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For Gen Z, greed isn't always good

“They talk about work-life balance. That’s a term I didn’t even know when I was their age. Work-life balance. When I was their age, if there was no work, there was no life.” - Morris Chang
 

There is a huge mindset difference between those in their mid 30s and 40s compared to the Gen Z population, categorised as those born after the year 2000 or those in their 20s who have just graduated.


If you are one of those who believe in working hard and earning lots of money for your future retirement or to be financially free, you probably belong to the mid-30s and 40s group.


Gen Z doesn’t care for money. Gen Z also doesn’t think that far. Their manifesto in life revolves around "YOLO" (You live only once), a term I first heard only when I spoke to a colleague about the importance of having CPF savings in 2019.


 
“水至清则无鱼” (An old Chinese saying: "Fish prefer muddy waters and avoid clear streams")
 

When Jack Ma was “rusticated” after his speech at the Bund Summit in 2020, I think it might have sent a certain message to the business community about the new rules of capitalism in China. I don’t think he intentionally meant to sound like he was going against the authorities, that innovation isn't afraid of regulation.


Some dislocation in the market is always good for entrepreneurship as long as those in the game play by the rules. But the concept of risk-reward is viewed very differently the moment you take away the opportunity for any abnormal upside in a free market. 


This trend further permeated when the term "common prosperity" was introduced in 2021 as part of China attempting to bridge the wealth gap. What followed was a series of events including the ongoing purge of corrupt civil servants, clampdowns in the private online education and peer-to-peer lending segments. 


Not that the occurence of any of these events had anything directly to do with the worrying youth unemployment statistics today. But it is interesting to note that for Gen Z, coincidentally, this was a period whereby most of them had started to enter the workforce. They should be brimming with excitement and hope for the future.


Regardless, the contagion caused ripples across the industry, essentially discouraging the pursuit of excessive wealth and high incomes, almost similar to imposing a virtual red line on how much one can earn.


And people generally stop trying too hard the moment you put limits on how much they can achieve.


 
“The point is ladies and gentlemen that greed, for lack of a better word, is good.” - Gordon Gekko
 

Gen Z looks at money very differently. Aside from graduating into a generation characterised by apathy, most of them are financially cushioned by the wealth of their parents, who are mostly Gen X.


Gen Z’s outlook on life and material values are quite different. They are not obsessed with going after flashy items, brands or asset ownership. Why Calvin Klein when you can Uniqlo? Why Louis Vuitton when you can MUJI? And renting isn’t such a bad idea when home ownership is too far-fetched at current income levels. Besides, there is always that option to stay with their parents if all else fails.


According to Morgan Housel, the mindsets and lifetime investment decisions of people are heavily anchored to the experiences in their own generation, especially those in their adult life.


“The differences in how people have experienced money are not small, even among those you might think are pretty similar. Take stocks. If you were born in 1970, the S&P 500 increased almost 10-fold, adjusted for inflation, during your teens and 20s. That’s an amazing return. If you were born in 1950, the market went literally nowhere in your teens and 20s adjusted for inflation. Two groups of people, separated by chance of their birth year, go through life with a completely different view on how the stock market works:”

Because of that, when it comes to the perception of money, what one group of people think as ridiculous might sound totally fine for another group of people.


While the vast majority of Gen Z’s parents have put in the hours, sown the seeds and reap the harvest of their hard work, most have also concluded after two or three decades of their working life that earning lots of money is nothing but simply a means to an end. There is no point in chipping your life away and earn so much only to spend it when you are too old and frail to enjoy. 



In this vein, financial freedom to Gen Z means that I only need enough to survive and get by instead of the need for any passive income from an investment asset. Furthermore, most of these people have been brought up in an environment in which they have been very likely been told to “do what makes them happy” rather than get into a mindless pursuit of money, the rat race.


Social media for what it is, also plays a big part in influencing the way they think of lifestyle and money. You can almost live your whole life online in the digital realm. Some people even make money simply just by live streaming (直播) their day-to-day activities! Apparently people pay to watch $^*t like that...

https://dfc-studio.com/blog/live-streaming-china/
Source: DFC Studio

So why work the regimental hours when you can make a living sitting at home doing stuff on your own terms? Ironic, but the biggest ultimate sponsors of these initiatives are the parents of Gen Z, the same group of people who believe in decent wages for decent work done.


These are just some of the mindset challenges faced by employers today in a workforce increasingly dominated by Gen Z workers.


They don’t care for the high incomes. If these people do not find their work purposeful, they leave. If pushed too hard, they leave. They just simply don’t care anymore. 


There is nothing right or wrong with that way of thinking.



But it is the rat race mentality that propels the economy. The rat race makes people to want to earn more and live better than their peers. For good or for bad, it forces creativity and innovation. 


Today, there is no incentive to do that, no incentive to go above and beyond the call of duty, no upside. They just want to lie flat. You can continue to whip the proverbial horse but you can’t make it go faster. 


The point is ladies and gentlemen that greed, for lack of alternatives, is good for the economy.

 

There isn’t a perfect solution for how employers and managers should work with the younger generation. Some might say “shut up and listen to your elders and seniors” but I think that would only invite more resistance. However it does help to understand how the post-millenials of today think and behave the way they do.


Given the youth unemployment rates and the current state of the economy today, maybe a little dose of “Jack Ma” wouldn’t hurt...


Have a great week.

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