As Women’s History Month comes to a close, I’m reflecting on what the future looks like for me and other Gen Z women. Gen Z hasn’t received as much media attention as Millennials, because we’ve recently entered the workforce, and in the U.S. we’re a smaller group, although more diverse and more educated.
The best way to do that is by offering a story from my past. When I was 14, I got my first job as a lifeguard with my best friend Amanda. It was admittedly a pretty sweet gig for a teenager, but it paid minimum wage, which was and still remains $7.25 per hour in Pennsylvania. My brother worked at the golf shop at the same place with several other teenagers—all boys—who spent most days in the air-conditioned store watching TV. They all earned more than I did, and received yearly raises and tips from the golfers (usually men).
I worked there for four summers and never got a raise, despite my certification to literally guard lives. So at the beginning of that last summer, Amanda and I took matters into our own hands and got higher-paying jobs at a nearby summer camp. This was my first experience taking control of my financial life. I did it because I had a friend by my side telling me that I could do better, and I told her the same. I still consult Amanda, and other women, about my career and money today.
Stash’s theme for Women’s History Month is “Owning It.” To me, this story is a reminder that the women of my generation grew up talking about money inequalities more than any of our predecessors. By sharing our experiences, we’re owning our finances and setting ourselves up for success. But the future can look grim. My generation confronts high unemployment, a huge student debt crisis, and an ever-increasing cost of living that puts basics out of reach.
With the spirit of talking in mind, I spoke to some Gen Z women at Stash about the challenges we face, and how having conversations with other women is crucial.
Gen Z’s relationship with the American Dream
Gen Z’s American Dream looks different. Instead of buying homes and saving for kids, we’re making rent and paying off our student debt. “I think the ‘American Dream’ has come into question for a lot of Gen Z because of various systemic factors and barriers, like crippling student loan debt, for example,” says Vera Hanson, Press Relations Manager at Stash.
The youngest members of Gen Z are in their prime college age, when it’s more expensive than ever before, with a private university education costing an average of $41,411 per year. In fact, last year, Gen Z saw the biggest jump in student loan debt of any generation—average indebtedness increased 39% to more than $17,000. “For me, it’s the sense of a lack of optimism,” says Pri Maheshwari, Stash’s Social Media Manager and Strategist. “It feels like we’re expected to get a college degree, and yet we still might not even get a job.”
The rising cost of living isn’t helping. Average rent in the U.S. increased 46.5% from 2010 to 2019 and home prices have surged 14% in the last year alone. And the cost of health insurance and medical care continues to get more expensive each year, along with most other basics. Meanwhile, real wages haven’t budged in 40 years. “When so much of your paycheck goes to your living expenses, I think it just makes planning for the future that much harder,” Vera says.
Money talk no longer taboo
Our willingness to talk about money has actual consequences. A February, 2021, Stash survey‡ found that 47% of Gen X women said that they found talking about money taboo, compared to a third of Gen Z women. Pri says that she’s open with friends about salary information and rent. “Why is that information secret?” she asks. “It just helps someone else realize: ‘Oh, I’m capable of achieving the same thing.’”
Conversations with other women of the same age can help close the wage gap between men and women. As of 2020, women earned $0.81 for every dollar a man earned, and the gap is wider for women of color. Hearing what your colleagues earn “means starting to accurately understand what you’re worth,” Vera says.
Declaring financial independence
These conversations have also helped us reject previous generations’ preconceptions about women, money, and careers. “My mom grew up with very traditional Indian parents. They literally told her ‘Just pick a major. You’re gonna get married and it won’t matter what you do.’ But I feel more empowered and that people think I can do it because the attitudes towards women and money are shifting a little bit,” Pri says.
My colleagues also feel that because women aren’t necessarily expected to invest, adults tend to leave them out of discussions about building wealth. “I can’t think back looking on any class, or conversation—prior to college—having anything to do with money that would have maybe created an equal playing field between my male peers and myself,” says Lindsey Repp, Senior Associate of Brokerage Operations.
That’s something we can change for the next generation of women, by passing on our knowledge of saving, investing, and building wealth to them.