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The college-to-corporate pipeline is facing extinction. Here’s why

10th Jul 2024 | 07:35am

A third of Gen Z is skipping college before joining the workforce—and opportunities in the internet economy are a major reason why. It’s an inflection point that decades of corporate dread have been building toward. 

As the first generation to be raised by the internet, Gen Z didn’t spend our childhoods outside—we spent them online. We exchanged ideas and connected with one another over chatbots long before we learned how to prepare for an interview or apply for a job. We participated in makeshift economies in virtual games long before we opened a bank account or submitted a summer job application.

Our comfort in exploring the internet is why we don’t feel tied to traditional models of work and life that kept people busy for decades—especially as burnout, low wages, and debt continue to dominate headlines post-pandemic. For Gen Z (and the generations to come) inheriting this new reality, the question has evolved from “Where should I apply to college?” to “How can I make money online?”

The rousing generational shift is bound to shape the future of work and our economy in ways we’re just starting to uncover. 

Existential dread is taking over corporate America

Gen Z has long been told that a 9-5 would set us on track for happiness and financial success. The way of thinking was: go to college, get a job, make good money, and have a happy life.

Increasingly, data shows that path reflects a childhood fantasy more than reality. After all, a recent Deloitte survey found that over half of Gen Z and millennials live paycheck to paycheck, and another found that 60% of Gen Z deem traditional 9-5 jobs “soul-sucking.” 

Related: A college degree npt a proxy for ability

Gen Z is increasingly disillusioned with the thought of a thankless job for the rest of our lives and the tedious steps to get there. When surveyed, just 39% of Gen Z said advancing their formal higher education is important to them, and another 46% said college isn’t worth the cost. Their parents agree—46% of U.S. parents with kids facing higher education hope they do something other than attend a four-year college. 

It’s not surprising considering student loan debt continues to hit record highs, postgrads are inheriting a cooling labor market, and corporate wages struggle to keep up with inflation. The once stable college-to-corporate pipeline has become anything but—and it’s inspiring the next generation to become renegades, paving their own entrepreneurial path. 

Case in point: 93% of Gen Z has explored business ownership options, and 75% plan to pursue an entrepreneurial career. The trend will have an immediate and lasting impact on how we work, hire, train, and make money (we’re already seeing signs it will impact legacy sectors like the financial services industry)—especially as more realize a lucrative career on the internet is as or more possible than succeeding on Wall Street. 

The Internet Economy changed making a livelihood, forever

For Gen Z, Harvard to a Big 4 is no longer the dream; it’s financial freedom. And as the billionaires have proven, that freedom is best created by opportunities that exist online. 

The dot-com bubble happened for a reason—from the time the internet made its first debut, people have been extremely bullish on its potential to revolutionize our way of life, including how we make money.

Related: How Gen Z approaches work, money and careers

The internet introduced a new marketplace. Overnight, businesses didn’t have to rely on a physical product or foot traffic to make money; they could create digital goods and tap into an expansive network of prospective customers—anyone with access to the web.

Nearly 30 years after the phrase “Internet Economy” was first coined, it continues to grow significantly faster than the general market. In 2022 alone, the Internet Economy added $2.6 trillion to the overall U.S. economy and is expected to grow well beyond 2024. 

Contributing to this growth is people’s embrace of finding, or creating, work online. As workers increasingly seek out multiple income streams for greater financial freedom, approximately 16% of Americans have earned money from an online gig platform. 

The internet is for more than side hustles. People use it to earn a real, livable wage—most famously, the 27 million-plus content creators on social media platforms. With full-time creators earning an average of $179,000 annually, it’s no surprise that more than half of Gen Z believe becoming an influencer is a reputable career choice. https://www.fastcompany.com/section/gen-z

Related: Fast Company’s Gen Z archive

It’s precisely this kind of thinking that’s opening cracks in the college-to-corporate facade. Soon, Gen Z—and the rest of the working generations—will realize you don’t have to publicize every personal detail of your life to make a six-figure income online. You just have to have an idea and know how to monetize it. 

How Gen Z makes sustainable income (online) 

Today, the tools for making money have never been more accessible. The college-to-corporate pipeline was built for a pre-internet economy—now anyone can achieve levels of business success once reserved for MBAs before the time they’re even applying to college.

I know that because I operated my first three businesses online without a college degree—giving me lessons that can serve as a shortcut for other aspiring entrepreneurs. 

Solve Your Own Problem

Solving a problem you’ve experienced creates immediate market foresight. In the pre-Snapchat days, there was no way to send messages without the risk of it being immediately screenshot. Frustrated with our own experiences, my friend-turned-business partner and I launched a messaging platform for self-destructing texts. When Mark Cuban debuted a competitor months later, it was devastating; but it also proved that even a pair of 15-year-olds could match a billionaire’s pulse on the market. Use your experience as initial validation and build quickly from there. 

Take Shots on Net

Starting a business requires doing just that—starting. To give yourself the best possible chance to win, you need to move decisively, with the expectation that not all decisions you make will be the right ones. The good news is that once you’ve identified the problem you aim to solve, there’s never been more resources to learn how to build an online business at every stage—from developing a web app and processing payments to building a customer base—and course correct as needed. You just have to go looking.

Zoom Out to Zoom In

The world is big; the internet is somehow even bigger. When making money is taking longer than it should, zoom out to see what opportunities lie in the periphery and zoom in on those that can get you closer to your goals. Whether interested in building an online sports betting, reselling, or education empire, there are hundreds of microverticals and millions of potential customers to tap into you’ve likely never thought about. Identify the opportunity, refine your strategy, and execute. 

In this next phase of the zeitgeist and economy, success won’t revolve around titles; it will be shaped squarely by action. 

For Corporate America, it’s a rude awakening: everybody has a unique idea or skillset that can be monetized—and the most ambitious talent is learning to take them online. But for Gen Z (and the other generations paying attention), it’s a new dawn: the tools and paths to financial freedom are ready and waiting—you just need to step up and see where they can take you.