By attending Patty Robinson’s latest civic engagement workshop at COC last week, I learned a lot about academic research on Generation Z. I also learned I was born in the wrong generation.
Experiential learner. Check. Motivated by relationships. Check. Lots of side hustles. Check.
These characteristics are just the tip of the iceberg when describing Generation Z, which includes individuals born from the mid-1990s through the early 2000s. Corey Seemiller, co-author of “Generation Z: A Guide for Developing the Leadership Capacity of Generation Z Students,” led the workshop.
She offered a wealth of knowledge about these current collegians and newest members of the workforce.
Based on her descriptions that day, I found a lot to like about Gen Z. And Seemiller too – she was sensitive and respectful to the unique personality of the next generation.
It was a nice change from hearing old-timers who famously bash teens and young adults for their values and behaviors. We can see that it’s human nature, from contemporaries of Socrates critiquing the manners of young people to Victorian parents offended by dancing and card playing.
But from the first few moments of Seemiller’s workshop there was a detectable attitude of openness – people in the room really wanted to “get” Z-ers.
As instructors, most attendees had a vested interest in understanding the Gen Z crowd because this age group fills their classrooms. But they seemed so willing to accept the style of today’s young adults rather than focus on what students can’t, won’t or shouldn’t do.
Seemiller’s examples pointed out what little credit we tend to give them. While we might lecture Johnny to get away from “all that screen time” to put in some volunteer hours at a service project, Johnny’s busy running his own nonprofit.
“Millennials ask for feedback – ‘How am I doing?’ ‘Just tell me the really good bits!’” she said. “Gen Z is not coming to your door knocking, but they want your feedback.”
There are ways to shift in their direction for mutual benefit. For instance, professors who nag Z-ers to check their email more often would be more effective if they simply communicated with them on platforms they already use.
“We hold them hostage to a skill set they don’t have,” Seemiller explained.
And when it comes to hiring, Gen Z-ers don’t fit into boxes, so it doesn’t work if that’s the only kind of employment we’re developing.
“Their No. 1 career goal is happiness,” Seemiller said. “They see their whole academic, personal, social and community lives blended together in ways other generations didn’t.”
They’re “recession kids” – financially conservative, but preferring several part-time gigs over retire-with-the-gold-watch-style employment. Most college kids also work, more than in previous generations.
They’ve seen more tragedy than any other generation, including ISIS beheadings and other violence on the internet.
They’re the most racially diverse generation in modern history, and they believe that a mixture of backgrounds, identities and perspectives make the world a better place. They’re concerned about racial equality, sexism and human rights and they prefer action over simple awareness programs.
They respond to “gamification,” meaning the setting and completing of benchmarks that achieve a larger goal. But before you start pitting a Z-er against another – you need to know they don’t like to compete with peers. They’ll compete with themselves or participate in competitions between groups.
If it seems easier to change them, think about the work involved cleaning our own house, from opioids and alcohol to our lifestyle of debt.
But Gen Z-ers value that kind of honesty.
“Generation Z craves genuine interactions and values authenticity rather than the traditional authoritarian teaching style,” said Hannah Peterson, a member of Generation Z and TEACH student outreach advisor at COC. “These workshops strive to break barriers and create an inclusive learning environment where students will thrive.”
I noticed a spa-like feeling come over me as I looked around at my all-female discussion table. It was good to be in a sisterhood with others who want to give Z-ers what they need … to build, not divide.
Rather than mocking their generation for needing safe space and their transparency about their emotional issues, individuals at the workshop discussed the need for more mental health resources at schools.
“This generation has higher levels of anxiety and depression diagnosed than any other generation in American history – collegiate level,” Seemiller said. “We’re constantly referring them off-campus. We just don’t have the space, we don’t have after-hours. Why not? … I mean, we’re talking about a generation that’s much bigger than their academic success. … Their suicide rate is going up and up and up. I’m sorry, I think this is where money should go.”
So, while we’re living the dream of a six-figure income and retirement plan, Generation Z is dealing with such realities.
“They’re completely turned off by the suit-and-tie culture and value authenticity over professionalism,” said COC professor Siane Holland, my group’s spokesperson. “This generation is way more down-to-earth than what corporate America represents.”
Youth will always be an easy target. But it’s time we stopped criticizing them and broke down the barriers through connection and caring. I’m realizing the value of learning from them to help me navigate our changing culture.
And it’s a lot more effective than wishing Gen Z would become more like me.
Martha Michael is a contributing writer for The Signal.