A Clear P.I.C.T.U.R.E. of Generation Z
By Andrew McPeak
Today’s blog is an excerpt from the upcoming book, “Ready for Real Life.” Be on the lookout for the upcoming pre-order of “Ready for Real Life” coming soon.
For more than a decade now, we at Growing Leaders have been giving adults training and advice for how to best understand and engage their students. In this time, the gaps that exist between generations have only grown wider. Today, Generation Z presents a great challenge to teachers, parents, coaches, and leaders who feel like they just started to understand Millennials, the generation who came before Z.
I’d like to use a simple acronym to present you with a handful of characteristics that reveal how Generation Z is different from previous generations who’ve come before them. Consider this “P.I.C.T.U.R.E.” to be something of a personal profile on the most important traits of the students we lead today. As we explore each characteristic, I will also give you a belief statement that goes along with each ideal. Some of these beliefs are so ingrained into Generation Z’s psyche that, though they believe them, they may not have spoken these statements out loud.
Today, there is a massive difference between the moral panic around television in the 1960s or video games in the 2000s and the smartphones that are in the pockets of 95% of teenagers in the U.S. The difference is privatization and personalization. TV and even many cooperative video games are communal devices — ones that create a shared experience for all who are watching and playing.
In contrast, today’s devices and profiles are customized to each individual — providing a place where they can explore, discover, and learn all on their own. Today, this is fueling many tweens and teens to create private spaces of self-expression like “Finstas” and Tumblr pages where they can create and share without needing to socialize those ideas or beliefs with others.
Generation Z’s Belief: “I deserve a place to hide from the world.”
While the image of young people challenging systems, marching for rights, or protesting injustices is nothing new, today’s generation has elevated cultural disruption of the status quo as one of their highest values. Today’s young people who make up Generation Z are a part of the most diverse generation in history. Diversity is a term that not only reflects their racial and cultural make-up. They are also diverse in their perspectives — something that is both allowed for and perpetuated by their personalized devices.
Youth are disrupting almost every industry and ideology, largely due to their desire to incite a more diverse and equitable society — a noble goal that certainly has had many positive effects. In many spaces, this disruption is being called “deconstruction.” Youth today are deconstructing everything from the definitions of words like “male” and “female,” to the expectations on employers for emotional support and workplace flexibility. Unsurprisingly, Generation Z shows a higher distrust in traditional institutions than any generation ever surveyed.
Generation Z’s Belief: “I don’t have to follow anything I don’t believe.”
A 2020 survey of 8–12-year-olds was conducted through a joint partnership of Harris Poll and LEGO® in the US, UK, and China to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the moon landing. Their goal was to ascertain how many kids were excited about space travel. “The survey,” however, “revealed that today’s children are three times more likely to aspire to be a YouTuber (29%) than an Astronaut (11%).”
YouTube is now the most used social media platform among Generation Z, with 95% of respondents in a 2021 Pew Research survey saying they use the platform and 54% saying they use the platform “daily.” But Generation Z isn’t just watching; they are also creating. After watching amateur YouTube stars step into the realm of celebrity, Generation Z kids see creativity on social platforms as a path to both status and success.
Generation Z’s Belief: “I can make something that goes viral.”
While the anxiety epidemic first began appearing almost a decade ago, the global pandemic and rising expectations on youth today have made it difficult to function in daily life for the average student. The Mental Health in America research group found in 2022 that “15.08% of youth (age 12–17) report suffering from at least one major depressive episode in the past year,” a number that increased 1.24% from 2021.
Years ago, we began hearing the term FOMO used to describe the feeling of not being able to live up to the perceived expectations of others — especially after spending time watching the perfected versions of other people’s lives on social media. Our focus groups with Generation Z further confirmed that Generation Z feels huge amounts of pressure to rise to the unrealistic expectations set by the world around them.
Generation Z’s Belief: “I can’t live up to others’ expectations.”
In generations past, kids were exposed to adult experiences and ideas gradually as they grew older and mature enough to handle them. Today, we unleash members of Generation Z into the world, or rather, we unleash the world onto them. At 10, 11, and 12 years old, children are given unfettered access to the world in many western countries.
Exposure to graphic images of violence, sex, and lewd humor, as well as the oversimplification of political, religious, and philosophical ideas on small-minded platforms like TikTok and Twitter are causing undue harm. This early foray into the adult world is a key factor in youth stress, addiction, and may even be contributing to risky behavior in early teen life.
Generation Z’s Belief: “I should have access to everything.”
Years ago, I was speaking to a group of seventh graders in a focus group and a young girl shared something I’ll never forget. “I stay up about three hours past my bedtime,” she told me. “I mostly watch YouTube. I can’t really sleep until I do it.” One of the fascinating and unintended consequences of the exposure to unlimited media and the lack of barriers to access for most children is the rise of restlessness.
Kids today get less sleep than previous generations. Rather than getting sleep, 12-year-olds today, like the one I met several years ago, consume media, take online quizzes, talk with friends, and expand their knowledge. While none of these things are wrong in and of themselves, these same activities become unhelpful and even harmful when they are happening at one a.m.
Generation Z’s Belief: “I must keep up with everything.”
The word entitled has been so weaponized against the next generation that I nearly left it off this list. Especially because, if I may state the obvious, we are all entitled today. The difference is that youth today only know a world with high-speed internet, live notifications, and two-day (and sometimes even two-hour) shipping. We expect the world to come to us how we want it and when we want it. The promise of the technological world is coming to fruition with each passing day, though we might now need to reframe our question.
Rather than asking, “Have we made a better world?” we should ask, “Has our ‘better world’ made a better us?” Entitlement is the consequence of believing you can give a generation of kids what they want, when they want it, while simultaneously expecting them to gain all of the positive characteristics of a quality human being.
Generation Z’s Belief: “I deserve to have what I want—now.”
Do you see any of these characteristics in the Generation Z students you are leading? In the comments, tell us what you are doing to address these beliefs.
This blog was an excerpt from Andrew McPeak’s upcoming book: “Ready for Real Life.” “Ready for Real Life” defines the five core soft skills all students need. Using compelling stories and practical ideas, this book shows how these five skills, though timeless in human history, are still relevant in the 21st century. The pre-order for “Ready for Real Life” will be launching soon.