“All your generation does is look at your phones,” scoffed my grandparents and older relatives, their faces twisted with pity and disgust. Somehow, technology corrupted and deprived my generation of some golden childhood spent in a magical field somewhere before the plague of car-centric city design. But ironically, as older generations slap Gen Z around for being vain, lazy, and addicted to our phones, I beg to differ: We’re passionate about social injustices, focused on a work-life balance, and hungry for new experiences. Our connection to technology has only heightened these core beliefs. Gen Z will dismantle traditional ideas of success and redefine what it means to live a life worth living.
Generation Z describes anyone born roughly between 1995 and 2012 and raised alongside the burgeoning Internet. My generation grew up in the aftermath of 9/11, witnessed historical economic recessions, became overwhelmingly aware of climate change, and more recently, had years of youth robbed by a global pandemic. Success isn’t home ownership, marriage, kids, nor a flourishing corporate career. We’ve seen our parents and relatives deprive themselves of basic luxuries and comforts, grinding away time to maximize money for the Big Retirement. They scurry into young marriages, pop out children, and waste away in a career for a company that could fire them at a moment’s notice.
“Success is being happy,” muses Gen Z’er and Key Biscayne native Michael Hubbard-Padovan. “I think other generations never learned how to relax. Nowadays, you don’t need traditional milestones like going to college or buying a house. Setting personal goals for myself and doing what’s best for me is real success.” Hubbard-Padovan, a real-estate assistant to a successful family business, personal assistant of 7 years and full-time employee at Sephora, understands the value of money and emphasizes his desire for the hustle and not putting all your eggs in one basket. But, he works smart so that he can play hard. “I have everything I need right now and making money so I can support my lifestyle,” he says. “That’s what makes me happy.”
Are we content without these traditional markers of success because we’ve magically grown past it? It’s more likely because our generation was simply dealt a bad hand. We are floundering with student debt, grossly priced out of the housing market, and frequently reminded that our planet is becoming unlivable. It’s better to be happy with what you don’t have than to be unhappy for what you can’t attain. “For any of us, we’re successful if we’re able to pay rent,” notes Emma Cuba, an independent filmmaker from Miami. “I understood very early on, probably when I was 17 or 18, that I could make money online. And then as social media has gone big, you can make money from there. It can be empowering. But we can never turn it off.”
Cuba chose the life of an artist in residence — working part-time at a bar, dog-walking, baby-sitting, flipping furniture — to support her dream to create artwork fulltime. She wouldn’t trade it for a cushy 9-5, even if some parts of her work can be daunting. “Especially after COVID, I think we have been empowered to be our own bosses,” she says. “We are fully aware that we don’t need to live in this regimented way of being in order to be happy.”
And even though Gen Z is overly concerned about mental health and self-care, technology isn’t without its pitfalls. We can become trapped in a cycle of constant comparison to others because we catch the best snippets of their lives on the web. We are painfully aware of the algorithm and that social media is designed to make us unhappy. Without social media, we lose channels of communication with current events, and even our own peers. Linnette Leon-Vega, founder of luxury bag brand LINNETTE, confesses social media is a double-edged sword. “Social media has pressured many of us to live up to what we see online, because that is where we grew up,” she says. “We are not like previous generations that can ration and say ‘wait, this is just social media, there is life outside of this.’” Leon-Vega challenged her family’s expectations in order to pursue her dream of fashion. Rather than a more recognizable, reliable career in law, she took a leap of faith and used gig culture to get herself there. “Gig culture helped fuel my passion for fashion and building my own brand,” she says. “Aside from my company, I’m a stylist and often post commissionable links through various fashion apps. I’m also a licensed real estate agent.”
Despite reluctance and skepticism from her own family, Leon-Vega knew she couldn’t pursue something that wouldn’t make her happy. “Going against the grain is not always glitz and glam and viral reels…it’s hard work, sweat, tears, self-doubt and even messing up on simple things like sending an email because you are so bombarded with what it takes to build a business.”
Will we be able to create the radical change we’re so passionate about? Only time will tell if, as Gen Z ages further into the job market – and by extension, the legislative system — if we will be able to create the radical change we’re so passionate about. Our fire to become our own bosses is indicative of our generation’s independence and commitment to change. If we get to a time in our lives where we wrinkle our noses at the latest technology our own kids are obsessed with, we’ll know that we’ve succeeded in creating a safe world where newer generations can explore limitless boundaries as they please, and everything comes full circle.