Talent   //   January 23, 2024

‘Accidental entrepreneurs’: Gen Zers don’t want to be side hustlers – but there are no jobs

The headlines make Gen Z seem like they are obsessed with the idea of being their own boss, investing in side hustles, and paving their own paths. But does this cohort actually want to be entrepreneurs? Or is it their only path to success and decent pay?

New data from StandOutCV, which analyzed nearly 18,000 job advertisements, found that almost two in five “entry-level” jobs are demanding years of experience. According to the research, “entry-level” actually means 2.5 years of experience. And, then there’s the “big stay” happening, where people are staying in their roles for longer. The rate of people quitting their jobs fell to 2.4% in 2023.

Additionally, the share of new hires planning to stay in their current job for five years or more rose last year, and now stands at about 33%, according to a survey from Ziprecruiter. These things combined make it that much harder for someone graduating from college to enter the workforce seamlessly.

There are many reasons why it can be hard to land an entry-level job as a young professional. For each person, those reasons might vary from not knowing how to build connections to struggling with interviews. So after consistently struggling to land a job many Gen Zers have asked themselves the same question: should I just be my own boss instead?

Gen Zers are touted as being the most entrepreneurial of all generations. That if any generation can avoid a corporate job and run their own business, it’s this one. The reality is a little different.

In fact, many Gen Zers say they were “forced” into entrepreneurship and daydream about the days they could’ve had with a traditional career path. We spoke to those Gen Zers to hear more about their experience and how they wish the corporate world had been set up for them to see a career path there instead.

Entry-level jobs aren’t truly entry-level

Benjamin Chipman recently graduated from Duke University in North Carolina – a school that has an acceptance rate of just 5.9% and one that you would assume would set you up well to start a good career right after graduating. And in some ways, it did. LinkedIn offered him a job.

But during his graduation week, LinkedIn told him the company was eliminating the area he would be joining and that the job no longer existed. So once summer ended, his job search began again. This time, he hit a wall: most entry-level jobs were asking for two or more years of experience.

“Then it’s not an entry-level job,” said Chipman. “And at the same time, the class of 2024, 2023 and 2022 are all applying for these roles in entry-level jobs. And, with the waves of layoffs that started last summer, it’s also the class of 2021 and 2020 that are applying for the same set of jobs. They have the two years of experience for it. There’s no real entryway for students to get that first experience. It becomes really tricky. I noticed what I had to do, which was to innovate the early career experience and create it for myself.” 

That’s when he decided there was a more clear route than the uncertainty that comes with corporate work. He found himself finding small jobs in the marketing and media sector just so that he could make ends meet. By October of that year, he had four clients and was on track to make the same amount of money that he would have in an entry-level media role. Now he’s building his own creative strategy firm. 

"There’s no real entry way for students to get that first experience. It becomes really tricky. I noticed what I had to do, which was to innovate the early career experience and create it for myself.” 
Benjamin Chipman, founder of Benjamin Chipman Creative.

“There’s a lot of accidental entrepreneurs that have been thrown into this space of trying to, quite frankly, figure it the fuck out when there are bills that need to be paid,” said Chipman. 

He’s not the only one in this position. Phoebe Dodds is a Netherlands-based Gen Zer who applied for an entry-level position for 10 months before she graduated . She had interviews lined up, but because of her resume – which was made up of short stints of work while she was an undergrad instead of full years of experience – she didn’t get many offers. So, she decided to work for herself and is now a startup growth specialist.

“It was definitely very frustrating at the time that it didn’t feel like a choice,” said Dodds.

Forced entrepreneurship

When Dodds started, she had $300 to her name and rent was right around the corner. “It wasn’t like, oh you have this nice run-up,” she said, comparing it to people who choose to start a business after saving to do so later in life.

That picture was the same for Georgia Gadsby March, who resides in the U.K.. She was able to land an entry-level job in 2020, but the pay was a mere $23,000 a year. She lived in a house with four other professionals because house-sharing was the only feasible option with that pay. After rent, whatever money she had leftover was for food and there was nothing for lifestyle or leisure leftover. When she realized she couldn’t live off that for much longer, she started her business, Unearth PR. At the same time, she found better-paying entry-level positions to keep her above water.

“I definitely became an entrepreneur out of necessity, 100%,” said Gadsby March. 

And that required unpaid work at first too because “no one was interested in paying a freelancer with no portfolio,” she said. Once she built that portfolio, she reached out to people again and secured clients. It took the past three years for her to build it up enough that she felt like she could officially leave behind corporate work. Last month, she handed in her pink slip.  

The negative effects of creating your own jobs

There are clear positives to being an entrepreneur: you work your own schedule, you pay yourself, you call the shots and so on. But, most people don’t decide to make the pivot to own their own business until they’ve been in the industry for quite some time. 

When a Gen Zer, who is entirely new to the professional world as a whole, has to decide to do this, they are facing an uphill battle. It’s not to say they can’t do it, or that they shouldn’t, but the Gen Zers we spoke to admit it definitely hasn’t been easy. Chipman, who created his own creative strategy firm, says that not having a mentor is one part of that. 

“I think about the long-term career progression of the things I’m missing out on by having to ‘innovate my early career experience,’” said Chipman. “I don’t have the mentorship that’s built into early career roles, or people I can ask questions to.”

With that, he worries about skill development. In the path he’s chosen for himself, there won’t really be an opportunity to be a middle manager or hit other levels in a traditional corporate setting. And on top of all of that, he works way past the 40 hours a week that someone who landed an entry-level role sees. 

And the good pay everyone talks about that comes with entrepreneurship doesn’t happen overnight.

“I see a lot of TikTok videos of people glamorizing entrepreneurship saying ‘hey, anyone can do it,’” said Gadsby March. “I do believe that to be true, but I do think your financial security needs to come first. If you can get an entry-level job, I would say get one. Make sure you have that security before you go all in on entrepreneurship. There are so many steps to it, from setting up a website to finding clients. Make sure you have a landing pad for yourself so that you don’t end up in a worse position because you tried to build a business.”

"If you can get an entry-level job, I would say get one. Make sure you have that security before you go all in on entrepreneurship."
Georgia Gadsby March, co-founder and head of PR at Unearth PR.

Chipman has the same concerns. In the beginning, those questions looked like: “What am I supposed to do when it comes to paying myself out, taxes, or whatever else it is, even communicating and articulating your experience?”

Leaning into the positive

Despite the heavy lift these young entrepreneurs have, they can find solitude in their new career paths. When Gadsby March decided to become a full-time entrepreneur, she said it was out of choice, vs. when she first started and it was out of need.

“Entrepreneurship for Gen Z definitely comes out of necessity a lot of the time,” said Gadsby March. “But then when it comes down to it, if there is a choice there, I think a lot of Gen Zers are choosing it because it just gives you so much flexibility and freedom.”

And with this approach, there’s also no cap on how much you earn or a boss that tells you that you can’t have a pay raise because it’s not in the budget. You get to decide the budget. 

Dodds agrees, saying that while some Gen Zers might’ve been forced into entrepreneurship, they are seeing a sense of freedom and are probably earning two to four times a typical full-time salary. That’s all while having full control over the projects you take on. 

“If you have the hustle and the creativity to start something for yourself, it’s not that difficult,” said Dodds. “A lot of Gen Zers are seeing it can be easier than finding a job, especially an entry-level job. And there are a lot of people leading the way in that.”