to invest their self-worth and identity in their job.

"They start thinking, 'Work is important, but I want a job where I'm happy and I want a job where I'm compensated so that I can pursue my lifestyle.' I think work less defines people. I think that's been the shift," says Contomanolis.

Employers have had to adjust to these new priorities and mentalities around professional success.

Kirsten Kuykendoll, who leads Fidelity's talent-acquisition team, says the financial services company has adapted its benefits to cater to the professional preferences of the next generation of workers.

"What's important to those entering the workforce and in particular Gen Z is providing growth and career opportunities, [being] a company that values their employees and … [promoting] a balance both with work and personal life," she says.

Fidelity has introduced programs to pay for college expenses like books and tuition so that undergraduates can work at the company while completing their degree. They've also upped their student loan assistance to more than $15,000 over roughly seven years.

Randy "RJ" Glascock, 22, who was the first in his family to earn a college degree, worked in one of Fidelity's entry-level onboarding programs before being promoted.

He went into college as a biomedical engineering major with the dream of developing prosthetics. But after taking some classes in the subject area, he found that field was not the right fit and started exploring other options — with salary and benefits his top priority.

When he discovered Fidelity and the myriad benefits of its programs, his definition of a dream job changed. "I don't know that I was looking for a dream job in Fidelity, but when I joined I was like, 'Wow, this is a dream job.' You get these benefits that you never knew you needed," says Glascock.

He enjoys the work-life balance — Fidelity encourages employees to take "renewal time," or two hours every workweek to bond with your team. Associates are further encouraged to take six to 10 hours per week for "self-development" and "career exploration." Glascock has amazed his friends in other industries when he tells them he was playing golf or cornhole in the middle of the workday.

Glascock is among the many early-career employees who are putting a premium on stability and flexibility in their job hunts. Handshake's May report found that 72% of the graduating 2023 class prefer hybrid work as opposed to either fully in-person or fully remote work.

These workers have retained their professional ambition and goals, but they are willing to sacrifice their ultimate dream job in the name of securing financial certainty and happiness for themselves.

And so, the answer to "What do you want to be when you grow up?" has changed from detectives to nurses, from bioengineers to financial advisors.

"Unequivocally, the dream of a dream job is absolutely not dead," says Contomanolis. "I think what arguably has changed is what defines a dream job today."

Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled Gina Fahrenholz's name.

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