The oldest members of Generation Z (b. 1996-2012) are now in college and beginning to enter the workforce. While they share some of the values and views of Millennials, they are also distinct in many ways. Gen Z grew up in a post-9/11 world and experienced an economic recession. They watched parents, aunts, and uncles lose jobs. They watched older siblings and cousins drowning in college debt as they struggled to start their careers. Terrorist attacks, school shootings, and deep social divides have played out on the devices they carry in their pockets, or place under their pillows, making the troubles of the world very real and ever present in their lives. They have grown up in a culture of fear. Nonetheless, this generational cohort has some incredible strengths that are already beginning to reveal themselves.
Self-Learners. Gen Z has unprecedented access to information. Unlike any generation before them, they can engage the broader world at an early age. My daughters frequently ask questions like, “What sound does a giraffe make?” knowing that within a few seconds we can find a video of a giraffe making sounds. I have a friend whose teenage daughter taught herself to play violin by watching Youtube videos. Gen Z possesses a healthy sense of curiosity and they have the tools to pursue their interests and find information quickly. One result of this is the elimination of natural opportunities for mentoring. Instead of asking a teacher, parent, or coach for information, providing an opportunity for an intergenerational conversation, they often go to their devices to find answers. As a result, we must find ways to be more intentional as we seek to engage them in relationships.
Entrepreneurial. Because of the vast technological tools at their fingertips, Gen Z feels empowered to act independently. They do not have to wait for someone to give them an opportunity to make money, learn, create, or connect. They can record videos, create music, start businesses, and connect with people around the world with the resources on their devices. As a result, they are incredibly entrepreneurial. In fact, 72% of high school students want to start their own business someday. Colleges and businesses seeking to recruit Gen Z need to be aware of this and prepare to foster this entrepreneurial approach to learning and work. Already 34% of U.S. workers are freelancers and the gig economy shows signs of continued growth. Gen Z fits firmly into this trend. We may need to rethink how we are educating a new generation of workers who see themselves as entrepreneurs.
Pragmatic. Gen Z is proving to be practical and self-focused in their views of the future. One benefit of this is that they see the need for long-term goals and are often willing to sacrifice in the moment for future security. In fact, recent studies show that Gen Z has more self-control than kids did decades ago. While financial security is the goal of many young people today, for those committed to something greater than themselves, their pragmatic perspective on the world can help them make sound decisions and persevere beyond the challenges of the moment.
While technology addiction, rising rates of depression and mental illness, and fear can threaten the potential of Gen Z, there is great reason to hope. This new cohort brings perspectives and skills well-suited for the world in which they will live and lead. They desperately need mentors, teachers, and leaders who can see their strengths, and who are committed to helping them develop those skills. They need encouragement and wisdom as they learn to thrive!
Dr. Jolene Erlacher is a wife, mommy, author, speaker, college instructor and coffee drinker who is passionate about empowering the next generation of leaders for effective service!