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GenNext, Workers 18-34, Are Riding Pogo Sticks Into Retirement

“No more ladders; we only work for checks,” exclaims a late 20-something woman. While many observers are focusing on the future of work as being reshaped by artificial intelligence and macroeconomic shifts, a new generation of workers is already rewriting the future of work, career, and retirement.

Edward Jones, in collaboration with NEXT360 Partners and MarketCast, conducted a wide-ranging mixed methods study of the work, career, and retirement attitudes of younger people ages 18 to 34 years old. Dubbed GenNext, they are the next generation to reshape work, retirement planning, consumer behavior, and more.

Numbering nearly 76 million people, this cohort spans the traditional generational divides of Gen Z and younger Millennials. “Our research which combined extensive interviews and a nationwide survey of 2,003 18-34-year-old adults offers a deeper understanding of GenNext, an age group defined by their shared experiences, not the year they were born,” said Lena Haas, head of Wealth Management Advice and Solutions at Edward Jones.

Study findings indicate that GenNext is introducing a paradigm shift in attitudes toward work, career trajectories, and retirement. Unlike Baby Boomers and Gen X, who embraced the metaphor of climbing the corporate ladder, GenNext sees work and career more akin to riding pogo sticks, with leaps, bounds, and occasional bounces not just between jobs but from profession to profession.

Today’s workplace and retirement planning is structured around how Baby Boomers and older Gen X’ers envisioned career development — as a linear path, marked by steady climbs up the hierarchical ladder within a single industry and experience gained across a few employers. Eventually, loyalty and long-term commitment to a single employer would result in commensurate rewards in compensation, position, and, eventually, retirement security.

For GenNext, the concept of a linear career trajectory is antiquated and limiting. Employer loyalty is less important; the idea of a career ladder no longer exists for many of them. Instead of climbing steadily upward, they view a successful career as a dynamic journey characterized by adaptability, exploration, and frequent pivots. The Edward Jones study indicates that only about 1 in 10 (13%) of GenNext see a linear career as linked to success and achievement. As one GenNext’er remarked, “You’re going to need to do many things – wear multiple hats – we have to work in a billion different fields.”

Why the change? Some older colleagues and employers may be quick to paint GenNext’s attitude and behavior as indicative of a short attention span, a lack of practical foresight, or inexperience with how the world works. Perhaps. However, it may, in fact, be their experience that has shaped their attitudes and current behaviors.

A generation is less about age or stage; it is about shared experience. GenNext has experienced social and economic conditions that have influenced how they view work and employers. Older GenNext, those in their early 30s, may have only been in their teens during the Great Recession, but they were impacted by what their parents and the parents of friends experienced. GenNext saw fathers, mothers, uncles, and aunts who invested years with an employer downsized and retirement security jeopardized when the economy got tough, disrupting more than finances but upending entire families.

Younger GenNext, now in their 20s, entered their adult years in the midst of the pandemic. Everything once thought to be guaranteed became tenuous. From graduation traditions to religious rituals – life was disrupted, put on hold, or put online. The economic aftermath of the pandemic demonstrated to many that no institution, or its employees, are immune to shocks. Shortly after the pandemic AI and other technologies have captured the imagination and are no longer things of science fiction but are here today and a possible threat to countless professions – even those once thought safe.

Furthermore, GenNext’s attitudes toward work-life balance and purpose-driven careers differ markedly from those of their parents and grandparents. They prioritize flexibility, autonomy, and meaningful work over traditional markers of success such as title, position, or salary. As a result, they are more willing to take calculated risks and pursue non-traditional career paths, whether it is job hopping, freelancing, or entrepreneurship, or sidestepping a career path to acquire new skills. Paradoxically, many of the same technologies that threaten traditional career paths are offering GenNext countless side hustles that, together, make a new career path.

Will GenNext Stick The Landing In Retirement?

A pogo stick career captures the dynamic and agile nature of GenNext’s attitudes and work behaviors. However, the less than predictable outcomes of riding a pogo stick also underscores the inherent challenges and uncertainties of achieving financial security today and in retirement tomorrow. “They want flexibility in where and when they work and are open to nontraditional career paths,” Edward Jones’ Haas added. “Naturally, this group will have diverse financial needs impacting how they save, spend, and invest. It was important for us to understand their needs and encouraging to see that they are open to advice where there may be gaps.”

And, there may be many gaps that GenNext will have to fill. Employer retirement plans are a mainstay of retirement security. Younger workers choosing to move frequently from one employer to the next may miss vesting periods for pensions or other benefits, missing significant opportunities to build retirement wealth. Gig or contract work can be lucrative now but does not typically enable participation in 401k or 403b retirement savings programs. Employers often offer their full-time workforce access to discounted health, dental, and other insurance and many continue to provide access to these benefits in retirement. While traditional employment does not guarantee stability, for now, it is more stable than weaving together many side hustles where there are often gaps in work, gaps in income, and additional retirement planning uncertainty.

Pogo stick careers are likely to make it challenging to stick the landing in retirement. While linear, ladder-guided careers do not guarantee financial security, multiple employers, side hustles, and gigs will demand that GenNext make even more effort to plan, save, and seek advice on how best to ensure a financially secure retirement. As one GenNext 30-something man who participated in the study remarked, “I am in control of my life and career, not some boss that doesn’t really know me; I just want to be sure that I will be okay in the future.”

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