Gen Z students are more career-focused than ever

Changing career aspirations and attitudes to traditional work patterns – will gen Z’s collective experience of Covid-19 drive a new paradigm of learning and working? Parves Khan offers insights into global research from INTO University Partnerships

Gen Z – those born sometime in the mid-1990s through to 2012 – make up 30% of the global population and now represent the largest share of the prospective international student pool. By 2025, they will make up just over a quarter of the global workforce.

In the aftermath of the global pandemic, this new generation of international students will confront new challenges. In INTO University Partnerships’ 2021 survey of just under 1,200 members of gen Z, we found that the pandemic has emboldened them to double down on their efforts to support their future career success. But not necessarily in the traditional sense. This isn’t a generation looking for a nine to five working life. The experience of lockdown has made this generation re-evaluate what really matters.

Changing aspirations

55% of respondents – who are either starting their first year or planning on studying abroad and who hail from 93 countries across Latin America, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Asia-Pacific – report that the pandemic has changed the type of career they were aspiring too (it’s changed it ‘a lot’ for 26% and ‘a little’ for 29%). 

The biggest change in aspirations has been on attitudes to traditional work patterns. 49% of gen Z respondents report that they will be looking for a future career that offers a better work-life balance and a further 36% want complete flexibility in how they work. The pandemic has also unleashed an entrepreneurial spirit among gen Z, with almost half (45%) aspiring to start their own business sometime after graduating. In addition, a quarter say that they’re now thinking about a different job role and an equal proportion are thinking about working in a different sector.

More than just getting a degree: gen Z’s social consciousness

The disruption to education caused by the pandemic hasn’t dented the passion for learning among international gen Z students. Among respondents, 90% say they care passionately/care a lot about learning and they see their international education as inextricably linked to their future success; 84% feel that going overseas for their education will give them a competitive advantage in their future career; and 66% believe that they can be more successful in their home country with an overseas education, but more see their international education as opening doors to working abroad – 84% would like to work overseas one day.

While they look to education as a path to future career success – learning is much more than this. Among respondents, 90% see an overseas university education as key to preparing them with the skills they need to be successful in life in general and an equal proportion also feel the knowledge, skills and experience gained will enable them one day to personally ‘make the world a better place’.

The latter is reflective of a strong social consciousness we see among members of gen Z. Issues like equality and sustainability have long been on their radar — both individually and collectively. But during the pandemic – a period punctuated by civil strife, social division, and severe climate events – concerns with a number of social issues intensified and have left an indelible mark on how members of gen Z see the world and how they judge brands.

Looking forwards not backwards

The devastating impact of the pandemic curtailed many activities for gen Z international students, but not their drive or their desire to get on with their lives. The findings support an earlier survey we carried out this year among offer holders which found that despite numerous challenges, students are anxious to return to campus, and the demand for global education is stronger than ever. 

Gen Z international students can broadly be divided into two camps, those feeling hopeful but somewhat anxious about their future (48%) and those feeling optimistic and excited (43%). Only 7% say they are feeling worried and stressed about the future. This readiness to move forward with their lives is evidence of the resilience of this generation.

This pandemic has been testing for all generations, but not least for one coping with these unprecedented challenges at a pivotal stage in their lives, with many transitioning from childhood to adulthood. They’ve had to a lot to contend with on their young shoulders. Studies show this has taken its toll on their mental health, but our survey findings echo others in revealing that the crisis has also engendered the development of vital life skills, such as self-motivation, adaptability and emotional intelligence in our young people – skills that will stand them in good stead for the rest of their lives.

Get ready for gen Z

The pandemic has made gen Z take a step back and re-evaluate their educational goals and future careers. They are starting their journey with a different set of expectations.

Now that members of gen Z account for the largest share of the prospective international student pool, it is critical to understand the lens through which they see the world. We hope the insights from our research will spark new ideas and conversations that will help higher education institutions foster a deeper connection with members of gen Z. Let’s get ready for gen Z – they are coming.

Parves Khan is Vice President of Market Research and Insight at INTO University Partnerships. Previously, she led global research and insight at Pearson and has run her own research consultancy. She holds a PhD in European Union integration from the University of Bristol.

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