Cultural Tension: Degree in Disillusionment

July 9, 2024

As the Class of 2024 crossed the stage to receive their diplomas in recent weeks, they capped a rollercoaster college experience bumpier than most. From kicking off classes from within a Zoom window to reconciling their worldviews with political upheaval and an uncertain job market, this year’s graduates serve as a fascinating study into the role of individuals over institutions - one of the Cultural Themes we track. 

The experience of studying remotely and the high cost of a college degree have changed how the Class of 2024 views the institution. A recent study showed Americans’ confidence rates in higher education have fallen to 36%, sharply lower than in two prior pollings in 2015 (57%) and 2018 (48%). This cohort feels an underlying sense of being let down by their alma maters, including receiving less value from their classes and fewer opportunities to connect with teachers and peers. With many leaving campus carrying formidable loans – the average student debt is approaching $40,000 – it’s unsurprising that this class, especially, would question the ROI of their college experience and the institution of the university itself. 

On top of their mixed feelings in regards to higher education, the Class of 2024 is joining the job market at a moment of immense economic uncertainty. The U.S. unemployment rate for 20- to 24-year-olds has climbed sharply in the past year, from 6.3% to 7.9% as of May – the largest annual increase in 14 years. And for many, the stereotypical entry-level, first job out of college is disappearing: companies plan to hire 5.8% fewer new graduates than they did last year. Even if they are hiring, starting salaries are down for recruits, particularly in professional services like technology, which has seen entry offers drop 18% in the last year alongside the rise of AI as new competition. The types of jobs available to junior employees continue to evolve in real time, nudging this cohort increasingly away from climbing the corporate ladder and into more individually-led, self-controlled lines of work. Forty percent of this year’s seniors expect to pursue gig or freelance work, with a third saying they’ll do this work on top of a full-time role, likely to supplement income or embrace a passion otherwise unavailable to them at their day jobs. 

As this generation is considered both socially conscious and principled, those seeking more traditional employment may find themselves at odds with the companies and organizations offering them open roles. Research suggests that more than half (53%) of Gen Zers say they would decline a job offer if the employer's mission conflicted with their sociopolitical values. Additionally, 55% emphasized the significance of their employer's beliefs aligning with their own. 

At the same time, as Harvard University highlighted in a recent study: “students have become skeptical about traditional avenues of social change, like government and nonprofits.” Many of Harvard’s students (34% of the Class of 2024’s graduating class) are choosing to return to traditionally non-value-oriented organizations, such as investment banking and corporate consulting. Despite this generation of graduates saying that they would turn down jobs that don’t align with their values, many are still ending up in jobs that wouldn’t fit those claims. Whether due to disillusionment or the economic climate, these graduates are valuing paychecks more richly than the heart. 

Given the headwinds the Class of 2024 is feeling, we see an opportunity for consumer-facing businesses to better meet this cohort’s desire for new kinds of work, and additional avenues for putting their stamp on the world. I Have This Friend is a talent platform for finding creatives to work on freelance projects, from travel planning to art commissions. Beehiiv is a business creation tool for creators and creatives of all kinds to build and monetize newsletters and websites. Handshake is exposing students to new types of work, from traditional organizations to startups, and helping them connect with employers who specifically want workers at their level. 

As this class of young people heads to the office, they’re going to navigate a changing work environment and difficult economic landscape, bringing with them a unique set of experiences, values, and desires. Given the priorities of this generation, opportunities will come into focus to help recent grads embrace their individualism, act upon their values, and pursue careers that help them achieve their financial goals. Like the cohorts that came before and will follow them, recent college grads’ behavior as consumers is something we’re watching closely – particularly how they’re using their well-earned paychecks to make statements about their values today and where they will put those dollars in the years ahead.

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