From education to employment

Cost of living pressures drive higher expected starting salaries for Gen Z graduates, finds new Bright Network research

People sat around a table

Research of almost 4,000 UK students identifies concerns and busts Gen Z stereotypes; finds strong desire to make friends at work and preference for office life – and some confidence despite economic indicators

  • 83% say current cost of living crisis has changed how they are thinking about starting salaries
  • 79% say it is desirable to have a side hustle outside of work, with most wishing to make extra money
  • Male students more confident than female students of finding a job after university
  • 72% of Gen Z students say they want to be in the office between three and five days of the week
  • 89% say it is important or valuable to have friends at work
  • 50% would be concerned about conducting an office romance
  • 45% say alcohol should not play a role in work social activities

Major new research of almost 4,000 UK students has found that expected graduate starting salaries have risen by 9% since January 2022, due to the stress and impact of cost-of-living increases.

The research was conducted by Bright Network, a graduate careers and employment specialist which matches university students with graduate employers in the UK to begin quality roles and careers in their desired sectors.

The 3,846 undergraduate students surveyed are all members of Gen Z, the term which describes people born between 1997 and 2012. While Gen Z has been criticised in some quarters for various perceived faults, the research shines a light on Gen Z’s true wishes and concerns around the economic climate, their careers and working life in general – with some surprising results.

Jump in salary expectations since January

In January 2022 the expected starting salary stated by undergraduate students was £27,270 on average, but the latest data shows this has now risen to £30,244 in a little over six months. In previous years’ research the level has been broadly flat, hovering around £27,000-£27,500 from 2018 to January 2022 – aside from a depressed average expected salary of £25,315 in 2021, due to the impact of the Covid pandemic.

Set against that context, the latest expected started salary figure of £30,244 marks a significant increase and diversion from the trend to date. When asked whether the UK’s current economic climate and cost of living squeeze changed how they were thinking about starting salaries, 83% of respondents said yes.

Job confidence levels vary between male and female students

Meanwhile 64% of students think that the current/near future economic climate will make job hunting more difficult, adding to stress levels.

71% of students are confident about securing a graduate role after university, although interestingly this figure differs significantly for male (78% confident) and female (66% confident) students.

Side hustle culture alive and well

‘Hustle’ culture has its fair share of detractors, but it is almost universally popular with Gen Z students. Almost eight in 10 of those polled – an extraordinary 79% – say it is desirable or very desirable to have a personal ‘side hustle’ in addition to a full time job. When quizzed on the reasons for this, 46% say it’s to earn extra money, easily the most popular answer ahead of 16% who suggested it could be a useful jumping off point to move into a different job or career.

If you were to pursue a side hustle, what would be your primary reason for doing so?

To make extra money46%
As a potential way to start a new main job/career16%
For variety outside of my main job13%
To achieve status as an entrepreneur12%
To further a cause I believe in10%
None of the above2%

Side hustles are unlikely to be as popular with employers, many of whom may feel that they act as a distraction to an employee’s main role and could mean that the person is not fully focused or committed. However this research shows that Gen Z clearly values the opportunity to pursue side hustles, which suggests that employers who can accommodate this will differentiate themselves and likely find it easier to attract and retain the best Gen Z talent.

Changing working cultures reflected

When questioned about working culture, interestingly less than half (48%) think the four-day working week will become widespread in the UK during their career. But 74% would be in favour of the four-day working week, assuming salaries stayed the same.

One common criticism of Gen Z is that it is somehow unmotivated, or even lazy. However, given the strong preference shown for side hustles, it is likely that Gen Z would use an extra day of the week outside of their main role to focus on personal business interests.

In additional interviews conducted alongside the main research, students shed further light on their thinking around the four-day week showing a large dose of realism:

“A four-day week provides a better work life balance, but it does increase the pressure on time sensitive projects.” – Sara, student

“Flexible working depends on the project and job. The four-day week wouldn’t work if something was highly time sensitive. It should be flexible – sometimes three days, sometimes four and sometimes five – depending on what the current workload is.” – Jerry, student

Another Gen Z myth is that its members are not interested in socialising at work, and want to retain the working from home culture which became widespread during the pandemic. However again that stereotype was found to be inaccurate, in that 72% of Gen Z students say they want to be in the office between three and five days of the week.

Other figures from the research suggest this may be due to a desire to socialise and build bonds with colleagues. 89% of Gen Z say it is important or valuable to have friends at work, but many draw the line at romantic relationships: some 50% would be cautious about an office romance (vs 25% who would be unconcerned). In a potentially related point, 45% say alcohol should not play a role in work social activities in 2022 and beyond – again perhaps influenced by new social trends and mores in younger generations.

Gen Z is values-driven (to a point)

Gen Z is often seen as the most socially conscious generation to date, with purpose and values at its core. However, when asked about choosing either a job at a company with great salary, perks and benefits, or a company whose mission and cause they truly believed in, the salary just edges the good causes – 52% vs 43%.

“For a supposedly highly purpose-led generation, this is surprising,” comments James Uffindell, CEO and founder, Bright Network. “But it’s also impossible to isolate this finding from the concerns expressed elsewhere in the report about the current and near future economic climate, which is influencing Gen Z thinking on jobs and salaries. As such this response should be viewed in that context. Gen Z are purpose-driven up to a certain point, but they are also realistic and pragmatic about career opportunity and the need to make a living.”

I do thorough research of a company, and – in the interview process and through speaking to them – I’m trying to understand their values. I’m looking for transparent bands with each salary and open and honest communication.”

“Meaningful work is important to me because it creates a sense of purpose that I find motivating. Happiness at work looks like good work-life balance and good mental health.” – both quotes from Sara, student

Based on the research findings, the Bright Network report has classified Gen Z students as “principled pragmatists”: meaning they have clear ideals and values, but are guided more by immediate practical considerations in the way they make their decisions. Gen Z tend to put their own wellbeing first, believing that these choices will empower them to work towards principled change more effectively in the long-term.

Salary was also ranked by Gen Z as the most important factor when choosing a role/employer, above mental health and wellbeing, and then diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging:

Select your most important/attractive factors when choosing a potential role and employer     
Salary and remuneration, including benefits and bonuses1
Positive attitude to promoting mental health and wellbeing2
Diversity, equity and inclusion (DE+I) initiatives, commitment to racial equality3
Flexible working policy (flexible office/working hours)4
Flexible working policy (flexible location/remote work)5
Positive stance on environmental issues and climate change6
4-day working week7
Reduced hours as a perk (e.g. early finishes on a summer Friday)8
Positive stance on LGBTQIA+ rights9

What Gen Z want – and what this means for employers

“This research will shake up what many people thought they knew about Gen Z, and cause many to look at Gen Z in a new light in the workplace,” comments James Uffindell, CEO and founder, Bright Network. “Gen Z talent is absolutely fundamental to the success of UK businesses, both now and in the coming years. What we’ve found from speaking to Gen Z students is that employers absolutely should not believe some of the stereotypes they have heard.

These results and trends are unpacked in detail in the accompanying research report, available to download at The new Bright Network report contains in-depth analysis of the research, plus detailed guidance and best practice for employers looking to recruit and retain Gen Z graduate talent. As top-level guidance, which is examined more closely in the report, Bright Network advises organisations to:

  1. Focus on the Gen Z experience and your employer brand
  2. Don’t patronise, or pander to Gen Z
  3. To attract Gen Z, you might need to start with older workers first
  4. Gen Z will be setting organisational culture – it’s just a question of how soon
  5. Consider what your organisation can learn from Gen Z

“Gen Z want to be challenged by their work, perhaps the worst thing you could do is patronise them,” says James Uffindell, CEO and founder, Bright Network. “Our advice for employers is to focus on the Gen Z experience, but part of this means recognising that often older, established workers set the culture. If teams are burned out after the pandemic, this will affect new Gen Z joiners, their experience of the organisation, their performance, and their happiness at work.

“Although Gen Z is still purpose-led, ‘purpose-washing’ is no longer effective as Gen Z are too smart and will see through those types of tactics from employers. Salary is still a major motivating factor and it’s important to get this right, but just as important is transparency on pay. Understanding the generation of employees you’re dealing with is absolutely central to recruiting Gen Z talent, but also ensuring they have happy and fulfilled careers with an employer.”

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