The more we change, the more we stay the same. Countless research has been devoted to understanding how various generations interact with and between each other, how their surroundings influence their behavior, and how their expectations get shaped over time. That is especially true for colleges and universities, which continue to act as the guidepost of education and development into adulthood.
Some of these findings are fascinating, and all are immensely valuable. We’re currently seeing the first students of Generation Z enter college, and potentially change the way we think about higher education. And yet, some remarkable parallels to Millennials and Generation X do exist. Only an examination of these differences and similarities can help us better understand this new generation, along with their values and expectations.
Before we start, an exclaimer: all of the below statements are based on credible research, but none are universally true. In other words, they exhibit general trends that can be applied to the entire generational group, but not every member of that group actually lives all of those trends. It is entirely possible, for instance, to find fiscally liberal, socially conservative members of Generation Z. Trend lines are unmistakable, but do not predict individual behavior of a given member of a generation.
Defining Generation Z
First things first: a definition. Before we get into the details of Generation Z, let’s establish a baseline of exactly who we are talking about.
As with other generational cohorts before them, Gen Z is not exactly defined. As of right now, the only thing all can agree on that we’re talking about the cohort right after millennials, probably born as early as the late 1990s and as late as the early 2010s. That means today’s members of the cohort are anywhere between 4 and 20 years old.
More important than birth year, though, is the context in which this generation is coming of age. Institutions like the Pew Research Center are not yet specifically defining this group because we don’t know how developments early in their lives may impact their future behavior. Still, the first Gen Z members are coming of age, so we can begin to draw first conclusions about their preferences, desires, and more.
Technology as a Fact of Life
The first distinguishing fact about this generation is also the most obvious: they grew up with technology. For them, in fact, everyday life is indistinguishable from digital life on the internet through their desktop and mobile devices. According to the Oxford Royale Academy,
Generation Z is the generation that never had to deal with dial-up internet or brick-shaped mobile phones. They have grown up with the knowledge that they can speak to anyone around the world at a moment’s notice, and through assorted social media networks, that’s what they’ve been doing for their entire lives. For this generation, electronics that were a luxury to their parents and older siblings have always been a necessity for living in the modern world.
The results of this recognition of technology as a necessity are significant. Instant access to any information is expected, not a bonus. Many teenagers, in fact, now consider technology to be as vital as air and water to their daily lives and satisfaction.
Technology is essential, and they’re accessing it in different ways than their predecessors. Gone are the days of spending 30 minutes a day on the parent’s desktop computer or laptop. Instead, they’re using mobile-only social networks like Instagram and Snapchat to communicate and can access information anywhere using their smartphones.
Millennials were the first online generation, but they still separate their digital habits from their ‘regular’ lives. For Generation Z and beyond, that distinction no longer exists. They are the first true digital natives.
Independence in Beliefs and Action
You might have heard some of the many stereotypes set upon Millennials, often hurled at them by their older Baby Boomer counterparts. The biggest is a dependency on their parents and unwillingness to strike out on their own. True or not, Generation Z has heard the same stereotypes and is making sure that the same won’t apply to them.
It’s a natural reaction. Generation Z is growing up in the midst of continual financial struggle. When the Great Recession of 2008 hit most of the world, Millennials just entered the workforce – but Gen Z saw their parents struggle with the results. Combine that with a conscious effort by Gen X to avoid helicopter parenting, and you get the independent mindset that in many ways shapes their children as they come of age today.
The results are both positive and negative. Incoming college students are now more entrepreneurial than any of their predecessors. In fact, according to Gallup, 40% of students between grades 5 and 12 want to start their own business, and almost a quarter are already taking steps to get started.
On the other hand, the consequences of this independence can be dangerous. Faced with threats like cyber bullying they might lack the inherent drive to seek help or advice from those more experienced than them. Generation Z wants to rely on themselves, and are facing the consequences – both positively and negatively.
Privacy as a Core Value
Combine the above two trends, and you get a clear indication of preferences: Generation Z prefers to stay private. They rely on, but are also aware of the dangers of technology. They want to remain independent, both in relation to others and their own data. Privacy is a natural conclusion.
Their public social media presence is highly curated. For actual, candid conversation, Gen Z prefers to use private messages in the same way that their older counterparts used comment sections and message boards.
That, in turn, presents an interesting conundrum. Teenagers want their data to be private, but also expect a personalized experienced online. That personalized experience, of course, can only be delivered through data sharing. In the age of GDPR, finding the balance between privacy and personalization might just be the key to making sure Gen Z is getting exactly what they expect.
Generation Z and Fiscal Conservatism
For this generation, perhaps more than any other previously, the need for a more multi-faceted definition of ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ values is becoming necessary. That’s because, while they’re the most socially liberal and multi-racial cohort in most countries today, they’re also significantly more fiscally conservative than their Millennial and Gen X predecessors.
In other words, this generation takes care of their money. Student loan debt continues to be a significant problem across cohorts, and today’s children and teenagers are the first two have grown up with this problem dominating headlines. But, according to Forbes, there’s reason to believe that Millennials will be the last for which this problem is a major issue.
According to one survey, no less than 85% of Gen Z students plan to work during college. Almost exactly one fifth plan on holding a full-time job. That, in turn, results in lower numbers of this population being willing to take on student loan debt, or having to accept financial aid. A large number will still do so, but they’re actively working (in more ways than one) to minimize the damage.
If they can’t afford it, they look to avoid college altogether. Instead, Gen Z is embracing both gap years and online learning. If they can’t afford college, they will find different ways to prepare themselves for the workforce. And they’re thinking ahead even further; 12% of Generation Z children are already starting to save for their retirement.
What to Expect on College Campuses
Bring all of that together, and a more complete picture of this new generational cohort will start to form. On college campuses, Gen Z will be more dependent on technology than any generation before them. But they’ll be less willing to engage in public debates online, and may prefer technology-based interactions over their real-world alternatives.
They’re independent thinkers, which could introduce problems for traditional, lecture-based class formats. More than half say they learn more by doing rather than listening. Information has to be available on demand, and customized to their personal experience and expectations. This might be the most challenging, but also best prepared generation for true higher education yet.
What’s Next for Gen Z?
It’s important to reiterate: all of the above are generalizations. And yet, taken as a whole, they remain true. Of course, it’s difficult to say how a five year old will react when they step foot on campus 13 years from now. But we do know that they’re being shaped in similar ways than their 18-year old counterparts.
What’s next for Generation Z? Only the future will tell. Still, the similarities and differences they exhibit, particularly in comparison to their Millennial counterparts, will be fascinating to watch and examine. This generation will shape, and has the potential to transform the way we think about education and personal financial management today.