Generation Z workers want mission-driven jobs.  Big pay would be nicer.

Generation Z workers want mission-driven jobs. Big pay would be nicer.

Benjamin Nitani imagines a future doing legal work for clients and causes his passion. The new law school graduate is a member of Generation Z or, as he describes it, “a generation of social justice warriors.”

Nitani, the son of immigrants and the first in his family to attend college, says he owes more than $100,000 in student loan debt and lives in New York City amid high inflation. He accepted an offer from a major law firm, and said he would donate whatever he could to Jewish soup kitchens and other charities. A low paying public service job is not an option at the moment.

“The most important thing when I was choosing a company, frankly, was that it was at the top of the pay scale,” he says.

For many working twenty-somethings and recent graduates, the sense of mission approximates the need to make money. Although they have come of age under Presidents Obama and Trump and have shaped worldviews in times of powerful social movements, some are shifting priorities or making concessions they may criticize before entering the job market.

A sharper focus on money appears in Deloitte Global’s annual survey of Gen Zers, which the company defines as people born beginning in 1995. (Others, like Pew Research Center, say generation begins in 1997.) Concern, before financial challenges, when Deloitte polled more than 8,000 Gen Zers early last year. This year, however, the cost of living overtook the environment as it was the number one concern in a survey of nearly 15,000 Gen Zers.

Meanwhile, 37% of Gen Zers in the latest survey said they “rejected a job and/or appointment based on their personal morals.” A year ago, nearly half said that ethics determine what kind of work they want to do and for whom.

“It’s not always a straightforward answer, as to where you work and when and how you decide to take a stand,” says Michelle Parmeli, executive vice president of Deloitte Global, noting that an increasing share of Gen Zers have jobs and financial responsibilities. “With some experience, I think people understand that these choices are complex.”

People in every generation hold ideals that ultimately conflict with reality. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 disrupted the early careers of many in Generation X, the post-boom generation born between 1965 and 1980. The financial crisis and recession of the late last century alerted many millennials who followed Gen Xers. in the workforce.

Now, the pandemic and its aftermath are testing General Zers. They deal with issues such as gun control, foreign policy and racism that people who went to school after Columbine, have little to no memory of 9/11 and say nothing about 9/11 and were children when Travon Martin’s death helped spur the Black Lives Matter movement.

They are entering adulthood while the planet is reaching its hottest temperatures in recorded history and could soon face some of the most restrictive abortion laws in half a century.

They grew up in a time of questioning such widely accepted rules as pronouns, standing up for the national anthem and the perfection of Dr. Seuss.

They have been telling pollsters for years that all this — perhaps not Dr. Seuss specifically, but social and political issues in general — will matter when they enter the workforce, saying they want to work for companies that share their values.

In a recent survey of nearly 400 college seniors commissioned by ResumeBuilder.com, 54% said they would be willing to work for a company they “morally don’t agree with” for a six-figure starting salary. (These huge offers are increasingly common in today’s job market.)

Monica Tonez, 25, accepted a meager salary package when she joined an educational nonprofit after college a few years ago.

“I always thought I was going to do something that was very tangible to make the world a better place,” she says. I grew up in a low income family. People took the time to try to get me to a better place in life, so I always felt the need to give back.”

Working with New York public school children paid little, however, and she encountered a cynical side hustle to make ends meet: educating wealthy kids.

She left those jobs last year and is now living a comfortable life as a policy specialist for a large corporation in Austin, Texas. Earning more money in one job helps her save, perhaps for law school, and allows her to volunteer outside of work.

However, her newfound stability is on her nerves.

“There are a lot of people in other types of jobs who don’t feel that kind of comfort and privilege, and I feel guilty,” says Ms. “I’m really grappling with this.”

Sami Hussain says he would have worked for a nonprofit if money hadn’t been considered. Instead, the 21-year-old software engineer started his career at a large tech company in New York, a decision that arguably gives him the means to make an even greater impact. He says he needs a steady salary to help his mother buy a house.

Gen Zers understand that being a professional philanthropist often requires a degree of privilege—for example, parents who can pay for college and keep an adult child on a family phone plan or health insurance policy.

“If you come across someone who works full time at a nonprofit, you can usually guess their background,” says Mr. Hussain.

Conversations about privilege and public service occur frequently among members of Law Students for Climate Accountability, says co-founder Alyssa White. The group has chapters in dozens of law schools and is asking members who can swing financially to sign a pledge to refuse to work for law firms that represent clients in the fossil fuel industry.

Ms. White, 26, is graduating next year and says she is sticking to that pledge, even if it means earning less than her means. She says she’s prepared to make a modest income by paying off her college debt (even though she’ll owe about $90,000 from law school) and being “very frugal.”

More challenging choices lie ahead.

“I’d love to find out about having kids or a home at some point, and I’m like, ‘Oh, no,'” she says. “It’s weighing me down.”

Write to Callum Borchers at callum.borchers@wsj.com

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