FOUR GENERATIONS CURRENTLY are teaching or studying at universities and interacting in the workplace. Since we are all shaped by our experiences, and each time period includes defining moments, generational differences are inevitable. It’s critical for educators to understand how each group thinks and learns so that all students can be successful in the classroom.
Much has been written about previous generations, and most educators are familiar with their characteristics:
Baby boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, were shaped by the Cold War, the Vietnam War, assassinations, Woodstock, and the moon landing. They were among the first to own TVs, wanted to buy the world a Coke, grew up on rock-and-roll, and demanded equality and diversity in the workplace. They are extremely loyal, have a strong work ethic, and prefer the security of a steady career path, often retiring from a company after decades of service.
Members of Generation X, who were born between 1965 and 1980, were epitomized by the TV show “Friends” and the movie “Slackers.” They became known for rolling their eyes and saying “Whatever.” They started as latchkey kids, grew up on MTV, demanded work-life balance, and instituted casual Fridays—every day. But they are highly competitive, demand job satisfaction, and seek individual advancement and financial awards. The New York Times called them Gen 1099 for their entrepreneurial mindset—in fact, 55 percent of startups are launched by Gen Xers.
Millennials, also called Generation Y, were born between 1981 and 1996. They were first characterized as Generation Me, but because of their strong sense of community and global connectedness, they soon became known as Generation We. They started as the trophy generation, grew up under “no child left behind” policies, and have entered the corporate workforce demanding team-based environments. They are steadfastly collaborative, insist on corporate social responsibility, prefer a flat corporate culture, form strong connections with supervisors, and demand immediate feedback.
Now comes Generation Z, the most diverse in U.S. history. These individuals, born between 1997 and 2012, represent 26 percent of the U.S. population and wield up to 143 billion USD in spending power. Members of Gen Z are already in our classrooms, and the oldest among them have entered the workforce.
To gain a deeper understanding of this generation’s mindset, the two of us have collaborated with a national marketing firm to identify five defining characteristics of Gen Z. Here we explore the implications of each characteristic on our society and pose key questions school administrators need to ask as they educate the next generation.
One of the most important characteristics of Generation Z is the fact that its members are digital natives. Other generations obviously interacted with technology. Boomers invented the personal computer, the ATM, and the cell phone, while Gen Xers played music, games, and movies on their mobile devices. But previous generations worried about privacy or struggled to understand the technology behind every new app. Generation Z students were born into technology, and it is simply part of their DNA.
That’s why educators must use technology to communicate with Gen Z through digital content such as podcasts and short videos that students can access from smart devices in their hands. Faculty also should use social media platforms such as Instagram or Twitter to reach students, and schools should create online resources students can use to complement classroom learning.
THE FIVE CHARACTERISTICS OF GEN Z
Members of Gen Z are comfortable consuming large amounts of content; they’re also comfortable creating their own, so professors should give them platforms to share the material they create. At the same time, they’re used to acquiring knowledge by searching Google or watching YouTube videos. It’s up to educators to ensure students develop a healthy sense of skepticism and a habit of making sure their sources are credible.
This ready availability of knowledge, coupled with ubiquitous technology, has hardwired Gen Z students with short attention spans. They process information very quickly, which makes them excellent problem solvers and critical thinkers—but educators must teach them to ask the right questions. Professors also must figure out how to capture their attention by employing a variety of audio, visual, and kinesthetic learning techniques to keep them engaged.
Key questions: How can educators use technology and social media to connect with Gen Z? How can business schools prepare students for the gig economy that—with their short attention spans and reliance on technology—they have demanded?
The Wall Street Journal described Gen Z as “a scarred generation, cautious and hardened by economic and social turbulence.” While most people in this generation are not old enough to remember the terror attacks that occurred in the U.S. on September 11, 2001, researchers have argued that 9/11 should be considered this group’s defining event. Gen Z also has been affected by international terrorism events, school shootings in America, and the ascendancy of nationalist leaders around the world, including Donald Trump.
At the same time, members of Gen Z were shaped by the 2008 recession. Many of them experienced anxious dinner table conversations about jobs and money; they saw their parents lose their homes and their grandparents return to work after retirement. As a result, Gen Z individuals have become more practical when assessing the future. Like Gen Xers, they want jobs that pay well; like millennials, they want to do work with meaning.
FEAR OF DEBT IS CAUSING GEN Z TO OPT OUT OF FOUR-YEAR EDUCATION AND RETHINK THEIR CAREER CHOICES.
Because they have lived through a tough economy and chaotic world events, Gen Z students are extremely concerned about financial stability. According to a study by Handshake, a career community for college students, 73 percent of students will be graduating with college loan debt. Fear of that debt is causing some students to opt out of four-year education, even though they see value in it; it’s causing others to rethink their career choices. According to the Handshake study, 61 percent of college students would take a job they’re not passionate about in order to pay off their student loans. In fact, half of Gen Z respondents disclosed that they would take the first job they’re offered, with 62 percent citing financial pressure as the reason.
To serve this financially cautious generation, educators must articulate the professional competencies they provide in their coursework and purposefully explain learning objectives. Schools should provide experiential learning opportunities so students can practice activities related to their chosen careers.
Key question: Given Gen Z’s aversion to risk, how can we prove that education provides an immediate return on investment?
COMPETITIVE AND COLLABORATIVE
Members of Gen Z collaborate more than those of any other generation, according to a report from tech company Cisco. But while individuals in this group are fiercely loyal to members of their tribe, they are fiercely competitive with rivals. Because Gen Z students love having their tribes compete against other groups, professors can use gamification strategies to motivate them in class.
Members of Gen Z also expect more from their educational investment and want value-added content beyond what they can find for themselves on the internet. Educators can help them realize that a college diploma is just the starting line for long-term career success.
Key questions: How do we leverage the competitive spirits of Gen Z students in the classroom? How do we frame coursework as a stepping-stone to career success?
INCLUSIVE OF EVERYONE
Gen Z eclipses other generations when it comes to embracing diversity, and students are paying close attention to how their colleges and universities are responding to the current civil unrest. Fifty-nine percent of respondents told StuDocu that their perceptions of their universities would be affected if their schools remain silent about racial inequality and the ongoing protests.
While baby boomers marched for racial and gender equality during the Civil Rights era, and Gen Xers demanded equality in the workplace, Gen Z students recognize there is still much work to do. They demand more effective inclusivity initiatives; they seek out classrooms, working environments, and communities that are respectful of their diverse populations.
Key question: Research shows that standardized tests and GPA thresholds work against students in underrepresented populations. Can schools develop more holistic ways to assess student success to create more inclusive classrooms?
Gen Z graduates seek employment at companies that are dedicated to improving society and the environment. While money and salary matter a great deal to Gen Z, so do purpose and meaning. It’s important to Gen Z to work at organizations whose values align with their own, according to a report from Deloitte.
While boomers and Gen Xers were expected to do charitable activities on their own time, millennials had opportunities for structured service projects both in school and at work. Members of Generation Z expect purpose to be part of their education programs and company missions. Many are looking for careers in the nonprofit sector, addressing issues such as animal rights, gender equality, and diversity.
WHILE MONEY AND SALARY MATTER A GREAT DEAL TO GEN Z, SO DO PURPOSE AND MEANING.
Key questions: Are schools providing purpose-driven opportunities through their missions and class projects? Are they expanding their employer networks to include more purpose-driven companies? Can schools capitalize on students’ commitment to social responsibility to help drive societal change in the workforce?
While the whole of Generation Z can be defined as digitally savvy, risk-averse, competitive, inclusive, and purpose-driven, business students embody these traits in specific ways. They’ve learned to use technology to collaborate with remote teammates. A majority will choose the financial security of low-risk careers in business, like accounting, over the personal satisfaction of pursuing careers in the arts. Many want to launch businesses that will have a social impact, and most will continue to fight for social justice across the globe.
When business school educators understand what drives Generation Z, they can create the content, the delivery methods, and the classroom parameters that will contribute most significantly to student success. But when educators realize that there are more commonalities than differences between generations, they can make sure all students work together and thrive.
Jeffrey Wright, a baby boomer, is an executive assistant professor of accounting at the Helzberg School of Management & College of Business, Influence, and Information Analysis at Rockhurst University in Kansas City, Missouri. Kimberly Swanson Church, a member of Generation X, is the director and BKD Professor of Leadership for the School of Accountancy in the College of Business at Missouri State University in Springfield, Missouri.
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