They entered the workforce in a pandemic and are staring down a 40-year inflationary high, with rising prices on everything from groceries to rent. When it comes to today’s unpredictable economy, perhaps no group feels it so viscerally as the youngest generation of workers, Generation Z, who range from tweens to 25-year-olds.
“More than any other generation, they’ve felt the brunt of the pandemic as employees,” said Jason Dorsey, president of the Center for Generational Kinetics, an Austin, Texas-based generational research and consulting firm. “They are going through this transitional period of becoming financially self-reliant young adults in the face of tremendous economic uncertainty and political polarization.”Interviews with five young Chicago professionals help illustrate the tradeoffs and transformative decisions of the moment. To fully understand the impact of inflation, student debt and other factors, WBEZ also asked the interviewees to share a monthly budget of expenses and talk through their financial decision-making. Due to the disclosure of sensitive financial information and details, WBEZ agreed to withhold the subjects’ last names to protect them from fraud.
Selected from a range of industries and neighborhoods, the young professionals described major changes in the past year: pursuing a livelihood different from their line of study, forgoing travel, working side gigs, and searching for roommates to help pad costs in a region where rents have jumped 4.3% year-over-year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Price Index.
One other thing the Gen Z interviewees tended to have in common: They saw a need for more straight talk about money and budgeting.
“It shouldn’t be so stigmatized when talking about money,” said Anna Lee, a 23-year-old part-time social media assistant. “Since we’re all winging it, why don’t we wing it together and talk about what has and hasn’t worked for us? What’s the best way we can get ourselves out of this student debt? And be more aware of our expenses?”
The singer who is going into human resources
Worried about money, Alona, 22, plans to pursue a full-time career in human resources rather than in her university double-major of musical education and vocal performance.
“The economy has me considering more options for the future,” said Alona, a native of Lugansk, Ukraine, near the Russian-Ukrainian border, who moved with her family to northwest suburban Buffalo Grove at age 9.
She hopes to leverage her current part-time job as diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) manager at COVID-testing site Apex Diagnostics in Skokie while she finishes her bachelor’s degree. Alona previously served as the first DE&I chair for DePaul University’s Phi Mu fraternity — a role in which she led training, workshops and other efforts to diversify the chapter and make it more inclusive.
Alona, who is now performing in the Chicago Summer Opera’s performance of “The Magic Flute,” said she will keep music performance and instruction as a side pursuit. Music education jobs seem to be first in line for budget cuts, and singing roles require upfront expenses such as audition fees and pianist payments.
Figuring into her decision, too, to forego music full-time: rising inflation, a potential recession and $67,000 in student debt upon graduation from DePaul in winter 2023 – that’s despite a yearly Pell Grant, a $20,000 yearly music performance award, and a $6,000-per-year community service scholarship.
Between studies and performances, she also delivers food for DoorDash to pay expenses and saves any prize money she wins in singing competitions.
She credits her parents with giving her a sense of responsibility in handling money. But she also listens to friends’ advice. That’s how she lost $500 when she levered up her investment in the crypto Luna stablecoin.
“I am a little nervous,” said Alona, who lives with a roommate in Logan Square. “I’ve been frantically applying for jobs. “At the same time, I am optimistic,” she continued. “I feel things will work themselves out.”
Expert view: Fear of debt “is a big dark cloud hovering over Gen Z,” said Yanely Espinal, director of educational outreach for the non-profit Next Gen Personal Finance, based in Palo Alto, California. That’s partly because Gen Z’ers have watched Millennials labor under heavy credit card and student loan debt.
Gen Z’ers should try to keep debt at bay, reel in expenses and avoid online “buy now, pay later” services that let consumers pay for purchases with a series of interest-free or low-interest installments. More than 60 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds have used such “buy now, pay later” services, according to Bankrate.com.
But many young people have been unable to keep up with the payments or forget to make the installment, and they end up saddled with late fees, Espinal said.
The freelance worker committed to long-term security
Anna Lee, 23, loves her freedom as a part-time social media assistant for Broadway In Chicago theater company and her part-time freelance jobs in photography and film and podcast editing.
“I love mixing things up and doing things always fresh and new,” said the Columbia College graduate
Anna Lee takes public transportation to buffer her monthly budget from rising gasoline prices, and she has a roommate to save on housing costs – but rent still eats up 35% of her budget each month.
She also prioritizes saving, something she learned from her parents, whom she describes as “big budgeters.” Since Anna Lee has no benefits at her work, she has set up a Roth IRA at a bank, but it requires that she make deposits in person. So she’s looking for something more convenient. ”The tricky part is, ‘What resources are the best? Which IRA do I go with? What bank? What are the pros and cons?’ That’s a bit overwhelming,” she said.
In college, Anna Lee won scholarships, received financial aid, and worked as a resident assistant, the latter saving her $14,000 to $17,000 a year in housing expenses. She has already paid off a $22,829 private loan, leaving her with $13,000 in interest-free government student-loan debt. She is holding off on paying that down until President Biden decides whether to forgive that classification of student loans. And she pays off her credit card bill each month.
She and her friends have found that they save money by finding free events and cooking together.
“Cooking together is a super fun way to spend time together and try out new recipes,” she said. “It’s still being very active with each other.”
Expert view: Anna Lee has embraced cooking with her friends – an activity that lets her be social but saves money.
Espinal, the financial education expert, said that, too often, consumers working long hours and multiple jobs tend to over-rely on food delivery services like Uber Eats, DoorDash or GrubHub, which may be convenient for busy people but add up.
“Gen Z’ers will be better off to reel in spending on food by asking, ‘How can I make my groceries a fixed amount each month?” Espinal said, “so that they’ll know the amount they can expect to spend.”
The educator bouncing back after a layoff
Kyle, 23, lost her job as a Chicago Public Schools teacher this past spring due to campus-level budget cuts. Her non-tenured, first-year status meant she was more vulnerable.She has already found a new job teaching fourth grade at a city charter school this fall. And she remains upbeat about her prospects, citing a wave of teacher retirements due to COVID burnout.
She drives a Prius and is in a profession with a state pension. But she still worries about inflation, and she needs a roommate to keep housing costs in Ukrainian Village down.
“I don’t know that I could afford — or feel comfortable — being able to live on my own,” Kyle said. “Everything is really, really expensive. I feel like the biggest concern is inflation.”
Kyle entered the workforce with no debt. She graduated one quarter early in 2020 by doubling up her credit hours for two quarters and taking summer classes. She worked as a tutor and a babysitter to earn additional money and lived at home during the COVID campus shutdown, and her scholarships covered a majority of her tuition.
She is considering graduate school, and she has started long-term financial planning with guidance from teachers’ retirement programs and signed up for apps to track her savings progress.
“With the economy, COVID and global warming, it’s hard to imagine long-term planning,” Kyle said. “Right now, I know that I need to save something. I don’t know when I want to retire. It’s very abstract.”
Expert view: Dorsey, the research firm president, said Gen Z’ers feel immense pressure to make up for lost time due to the pandemic.
“You see a generation in which many feel they’ll struggle to buy a house, many feel they’ll struggle to eventually retire, and it’s increasingly hard to take action now,” Dorsey said.
He said even a small savings account can be a good start. “Gen Z should start saving as early as they can, even if it’s as little or $10 or $20 per week,” Dorsey said. “The goal is to create the habit of saving early and make it as automatic as possible.”
The accountant tightly managing expensesAri, 22, just graduated with a bachelor of arts in economics and a master’s degree in accounting from the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, having sped up his studies by enrolling in a summer semester and applying credits from Advanced Placement courses toward his degree.
Currently, he is studying for his certified public accountant exam as he waits to start a new job in October with an accounting firm in Chicago.
At the same time, Ari is leaving his parents’ home in north suburban Northbrook to live in a River North apartment, where he will share expenses with a roommate. He doesn’t own a car, so he will take public transportation or call an Uber.
He feels some apprehension about how much inflation will eat into his starting salary.
“If anything, [the uncertainty with inflation] motivates me to do well at work to try to get promoted,” Ari said. “I have to realize that, with inflation, my expected revenue has to be discounted. That’s stressful and something that I have to consider.”
Ari, who has never set foot in a bank and prefers to do investing online, said he has also felt the sting of inflation dampening his travel and nightlife plans.
“There’s not as much room for leisure — even going out to bars,” he said. “You have to budget for it now. And seeing flight and lodging and gas prices [going up] puts a damper on everyone’s expectations that we’d have opportunities to travel.”
Expert view: Generational expert Dorsey said that the amount of budgeting and saving apps available to Gen Z consumers is a positive trend.
“Gen Z has more insight than any other generation has had at their age about where their money is going and should go,” he said. “We’re optimistic that, if they can make it through this period and stay on this mindset — we know they’re practical with their money given the popularity of thrifting and vintage — it sets them up well for long-term success.”
The graduate student trying to tamp down debt
Richie, a graduate journalism student at DePaul University, started working an extra job in the Chicago Tribune’s packaging department this summer when skyrocketing gasoline prices and shrinking customer tips made his gig delivering food for DoorDash unprofitable.
Richie, 25, initially earned $400 to $450 a week through DoorDash deliveries. But in June, his gasoline expenses doubled, and the tips he received from customers declined as he competed with more people who signed up for DoorDash to cover mounting expenses.
Once his income started shrinking, Richie applied for jobs everywhere, even as a dishwasher. He landed the part-time job at the Tribune, where he clears $1,600 a month with no benefits.
Richie will give up his part-time job in the fall to take on three jobs at the university managing the student-run magazine Pueblo ($17 an hour) editing a writing magazine for high school students ($18 an hour) and working as a journalism graduate assistant (a $1,500 per-quarter stipend). Though Richie had to resort to taking out two payday loans to cover an emergency car repair, he upped his DoorDash work to pay them off.
To keep his debt load down, he has tried to lower his expenses and seek out scholarships. Upon graduation next June, he estimates he’ll have about $22,000 in student government loan debt.
Richie qualified for rental assistance from the Chicago Low-Income Housing Trust Fund that halves his monthly rent to $700 from the market rate of $1,500. He splits that $700 monthly expense with a roommate in a Logan Square apartment.
He usually cooks at home, sticking with fish or chicken, vegetables and produce, which keeps his grocery expenses to about $300 a month, and he drives his parents’ hybrid Honda Insight.
“I try to have fun at festivals during the summer,” said Richie, who has a goal of saving 12% of his income each month. “In the winter months, I manage to save more because there’s not as much to do.”
Expert view: Dorsey sees a COVID pandemic silver lining for Gen Z: They’re better able to collaborate, solve problems and engage using a variety of different technologies in a way that might not otherwise have happened.
Sandra Guy is a freelance writer based in Chicago.