They may be annoying, but Gen Z’s quarter life gap years are economically rational

Generation Z has been getting a lot of bad press recently. Allegations that they enjoy “quiet quitting” and boast of their “lazy girl jobs” were gathering momentum last year.

These were given a huge boost in November when the American television personality Whoopi Goldberg made headlines with her claim that they just were not willing to work hard enough.

The actress Jodie Foster pronounced last week that Gen Z people are “really annoying, especially in the workplace”. She went on to lambast both the spelling and the grammar of their emails.

Perhaps the latter point is a little unfair. No doubt readers of this column prefer that it adheres to conventional spelling and grammar. But language evolves. When texting, for example, even many traditionalists use shortcuts such as “u r” for the more conventional “you are”. As long as Gen Z makes their meaning clear and unequivocal, we need not worry too much about this particular issue.

Perhaps the more general criticisms are warranted. It does seem to be the case, for example, that people in their twenties seem less attached to forging an immediate career path than previous generations. Activities such as a “quarter-life” gap year are gaining in popularity. After a few years at work after university, just take six months or a year off to travel the world.

But, again, concepts of what constitutes a proper commitment to a lifetime of serious work change over time. At the age of just 12, my grandfather stopped full time schooling. For a year, he spent half the day at school and half in the mill. My father had it a bit better, he was in school until the age of 14. For most people in both generations, it was then a grind of full time work, often involving hard physical labour, for most of the rest of their lives.

Now, of course, half of the relevant age cohort is in full-time education until at least 21, and the other half until 18. These are developments which have taken place in recent decades.

Generation Z is simply pushing the boundary further forward and is not quite ready to commit to an unbroken attachment to work.

In many ways, this constitutes perfectly rational behaviour on their part. Demographic trends are already beginning to shrink the size of the labour force in Western Europe. The trends are accelerating, so Generation Z can anticipate having to work well into their 70s or even into their 80s.

So why not take some leisure while you are young and healthy? The opportunities of the boomer generation to enjoy a long and active retirement may just not be there for you.

The current situation was anticipated in the 1920s by Keynes in his pamphlet “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren”. Increases in productivity, he argued, would mean that material wants could be satisfied by working just three hours a day by the end of the 20th century.

Keynes was correct in his general prognosis. It would indeed be feasible to work much less, but at a lower material standard of living than we currently have.

But Keynes was by no means the first, or the last, upper-class left winger to underestimate the average person’s desire for more money. Because of this, more of the benefits of productivity increases in the past two centuries have been taken in higher incomes than in extra leisure.

Perhaps Generation Z are about to reverse the trend which began at the start of the Industrial Revolution. On the other hand, given their attachment to high-tech gadgets, foreign trips and the like, probably not. They are, just like most people, simply making rational choices.

As published in City AM Wednesday 17th January 2024
Paul Ormerod
Image: Pxhere

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