By Doug Ward
A few years ago, two of my students, eager to look behind the hype of marketers who claimed to see into the minds and habits of a post-millennial generation, came away frustrated. After semester-long research projects, they both asked the same questions: Who can really define a generation? And is “generation” just a convenient label that older people apply to younger people they don’t understand?
A baby boom generation made some sense because it was part of a demographic shift, the students said. Yes, today’s students are certainly different, but the “generation” labels that have been applied seem more of a put-down than an amalgamation of meaningful, or valid, characteristics.
Michael Dimock of the Pew Research Center explained some of the haziness of generational labels earlier this year when he wrote that Pew researchers were adopting the Generation Z category in their work. He wrote:
“Generational cutoff points aren’t an exact science. They should be viewed primarily as tools” for analyzing views on things like work, education, social issues and politics. Pew defines Generation Z as anyone born in 1997 or after. Others see Generation Z as starting earlier, and some place the starting point as late as 2005. By most definitions, though, traditional college-age students now consist solely of Generation Z, and the oldest in that group have already graduated.
What does that mean?
I thought about my students’ search for Generation Z as I listened to speakers at the Educause 2019 conference in Chicago recently. My students’ questions were – and still are – valid. Their search for a Generation Z may just have been a few years premature, though.
The racial and ethnic diversity of this generation — and how that diversity shapes views and expectations — has rightly received considerable attention. At Educause, though, the father and son team of David and Jonah Stillman made a case for “generational personalities,” which they said formed from experiences in adolescence. Many of those experiences are tied to significant economic and cultural events. Here are a few of the characteristics that the Stillmans said separated millennials from Generation Z.
- Came of age during an economic boom.
- Parents, mostly baby boomers, told them they could do anything.
- Went through childhood during what the Stillmans called “the self-esteem movement,” when everyone got a trophy just for participating.
- Parents preached a message of college at any cost – apparently even to themselves – and told their children they could change the world.
- Jobs were about seeking meaning and changing the world.
- Technologically minded but with a clear separation between online and in person.
- Came of age during and after the 2007-2008 recession, when their parents’ net worth plummeted and they saw seemingly unsinkable companies barely able to stay afloat.
- They are realists. Their parents, mostly from Generation X, emphasized the need to compete and win. (If you doubt this, just do a search for “TikTok famous.”)
- Watched as millennials took on enormous debt to pay for college, even as many employers started to emphasize skills rather degrees.
- Jobs are about money. Full stop.
- See few boundaries between physical and digital. (Think Pokemon Go.) They even saw online companies begin to create physical stores, another case where they see “no line at all” between online and in person.
Even popular culture icons offered competing messages. Millennials read about and watched Harry Potter, a young wizard with a tight group of friends who grappled with the meaning and purpose of their magic powers. Generation Z read about and watched Katniss Everdeen, a young rebel in a dystopian nation who is chosen for a fight to the death in The Hunger Games. The message: one against the world; win or die; children are expendable.
This is all a broad-brush picture, of course, but I find that much of it rings true. After all, enrollment in business schools has soared as enrollment in the liberal arts has declined. Many students are working 20-plus hours a week to help pay their college bills. They want flexibility in their schedules and access to technology always. Most students and parents still see value in college, but they look closely at price and consider their return on investment.
So what does this mean for higher education? The Stillmans offered these observations and suggestions:
Get on their radar earlier
Many of these students are trying to make college and career decisions much earlier than previous generations did. They crave certainty and security in their careers. Universities that tap into that desire for a clear pathway have a better chance of reaching those students than those that wait. Relatedly, these students want to know what universities have to offer. They seek out winners and opportunities, and they want to see that reflected in their schools.
Group work is harder
This generation is competitive. They want to stand out and they resent others who tag along in group projects and don’t work as hard as they do. That means they dislike group work, even though the ability to collaborate is among the top skills that employers seek. That means, the Stillmans said, that educators will have to work harder to help these students learn group skills.
So is traditional communication
Older adults complain that this generation is illiterate, David Stillman said. He argued, though, that today’s students are writing more than ever. They post on social media and in online forums. They chat via instant messages and games. They are in constant conversation. Much of that may be in the form of “lol” and “omg,” Stillman said, “but who are we to say that’s not writing?” They also learned to communicate with emojis before they communicated in words, he said. That approach creates more ambiguity and leaves more room for interpretation, he said. So students need help understanding how to communicate in a professional world. Even so, he said, “professors need to understand emojis.”
Emphasize the tangible
Promoting vague “experiences” and learning for learning’s sake doesn’t work for most of these students. Rather, they want to see the practical application and individual benefit of their school work. That means instructors and advisors need to explain why students are learning what they are learning and how the various disciplines, activities and assignments fit together and help lead to good jobs. Additionally, universities, departments and classes should partner with businesses, David Stillman said. Bring professionals from various fields to campus so that students can learn about pathways and make connections between what they are learning and what they might do on the job.
A higher percentage of Generation Z was home-schooled, and many of their parents are entrepreneurs. They are open to alternative paths to learning, and they value customization. After all, Amazon and Netflix know what they want and make frequent suggestions about what they should buy or watch. Why shouldn’t their college? Iowa State, which caught on to this earlier than most universities, sends out video announcements for each student. These videos include a “breaking news” announcement by a CNN anchor, a message from the college president and the football coach, a shot of a banner with the student’s name, and footage of thousands of students cheering and celebrating. (Some students apply to Iowa State just to get a video, the Stillmans said.) Other schools have allowed students to create custom majors, a strategy that all schools need to adopt, the Stillmans said.
Improve online courses
Students still prefer in-person courses, but they want the flexibility that online courses provide. That flexibility is critical for a generation that is putting in more hours on jobs to pay for college. They also expect online courses to have the same quality and the same outcomes as in-person courses. The culture, the feel, the layout of an online course should be the same as an in-person course, the Stillmans said. Everything should be seamless.
Be flexible with technology
Students in Generation Z “don’t see the difference at all” between the physical and digital worlds. Technology is simply part of who they are. It connects them. It informs them. They expect it to be there. Universities that demonstrate technological sophistication will have an advantage, the Stillmans said. That doesn’t mean Generation Z is impressed by technologically advanced campuses. That is simply an expectation. These students take that expectation into the classroom, too. Instructors who ban this technology simply stoke students’ fear of missing out on something online. So rather than take that technology away, help them learn how to use it to learn.
Those are just a few of the few of the student characteristics we need to pay attention to. Yes, these are broad generalizations that don’t apply to all students, but they help us understand some of the challenges we face as educators. College used to have a Harry Potter-like magic in attracting students, but it has entered a world much more like The Hunger Games. We can still be suspicious of labels like Generation Z – I still am – but we need to adjust to the reality of the changes.
Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.