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January 22, 2021

The Solution: Reaching Gen-Z

It seems like every generation is going to be the end of the line for our world, at least if you ask the generations that come before them.  But, I choose to believe that this generation (Gen-Z) will be our future, good or bad, so it’s up to us to help them be successful.  To mentor youth is a daunting task and a delicate task, especially since mentoring requires trust and deep connections between “us and them.”  Sometimes as mentors and influencers we rely mostly on our knowledge, expertise, and experience in our efforts to influence students and young adults.  However, the most meaningful connections between parties of any generation are most deeply rooted in empathy, good listening skills, and specific guidance that is relevant to the individual.  As educational leaders, our lasting impact will come from acknowledgement and understanding of who Gen-Z is, what is important to them, what unique challenges they face, and examples of best practices for meaningfully connecting with them.

What comes next is an overview of what I think you need to know about working with this generation we call “Z.”  And, let me start by reminding us all that sweeping generalizations about any group of people should be considered reasonably credible insights into basic norms, which are likely more prevalent in some than others, but certainly not the whole truth about any individual or the whole group.

Gen-Z at a glance:

A quick google search of “Gen-Z Characteristics” will give you unending links to all-things Gen-Z.  Gen-Z is anyone born between 1997 and 2015, according to most sources.  Their parents are most likely members of Gen-X (hybrid relationship with technology, grew up with minimal adult supervision, appreciate informality, prefer direct conversation, etc.), but a few are children of Millennials (tech savvy, highly educated, idealists, large student loan debt, etc.).

These kids are all about anxiety!!!

First, it’s worth noting they aren’t all kids anymore – many are in their mid-twenties.  Numerous studies (use the google maker to find some, or visit my “helpful links” section at the end of this) and web resources confirm that deep and sometimes debilitating anxiety is more than just a notable trait, but a very common characteristic.  Anxiety is the driving force behind nearly every decision they make (or don’t make).  Don’t let a confident attitude fool you, because they are also quite adept at covering it up, which is not necessarily unique to their generation.  Honestly, they might also be unaware that they are experiencing endless anxiety, since it has been their normal since birth.    

What do they have to be so anxious about?

After living their entire lives with constant advice (more like warnings) about their future, and having instant access to every bit of information they want/need (or don’t) right at their fingertips, what are they possibly so anxious about? (yes, sarcasm) Well, let’s first think about all the things we have been warning them about since the day they were born.  Some examples include, student loan debt, affordable housing, meaningless/unfulfilling careers, pleasing their parents, economy and unemployment, social justice, gender issues, race issues, pandemics, polarized politics, saving money, too much screen time, preparing for a 4-yr college, learning real-life skills that aren’t part of 4-yr college prep, school safety, climate change, student loan debt (that deserves another shout out), etc.  It’s also worth noting that because of various social and information superhighways, Gen-Z’s beliefs and understandings are constantly evolving, resulting in frequent adjustment to goals and career interest.  This Gen-Z trait is far more unsettling for older generations and thus becomes another significant source of anxiety for Gen-Z as they feel a lack of approval from caring adults.  Of course, all this anxiety in conjunction with endless available informational considerations often leaves Gen-Z in a state of decision-making paralysis.  This doesn’t mean they will never make important decisions, but it does mean they are likely more comfortable doing so after having time to seek information from a variety of digital and human sources.  The final step for Gen-Z is seeking the approval of their most trusted supporters, including caring adults.

In summary, they are often and sometimes endlessly worried about making mistakes.  And sometimes our constant advice, warnings about potential downfalls, and criticism of their norms will serve to increase their feelings of anxiety, even if we truly mean to help.  After all, their parents likely grew up in, or raised them through a recession which is why they worry for them.  The decision-making process to often takes more time than we would like.  Be patient, and positive.

Action steps should include listening, patience, empathy, and availability.  It can be very challenging to identify with how a Gen-Z processes, yet we must respect it and meet them where they’re at.  Gen-Z wants to learn more, but often independently.  Avoid rushing them into making decisions, especially those with long-term consequences.  Offer information about where more can be learned, and offer to help so they know you care, but also let them do it on their own.  Make your knowledge and expertise available to them, but relevant to their personal concerns.  However, don’t try to force them to take it all in.  First, listen to their ideas and concerns without judging their character or motivation.  You might need to be the main investor in the relationship at first.  Some research also shows that even though Gen-Z navigates a variety of sources to gain understanding, their final decisions are greatly influenced by people they trust, which definitely includes caring adults.  By listening, showing empathy, and encouraging their exploration, you will be building a foundation of trust that will allow your positive guidance and influence to be meaningful and impactful.  Be careful about turning everything, like career and college choices, into high-stakes and high-risk propositions.   

Gen-Z wants everything to be digital… right?

No. The that Gen-Z prefers everything to be digital is a misnomer.  Worthy of note at this juncture is that most of Gen-Z is younger than the smart phone.  Perhaps the biggest challenge with this is that older generations often interpret Gen-Z’s attachment to their mobile device as laziness, a lack of motivation, less desire to communicate with other humans, or a lack of respect for authority.  Ironically, many of those who feel that way had a “teen line” when they were growing, which utilized a consistently tangled 40-foot cord that inevitably served as a “tripwire” for their parents as they franticly moved about the home doing, you guessed it, laundry or making meals for their Gen-Xer who was busy talking on the teen line with their friends.  Furthermore, this was taking place after a whole day of school with their friends (same as the ones on the teen line) about their favorite music videos on MTV (back when they actually played music videos), which their parents were afraid they would become addicted to.  I think you get my point.   Gen-Z’s attachment to their mobile device might be what they’re best known for, but our judgments about why might be inaccurate.  There is often an assumption by educational leaders and caring adults is that Gen-Z prefers digital platforms for everything.  I think after having experienced distance learning during a pandemic, we can all agree that theory is at least somewhat debunked.  What Gen-Z actually craves is meaningful human interactions, and for some, they crave a lot of it.  Similar to teen lines in the 80s and 90s, mobile devices allow for easy access to others, and in efficient ways.  Why talk to one person when you can text or snap multiple friends all at the same time?  Efficiency is a commendable thing, right?  To be clear about this point – Gen Z is not all about digital platforms for everything.  For them, it’s like transportation – some form of it is necessary to accomplish everything in one’s daily personal and professional lives, but their car (mobile smart device) is also just a tool for living (like a smart phone for many of us).  They don’t want to attend class on their phones or virtually if they don’t have to, and just like the generations before them, a video game style learning platform might be fun from time to time, but at the end of the day they want meaningful connections with others.  They don’t want someone to lecture them with live content on a digital/virtual platform, but instead they want guidance about how to find it themselves.  Live interactions are of premium value, especially to these digital natives.  Another common misconception is that Gen-Zers use platforms like YouTube as a shortcut, or to side step hard work.  On the contrary, this may also point to a desire for digital efficiency and their “show me how” vs. “tell me how” preferred method of learning.  Finding just the right tutorial video can be far more efficient, not to mention video engages far more communication-related mental pathways (seeing, hearing, reading, visual vocabulary, etc.), thus reducing educational barriers and increasing efficiency and depth of understanding for many.  Speaking of varied stimuli, be especially careful about confusing their affinity for video with a preference for video conferencing.  Gen-Z understand phenomena like “zoom fatigue” long before the rest of us.  You didn’t assume that their muted cameras or skipping classes was just some sort of deviant behavior, did you (wink, wink)?  Of course, they might be muting or skipping in defiance, but I believe this might also be a very natural defense mechanism, if you will, against digital fatigue.  By reducing interaction, or interacting on their own terms, they might be knowingly (or unknowingly) managing the stress and strain of this very taxing platform.  In essence, they have learned to be careful of a hot stove from spending time around hot stoves and now they function accordingly.  Finally, Gen-Z often equates authenticity with quality and credibility.  They are highly interested in the “reality” of things, and quick to recognize a lack of authenticity, often assuming that anything and everything can be fake or not the whole story.  This is no doubt a result of living in a world chocked full of information, disinformation, and social media algorithms. 

In summary, sweeping assumptions about Gen-Z’s desire for digital can leave you stranded.  Don’t assume that Gen-Z wants to get all information about college, or careers in a social media or video game format on their mobile phones just because they are digital natives or on their phones all the time.  In fact, you should assume that they prefer to use those platforms for everything else but career exploration and professional connections.  Teacher/student communication apps like “Remind” or “Zoom” are certainly necessary, but only because of their relevant efficiency and ease for students.  Yet, at the end of the day Gen-Z wants to have valuable human interactions that don’t feel like a waste of time, especially through digital formats.  Remember, the primary reason they are on their devices so much, is information gathering (learning) and social interactions.  All of this points to the value, and necessity, of authenticity in all digital deliveries.  Those who understand this about them will more easily gain their trust.  Live/real-time/synchronous virtual interactions should be reserved for meaningful conversation, or for listening, or basic review of content and clarification, not laborious content delivery.  Zoom fatigue is real.

Action steps should include use of digital technology for independent or small group information gathering more than lecturing.  Rather than criticizing their usage of powerful technology, look for ways they can utilize their digital capacity in meaningful ways.  For example, embed QR codes to resources within assignments and promotional documents.  Encourage students to use their mobile devices to document project progress, or to record brief videos for classroom presentations.  If you aren’t already, consider offering an opportunity to upload video essays instead of written ones not just in classes, but even college applications.  Or, teach students and staff ways to vet out YouTube video content and assign them the task of finding, or provide, high quality examples.  Help them learn how to be hands-on, and to do hands-on things, by showing them how (or letting someone else on YouTube).  Too many of us recognize the hands-on skills they don’t have, without accepting that we need to be part of the solution to the problem.  Perhaps most importantly, allow for, and embrace, authenticity.  Students are accustomed to less than perfection with digital deliveries, and truly appreciate the human nature of authentic effort.  Educational leadership, recruiters, and advisors should also utilize these strategies with students and staff to provide opportunities for staff training and resource development.  Because zoom fatigue is real, I recommend actually suggesting to any zoom audience members that they mute their microphones and video for brief amounts of time during presentations.  This will show that you are attentive to their wellbeing, and maybe even a bit savvy about digital reality.  In other words, be an authentic human being.  Do not assume that because they frequently use digital social platforms that they would also prefer, enjoy, or engage in college or career exploration on those platforms.  People go to the gym to work out, but just because they love working out at the gym every day doesn’t mean they want to go grocery shopping or on a date or attend a class at the gym.          

Gen-Z seeks a future with a greater purpose. 

Gen-Z observers often report their subjects displaying particular interest in pathways with a greater purpose, in areas that feel like an important service to others.  Not “service” like food service or customer service, but instead a service to a greater good in service to the world around them.  Of course, they are looking for sectors and subjects that interest them, but when making final decisions, the tipping point might be the “need” for workforce in that area.  Again, not necessarily an economic need, but a social or cultural need/service to others.  Salaries are important, but mostly as a means of financial stability (in response to anxiety about housing and student loan debt, perhaps), and not necessarily to possess great wealth or fund college for their children.  They certainly want work-life balance, and enough financial stability to “live a little,” but they might be happiest renting a houseboat for the weekend rather than owning one.  They have grown up with the realization that the world is full of fast-paced changes (social media, technology, etc.) and long-term challenges (economy, pandemic, social reforms, failing infrastructure, rural access, housing costs, etc.) and this relatively high awareness of the world around them leaves them finding favor in careers that are some part of a greater solution – service to others.    

In summary, members of Gen-Z are keenly aware of the world around them – the entire planet, actually.  They also view the world through the lens of change – knowing that some changes happen rapidly (i.e. technology), while other changes can be slow, painful, and controversial (i.e. social justice).  They want to live a life of purpose, doing meaningful and impactful work, in some sort of service to the greater good.

Action steps should include intentional and strategic attention to how we craft our guidance of, and messages to, this generation.  They are quite aware of the world around them, and quite tech savvy overall, yet they are still youthful and as the old adage goes, “they don’t know what they don’t know.”  Like the generations before them, they need guidance that is relevant to them.  Help them see a greater design in potential pathways.  Here are two examples of how a recruiter for a hypothetical fiberoptic cable installation company might speak to potential workforce:

Example 1:

“If you come work for us you’ll eventually run a horizontal drilling machine and other equipment, work with your hands, and because you work all-year-round, you will make great money.  All our equipment is new.  We are looking for hard workers who are skilled, and we prefer you have a commercial driver’s license.  We have over 200 employees and we’re always hiring.  We are especially looking for female employees because we don’t have very many and we don’t want anyone to think this is just work for men.” 

Example 2:

“Working in telecom installation might sound boring, but it’s very important work.  Literally everyone and everything around us, thousands of people and businesses rely on this work being done correctly.  There are responsibilities ranging from running a shovel to high-tech machinery, so something for everyone and the ability to work your way up.  We work in teams, yet each with individual responsibilities.  If you want college training, there are many affordable options.  We have employees from all genders and many different nationalities.  We are looking for good teammates who want to make the world of communication better and more reliable.  If housing or transportation is a concern, we might be able to help.  We want to invite you to check us out on the web to learn more (insert QR code  and hyperlink here).  Please feel free to reach out via email (insert simple email here) or text to talk more about employment options and other ways we can help.”  

Although there is nothing necessarily wrong or inaccurate with the first approach, in fact it’s a clear reflection of the rather direct communication style of most Gen-Xers, there is room for intentional and strategic improvement.  The second example illustrates much greater attention to what Gen-Z might find more relevant or meaningful.  Specifically, the recruiter mentions the meaningful and impactful nature of the work, addresses likely stressors, and offers guidance for further independent research. 

Final thoughts.

Authenticity and intentionality are key with Gen-Z.  Being digital natives doesn’t mean they don’t desire human interaction, and it definitely doesn’t mean they prefer digital platforms for everything.  In fact, give them a digital break once in a while.  They are tech and social media savvy, which sometimes means they are overly skeptical, which is honestly a good thing.  Anxiety about all aspects of current and future life is unending and often debilitating for them.  Unfortunately, we often make it more difficult for them as we are trying to help.  Investing the time and energy into building relationships needs to be a top priority if you wish to have a meaningful impact on their current and future lives.  Decision-making can be a lengthy process involving a variety of sources.  Gen-Z navigates not only the outside world around them, but a very anxious and emotional inside/personal world as well.  It has never been more important to meet a generation “where they’re at” than right now.  As we do so, we need to be real (authentic), be patient, and do our very best to speak their language both digitally and in-person.  They will appreciate this about us.  Gen-Z is our future, and should do our best to help.  Their success will be our success.  Their unique skills will find ways to serve and shape our world in meaningful and impactful ways. 

Just a few links to get you started.