12 Truths about Gen Z, the students coming to your high school classroom this fall

A few years ago, I had a conversation with a student from Generation Z, the demographic slice of our young population that is at this time, 13-22 years old. This conversation was with someone from the cohort who is just about to enter the workforce at time of writing.

From that conversation, I recall several times when the student said, “We are individuals and would like our teachers not to treat us like statistics.” At that time, my concern as a principal was to listen to the student and her cohort, and involve them in creating a school environment wherein they would thrive.

Now thinking back as I begin some research into this generation called Gen Z in the 40 studies to date that have been written about them and their generational personality, I can’t help hearing the echoes of that student who years ago told me, “not to treat us like statistics.” And, I am learning now that what worked for millennials a decade ago is not going to work as well with Gen Z.

Ironically, many of the white papers published regarding Gen Z’s demographic personality present ideas based on statistical data. Quantitative measures from these business-based studies have made it easy to recommend what the white papers intend, which is how to market to this generation.

We can do our best to get a sense of what the data might suggest to us for education and schools. I prefer to look at the data as behavioural predispositions, not for prediction but as ways to understand what’s important to these learners. 

Making sense of Gen Z

  1. A Gen Z profile trait is a belief in a lifelong construction of identity. 

A comparison of generations shows that each generation has its social cause to rally around. For Gen Z, this value is human equality. Research suggests that Gen Z is vocal about its support of non-binary identification (Fromm and Read, 2018), with only 48 percent boxing gender into the binary male-female categories. 

They have never known a world without conflict and terrorism, and they have grown up with images of displacement, disruption and rapid change. This generation’s early immersion into the VUCA— a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world—seems to have predisposed their mental models toward a social consciousness accepting of diversity and inclusion. 

2. They are a mobile-first generation. 

This demographic of 13-22 year olds report that 95% of them have a smartphone and over half of them use it 5 hours a day (Villa, et al., 2019). The cellphone is an integral part of their toolkit for problem-solving and research. 75 % of Gen Z use their cell phones for connection, and they see online and offline lives as seamlessly integrated (Fromm and Read, 2018). For this generation, using the mobile phone allows them to engage in virtual conversations with the wider world while maintaining their strong ties to their face to face circles.

3. They curate their social media. 

Gen Z are particular about which social media platform fits a personal purpose. They are not skimming through the web as they scroll, swipe and tap their phone screens. Instead, they prefer to interact selectively online. Each platform has a specific purpose and a specific group. Gen Z have particular criteria for the utility, social value, and benefit of specific platforms.

Gen Z also eschew the self-preoccupation with lifestyle minutiae and curate their social media personas with intentionality. They will not stream every detail of their day but will share socially-conscious, value-driven content on Instagram.

4. They like being productive.

Fromm and Read cite the Cassandra Report suggesting that 89 percent of Gen Z prefer productivity to ‘hanging out.’ They seem to prize smart thinking and problem solving, creativity, and a strong work ethic. Eighty-eight percent of Gen Z plan on going to university, and focus on work that offers financial stability such as STEM (Fromm and Read, 2019). A study discussed in Fromm and Read’s book shows that 52 percent of Gen Z use Youtube to learn and augment their skills in mathematics or writing. Self-improvement is a theme that seems to run through their world, both virtual and offline, and they appreciate experiences that help them evolve skills or allows them to interact with current ideas.

5. They can multi-task across screens.

Having grown up immersed in technology, Gen Z seem to show “the ability to multi-task across five screens at one time (television, phone, laptop, desktop and either a tablet or handheld gaming device” (Fromm & Read, 2018). They seem to hold the capacity to cross the virtual and real life boundaries quickly and effortlessly. With Gen Z, the boundaries between virtual environments and their real-life experience are invisible and intangible.

4. Their attention span is around 8 seconds.

Gen Z seems to have a short attention. In this 8-second window, Gen Z expects to be able to filter fast through the information to find what they value or what interests them (Fromm & Read, 2018). 

5. They appreciate efficient processes.

Experiences Gen Z’ers seek are seamless and efficient. For example, 60% of Gen Z reports they think a job application should take less than 15 minutes (Villa et al., 2018). 

6. They may be more savvy with money. 

Having grown up in a financial recession, Gen Z seems to consider financial empowerment as an essential pursuit. The Center for Generational Kinetics (2018) reports that “Nearly a quarter of Gen Z is working part-time job, 23% does odd jobs and other short-term work, and 22% earn allowance with chores and other responsibilities.”

The report also adds that Gen Z’ers want information before spending the money they earn. They crowdsource their decisions to purchase by first reading an average of 9 reviews before deciding to spend their money on a purchase (Villa et al., 2019).

7. They are not star-struck.

Gen Z follow influencers on social media, and these influential voices are not necessarily celebrities and star athletes. 

8.  They are a highly visual generation of communicators.

They follow influencers on Instagram and get their news from Twitter. They are more likely to believe video ads. Gen Z also communicate visually through GIFs, emojis and symbolic texts. They also learn visually before they read. With their ability to scan quickly for interest, visual material seems to be a way to capture their curiosity before they engage in slower processes, such as dialog or conversation.

9. They are communicators. 

Gen Z prefer dialog to debate.

They may interact with institutions which do not reflect their own values without discarding their values. “Rather than spurn an institution altogether, Gen Z would rather engage with it to extract whatever makes sense for them” (Villa et al., 2018). This fits with their value of individual identity, rejection of stereotypes, and a large dose of pragmatism.

10. They like feedback. 

For Gen Z in the workplace, 60 percent say they would need feedback from their supervisor at least every few weeks to stay committed to a job. 20% say they need daily or multiple times daily feedback to stay with an employer (Villa et al., 2018). This preference for feedback seems to suggest alignment with the gaming mindset. 

Gamers are seeking constant feedback. In a game, there is a steep learning curve or the player’s avatar dies quickly. There is also hierarchy of skill, and the player advances to a more advanced stage when he or she masters specific skills. The gaming mindset is an environment that provides instant feedback for actions taken, and Gen Z seems to have transferred this dynamic to their work lives.

11. They appreciate and look for coherence and congruence. 

The brands that Gen Z prefer have a set of values that align with their intentions and actions. 

A 2017 ad by Pepsi featuring Kendall Jenner and a youth protest march made headlines from the feedback it provoked from Gen Z. The ad shows a youth protest featuring vague slogans. The ad presents its message by quickly cutting back and forth between the protesting youth and smiling, Pepsi-drinking people, including Jenner. The ad was later pulled after backlash that the ad ‘trivialized’ the Black Lives Matter movement which was at the time responding to police brutality toward black youth.

Gen Z dislikes incongruence between values and actions. This generation appreciates authenticity.

65 percent of Gen Z try research the backstory behind what they buy: where it is made, what it is made of, how it is produced.

12. Gen Z prioritise relationships.

In 2018, 26 percent of middle year aged Gen Z’ers were actively serving as volunteers. 60 percent want to engage in work that makes a positive difference to the world, and 76 percent are concerned about environmental effects of human activity. It should not be surprising that the climate change protests sprouted so many gatherings from all over the globe, organised by Gen Z’ers.

The information that we find on Gen Z is a beginning, and it may be an inadequate source of robust information to create environments wherein these young people can thrive. There is no doubt that the educator who intends to help learners in Gen Z thrive can learn from the research data. 

And, having statistically-based information in hand does not prevent us from getting to know each student as he or she is. If there is one thing that resonates in the information on Generation Z, it is that they are looking to partner with us in creating the environments they need to thrive. 

Want to stay in touch with this topic? The Learners Toolbox Newsletter dives into issues like generational savvy and collaboration with students to create environments where learners thrive. Subscribe to the Toolbox and let us send you resources straight into your inbox.

P. S. We also have a book coming out in less than 3 weeks.


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    Francis, T. And Hoegel, F. (2018). True Gen: Generation Z and its implications for companies. McKinsey & Company. Retrieved on 4 July 2019 from https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/consumer-packaged-goods/our-insights/true-gen-generation-z-and-its-implications-for-companies.

    Fromm, J., & Read, A. (2018). Marketing to Gen Z: The Rules for Reaching This Vast–and Very Different–Generation of Influencers [Kindle iOS version]. Retrieved from amazon.com.

    Fry, R. & Parker, K. ( 2018, November 05). Early benchmarks show ‘Post-Millenials’ on track to be the most diverse, best-educated generation yet; A demographic portrait of today’s 6- to 21-year olds. Pew Research Center. Retrieved 7 July from https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2018/11/15/early-benchmarks-show-post-millennials-on-track-to-be-most-diverse-best-educated-generation-yet/

    Kendall & Kylie (2017, April 04). Kendall Jenner for PEPSI Commercial. Retrieved July 10, 2019, from https://youtu.be/dA5Yq1DLSmQ

    Victor, D. (2017, April 05). Pepsi Pulls Ad Accused of Trivializing Black Lives Matter. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/05/business/kendall-jenner-pepsi-ad.html

    Villa, D., & Denison, E., & Dorsey, J. (2018). The State of Gen Z 2018; Unexpected insights into how Gen Z is impacting everything from technology and brans to social media and the workplace. The Center for Generational Kinetics. Retrieved on 3 July 2019 from www.genHQ.com.

    “The ultimate guide to marketing to Gen Z in 2019.” Retrieved on 5 July 2019  from https://www.campaignmonitor.com/resources/guides/guide-to-gen-z-marketing-2019/#two.

    Featured Photo by Claudiu Pusuc on Unsplash

    Author: alavina

    Cognitive Coach and author. I simplify personal power so you can use mental resources and find pathways to your goals, be more productive and feel in control every day.

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