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Who Is Generation Z?

Gen Z faces unique barriers to educational success.

Marvin Meyer/Unsplash
Source: Marvin Meyer/Unsplash

The mid-90s. We met two new toys by the names of “Woody” and “Buzz.” O.J. Simpson was acquitted of murder charges. We asked “isn’t it ironic?” and were told “No soup for you!” I entered junior high and had my first crush, while a politically naïve New York real estate mogul had over $900M in business losses. But perhaps most importantly, the world welcomed the first babies of Generation Z.

Last month, I had the honor of presenting for the second consecutive year at the Michigan Pre-College and Youth Outreach conference, hosted virtually this year by Michigan State University. The theme for 2020 was connecting with Gen Z, and two excellent keynote speakers—Dr. Corey Seemiller of Wright State University and Dr. Vickie Cook of the University of Illinois Springfield—discussed what makes this generation unique. I wanted to pass along what I learned about Gen Z, starting with the fact that they seem to be a fascinating blend of contradictions.

Careers: For Love and Money

Although they may be reticent to admit it, Gen Z students are motivated by money. They experienced and/or witnessed financial hardship during the great recession, which began when they were about 6-13 years old, and it shaped their worldview when it comes to finances. They’ve also lived through a period of staggering gains in income inequality, and watched us millennials, hamstrung by debt, delay major milestones such as marriage and parenthood. The average Gen Z student begins financial planning at age 13, and two-thirds of Gen Z students say financial stability is more important than a job that makes them happy. However…

Gen Z students are motivated to change the world. While money is important, they’re more interested in security than riches. With a safety net beneath them, they see a world full of social and political challenges that they’re eager to fix. Gen Z students value diversity and want to make society more equitable, but perhaps above all else, they want to save and preserve the environment. In general, Gen Z students are oriented to act for the benefit of others, although sometimes to their own detriment when they become intensely focused on not letting others down.

Not the i-Generation

Gen Z students are digital natives, never having known a world without the internet. These students spend upwards of 3 hours/day on the internet, and another 3 hours/day using social media. And they’re incredibly strategic with their social media, typically using Facebook only to connect with family (i.e., millennials and older generations), other apps to network with fellow Gen Zer’s (e.g., TikTok), and others yet to interact with their inner circle (e.g., Instagram). However…

Don’t reduce Gen Z students to zombies on smartphones. Eighty-three percent prefer face-to-face communication versus texting, phone, or email, but many feel they’ve lacked adequate socialization or training for in-person conversation. They struggle with small talk, and hiding behind their phones is a crutch they turn to when they feel intimidated by the situation. Also, just because they’re comfortable with technology doesn’t necessarily make them tech savvy. Especially germane in this time of remote learning, Gen Z students don’t magically know how to use every new platform or application; they require instruction and support just like anyone else.

More than One Road to Success

Gen Z students value education more than previous generations, and more of them are enrolling in college than ever before. They see the connections between their financial goals, personal goals, and education, and they’re eager to soak up as much knowledge as they can. They also want and expect to be actively involved in their education, such as choosing topics of study and creating content for courses; they are not satisfied by listening to lectures and reading textbooks. However…

They don’t see a bachelor’s degree as their only option. Gen Z students are risk- and debt-averse, and 72% see debt as their biggest concern about college. Many of these students want a shorter, more direct path to gainful employment and are more open to community colleges and career-based education. Similarly, they crave experiential learning and are willing to forsake formal education for on-the-job training if it fulfills their passion. Gen Z students are also highly entrepreneurial, and are willing to strike out on their own—in fact, you shouldn’t be surprised if some of your Gen Z students have already started a business in their spare time.

Challenges with Mental Health

Finally, Gen Z students report higher levels of worry, anxiety, and depression than prior generations. These students are incredibly afraid of failure, and even though they love to learn, prefer to do so individually so as to avoid judgment. As mentioned earlier, they place a lot of pressure on themselves to carry their own weight and not let others down, which at its worst can motivate them to quit on something before ever getting involved. Gen Z students are scared to make decisions—what’s the right college? the right major? the right internship?—which can sometimes lead them to making no decision at all.

There’s no However… here: Gen Z students need a lot of mental health support if they’re to succeed in college and beyond.

Supporting Gen Z Students

One thing that struck me while learning about Gen Z is how much they remind me of first-generation students from the millennial generation. Research over the past decade by Dr. Nicole Stephens and others have described first-gens in similar terms:

  • First-gen students are driven to help others but motivated by gainful employment;
  • First-gen students are highly invested in their education but fearful of embarrassment (due to issues like bias and stereotype threat);
  • First-gen students struggle with mental health, especially when they must navigate traditionally middle-class and predominantly white campuses.

This convergence could be due to the fact that Gen Z is more diverse and includes more first-gen students than previous generations. Or perhaps Gen Z’s formative years during and after the great recession were similar to the circumstances faced by first-gen students raised in the late '80s and '90s. Either way, these parallels offer some potential solutions for supporting Gen Z students.

We can begin by carefully examining successful interventions for first-gen students and extracting the active ingredients for Gen Z students’ benefit. For example, first-gen students perform better when a college education is framed around improving the world, not just improving oneself or making money. Given Gen Z’s similar motivations to make a difference, this framing effect may boost their performance, as well. Utility-value interventions, which have increased first-gen students’ persistence by helping them draw connections between their courses and their future careers, may also engage Gen Z students driven by the desire for stable employment. Self-affirmation exercises, which have bolstered first-gen students’ STEM performance by buffering their self against identity threat, will likely also benefit Gen Z students, who worry so much about failure and judgment. Likewise, exercises like advice giving or expressive writing, which have helped first-gen students deal with issues related to social belonging and bias, may help Gen Z students cope with their worry and anxiety around college.

The last thing I want to pass along is Dr. Seemiller’s and Dr. Cook’s unbridled optimism when it comes to educating this new generation. Although they may seem guarded and difficult to reach, Gen Z students are bursting with passion, creativity, and a thirst for knowledge. Our colleges will surely thrive if we can successfully tap into Gen Z’s talent and motives. So while higher ed catches up to the unique characteristics of Gen Z, keep in mind some of these fascinating contradictions when designing classes and programs for this population.

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