“Climate change gives me an insane amount of existential anxiety,” says Lillian Zhou. Many young people can probably relate to the 26-year-old Zhou’s worries about the climate – and her desire to work for a company that’s doing something about it.
Zhou grew up in the US state of Michigan, which has been experiencing milder winters coupled with fiercer storms. “These storms have led to flooding that endangers lives and destroys property as well as causes more run-off into our state’s many lakes,” says Zhou. She remembers when floods in 2014 made tap water unsafe for several counties on Lake Erie.
“It’s way too easy to spiral into despair when you read the news or watch Planet Earth documentaries,” she says. That’s why Zhou has turned to work as a way to channel her eco-anxiety in a positive direction. Since graduating from university in 2017, she’s worked in both the private and public sectors, and is currently in a year-long communications role with the solar energy non-profit GRID Alternatives.
“I combat this anxiety through my work,” says Zhou. “Knowing that I am working for an environmentally and socially oriented organisation, that I am working for something bigger than a paycheque – this is what brings me a sense of purpose.”
It’s not the same career path as Zhou’s parents – a nurse and an engineer – who immigrated from China, then stayed with the same employers for nearly their entire careers. Flexibility is a major driver of this shift. Zhou comments, “Nowadays, I think my generation places more emphasis on finding jobs that align with our personal beliefs, and are less afraid to move on if that alignment changes.”
Many young workers like Zhou – middle-class members of Generation Z, living in countries including the US and UK – are searching out similar professional paths that combine flexibility and a deep sense of purpose. Demand is surging for these kinds of climate-related jobs – making it crucial for employers, careers advisors and educational institutions to revamp their programming to be as climate-relevant as possible.
A massive concern
In a 2018 survey from global consulting firm Deloitte, 77% of Gen Z respondents said it was important to work at organisations whose values aligned with theirs. Social values matter deeply to this population, and the issue of climate change particularly – in the US, Gen Z (people in their teens to mid-20s) are much more concerned about climate change than older generations.
Similarly, in the UK, the health insurance company Bupa found in 2021 that 64% of surveyed 18-to-22-year-olds consider it important for employers to act on environmental issues, and 59% would remain longer with responsible employers. In Australia, young workers have left companies that aren’t doing enough to respond to climate change.
This explosion of interest in values-related work is also reshaping the educational landscape. In the US, increasing numbers of university students are seeking out environment-related careers, and there are ever more MBA programmes related to social impact and environment.
An early example came from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The school has offered a certificate programme in sustainability since 2011, and the number of students has mushroomed each year, according to Bethany Patten, the senior associate director of the Sustainability Initiative at the MIT Sloan School of Management. In the last three years, sustainability has become one of the top industries where students want to work.
Yet while young people may be generally interested in a climate-related career, they might not be aware of the specific career pathways – especially if the careers guidance in secondary schools and elsewhere is dated and not very climate-relevant.
“There’s just a mismatch between the future careers and skills and training that’s provided to the youth today,” believes Susannah Costley-White, 22. Costley-White is studying for a Master’s degree in climate change at King’s College London, while interning at Ashden, a climate charity advocating for every job to be a green job.
At Ashden, Costley-White is working on a campaign that, among other activities, is calling for “sustainability to be embedded as a statutory feature in careers guidance in UK schools by 2025”. She emphasises that the government needs to take responsibility for driving this type of change, so that there’s more alignment among the needs, interest, and skill levels related to green jobs.
‘A more sustainable purpose’
Clearly, there’s an enormous need for more climate action as well as an abundance of eager young people who want jobs in this space – yet workers aren’t being optimally matched to the jobs available. LinkedIn’s first-ever Global Green Skills Report, released in February, shows job posts requiring green skills have been growing at 8% annually over the past five years, outpacing the 6% growth in green talent.
Still, there are “definitely not enough high-paying stable jobs for the demand”, says MIT’s Patten. “I think it’s really sad that something that’s so important for the world is not being priced correctly.”
One of the drawbacks to these types of jobs, considered “passion work”, is that they may come with low pay, which means burnout rates are high, and people from wealthier backgrounds are the ones who can afford to accept the smaller pay packets, take on the necessary internships or move to the locations with sustainability jobs. “There’s certainly a level of privilege here,” acknowledges Patten.
There are also some imbalances in gender and racial representation. On LinkedIn, the “green gender gap” hasn’t budged since 2015: of workers with green skills, there are only 62 women for every 100 men. In the US clean energy industry, women are underrepresented, as are black and Latino workers.
Costley-White feels lucky to have landed her current internship, and admits that not everyone has the same opportunities. “It’s down to privilege and exposure,” she says. “Many avenues into the ‘green’ jobs that do exist require volunteering and networking, which isn’t viable for all.”
Overall, however, pay is less important to Gen Z. One recent survey of US business students found that 51% would take a lower salary if the company was environmentally responsible – a 7% increase from five years earlier. To some extent, this more nuanced attitude toward salary holds true for Gen Z across the income spectrum.
And not all environment-focused jobs require financial sacrifices. Environmental scientists, who will see a high rate of job growth in the next 10 years, earned a median salary of $73,230 (£53,920) in the US in 2020. And according to GRID Alternatives, the US solar energy market is booming, with low barriers to entry and competitive salaries. GRID Alternatives is helping to bring solar education into secondary school curricula as well as providing free training to young solar installers.
Lauren Friedman, the senior workforce operations manager for GRID Alternatives, comments that “solar companies are hiring, and there is a major need for workers in this industry to meet the nation’s renewable energy targets”. According to the most recent Solar Jobs Census, the solar industry will encompass 400,000 jobs by 2030, but the country’s 100% clean electricity goal will require a workforce of more than 900,000 by 2035.To meet the demand in specific industries like this, there’s a pressing need for more hands-on, vocational training, in the US as well as in countries such as China.
‘Every job needs to be a sustainability job’
Costley-White’s classmate Anna Marshall, who just turned 23, believes climate change could also impact job security. “I think climate change means the global economy is going to drastically change over the next 20 years, making any career decisions difficult to predict,” she says. “The idea of a long, single career path which would see me through to retirement is now outdated, if it was ever a reality.”
As Gen Z settles into the labour market, it’s clear that many of them are seeking to contribute to averting climate collapse. Whether they’re changing careers like Zhou, choosing climate degrees like Costley-White or researching employers’ environmental credentials like Brown, climate change is an inescapable presence in the future of work.
The jobs market will continue to evolve in response. “I think we’re just going to continue to see more and more of these jobs,” says Patten. Currently there’s a major need for people with the skills to respond to new environmental regulations, she notes – a need that is likely to grow in complexity and nuance. She also sees major room for expansion in the areas of supply chain sourcing, big data, AI and blockchain, as they relate to sustainability.
Not everyone is onboard yet. “There’s really going to have to be a paradigm shift in realising that every job needs to be a sustainability job at some level”, Patten believes. “It’s no longer a siloed issue.”
For people like Lillian Zhou, it can’t be. She explains, “I’m interested in renewable energy because frankly, I don’t think that my generation can afford not to be. When you have witnessed first-hand how the climate in your hometown has changed, when you see how your government and leaders are failing to make substantial change time and time again – it’s just not something you can ignore.” Working for sustainability is imperative for Zhou. “I cannot imagine a more important industry to be a part of.”