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Four Paradoxes Today’s Students Experience

Sophie, a 17-year old junior in high school, said it best: “I think I would have preferred growing up in the 90s.”

Today’s teens are the newest demographic with a label. They’re called Generation Z, the Centennials, The Pivotals, the iGeneration, the Mosaics and the Homelanders. According to British news source The Guardian, “They’ve grown up with social media, a constant proliferation of information on a fully mobile internet, the rise of Islamic State and other forms of terrorism. As these teenagers approach adulthood, against the political backdrop of Brexit and President Trump, how will they shape the future?”

My observation is simple.

They will be OK with irony. They’re a generation of paradox.

Four Paradoxes I See in the Students of Generation Z

Let me outline four specific paradoxes I see in our work with secondary schools and universities that describe the population born since the turn of the century. The Millennials are morphing into the Centennials or Gen. Z. According to historians Howe and Strauss, we must embrace a historical perspective. Every new generation:

  • Breaks with the previous generation.

(Generation Z will break with patterns of Generation Y).

  • Corrects the mistakes of two generations older.

(They will try to correct the mistakes of their parents’ generation.)

  • Replaces what three generations ago achieved.

(They’ll replace what they love about their grandparents’ generation.)

Four Paradoxes We’ve Found in Today’s Students:

1. They Are Connected, yet Lonely

They readily admit they experience shallow friendships. They’re connected to 1,000 friends, but do any of them really feel close? Maybe not. No doubt, all demographics today can experience this shallowness to a degree. We all have access to social media. Humans are social creatures and we generally long for a sense of community. We like to feel connected. However, it doesn’t surface in superficiality. Adolescents today are on a screen for the equivalent of a full-time job. This is good news and bad news. We are over-informed, but not always about ideas or thoughts that matter. And not always with relationships that matter. Often we care more about replying to a follower on Twitter we don’t even know than responding to a friend in the same room.

The Conversation to Have: Can you be comfortable on-line AND off-line, with people in face-to-face relationships? How are you developing your interpersonal skills?

2. They Are Indulged, yet Hyper-Stressed

Many of these students from the middle class and affluent homes are indulged by parents and technology. They are growing up in a world that is quick, convenient, entertaining, and safe, which often furnishes them with a sense of entitlement to a good life. Ironically, these same teens feel stressed out by the very lives they live. Mental health issues are expanding rapidly. TIME magazine felt this was such a vital issue in our culture, they documented this over-exposed generation of teens, saying: “Anxiety and depression in high school kids have been on the rise since 2012 after several years of stability. It’s a phenomenon that cuts across all demographics: suburban, urban and rural; those who are college bound and those who aren’t.”

The Conversation to Have: Can you unplug? Stress levels and anxiety will not decrease with meds alone. Challenge them to “fast” from technology for a day.

3. They Post Happy Selfies, yet Are Overtly Dissatisfied

Today’s teens are called the “selfie generation.” Social scientists predict the average teen will take 25,000 selfies in their lifetime. They seem to love themselves, their clothes, their vacations, their pets, even their food. At the same time, teens report being generally unhappy and discontented. “What we’re seeing is a generation of children who are expressing much more clearly that they are generally so unhappy with themselves and the situations around them,” says Emily Cherry, head of participation at the NSPCC. “Every time they switch on their phones they’re getting messages about parties they haven’t been invited to, or they’re seeing photos of their friends doing things, or their whole self-worth is based on how many likes they’re getting on Facebook. It absolutely permeates their sense of self-worth.”

The Conversation to Have: Can you replace FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) with FOMO (Fight for One Main Objective)? Challenge them to mono-task, not multi-task. Persuade them to pursue one important goal and not worry about activities they miss.

4. They Are Hopeful, yet Cynical

This one is probably true for every generation of teens, but is more tangible now than when older Millennials were adolescents. When 18-year olds had their first chance to vote in the November election, many elected…to not bother to vote. Neither candidate inspired most of them. While they still desire to change the world, too many have a “why bother?” attitude when it comes to involvement in civic responsibilities. Unlike the early Millennials, they may choose to work outside the boundaries of the establishment. It feels “corrupt” and some students have told me the “system seems like it’s rigged.” They can be both savvy and naïve at the same time. The phrase that came to my mind as I reviewed our 2016 focus group results was: “Students are coping and hoping.”

The Conversation to Have: Do you take time to play? In order to develop well, their brain needs margins in the day and unsupervised time to pursue their own goals. Self-directed and purposeful activity is almost always a cure for cynicism.

Are these conversation starters helpful? I can hardly wait to release content like this in a brand new book coming out this July, entitled Marching Off the Map: Inspiring Students to Navigate This Brand New World.


New Book: Marching Off the Map

Our new book is now available for preorder! Leading today’s students often feels like being in a new country with old maps that don’t work. Understanding and connecting with the generation in this land is often times frustrating and draining. We need new strategies on how to march off our old maps and create new ones.

This new resource collates decades of research and experiences into one practical guide that helps adults:

  • Inspire students to own their education and their future
  • Lead students from an attitude of apathy to one of passion through metacognition
  • Enable students to push back from the constant digital distractions and practice mindfulness
  • Raise kids who make healthy progress, both emotionally and intellectually, through their teenage years
  • Give students the tools to handle the complexities of an ever-changing world
  • Understand and practically apply the latest research on Generation Z

Pre-Order Here



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