For more than 30 years now, I have been tracking generational trends and changes. At first I noticed how Generation X differed from the Baby Boomers during the 1980s. Then, I began noticing how Millennials were breaking with Gen Xers in 2000. Today—I’m watching how Generation Z (today’s high school and college students) is separating themselves from Millennials.
Generation Z–as with any generation–is living in a new “narrative.” In today’s world, kids are growing up in a time that is both exhilarating and frightening for them. This is causing changes that can be difficult to understand. In fact, they are so different from older generations that parents and adult leaders can feel both frustrated with them and fearful for them at the same time.
Three Facts We Must Remember
What isn’t different about Generation Z is that students today are reacting to older generations in much the same way that youth have always reacted to their elders. Historians Neil Howe and William Strauss remind us that every generation naturally performs three acts as they mature. Each generation:
1. Breaks with the previous generation: “You are cool, but we are cooler.”
A Gen Z high school student may know a 30-year old Millennial who is now a young professional, a few years into their career. That Millennial is now an adult and has joined the establishment. Typically, a student views one generation ahead of them this way: “You are cool, but we are the newest form of cool.” You wear one brand of blue jeans, but we wear another. You grew up with one preferred platform of social media, we are growing up with another. You have your vernacular, but we have a new set of terms in our vocabulary. At one time, you were the cool kids; now we are. We will not imitate you and we don’t want to be identified with you—as lazy slackers; entitled employees or narcissistic people. We are gritty, we save money more than spend it and we will create our own reality, instead of buy into the company line. I believe Millennials can play the role of a “big brother” or “sister,” offering insight as to what’s ahead as Gen Z begins their career. Millennials should not try to win the “cool” war, but be the wise older sibling or uncle they can trust.
2. Corrects two generations older: “I won’t do what my parents did.”
As Gen Z matures, they perform a second act. They attempt to correct their parents’ generation, as if to say: “I love my mom and dad, but I will never do that with my kids.” Youthful populations intuitively feel they must react this way, even if it is a subconscious act. Mom and dad are OK, but they do not get where this world is going…like I do. They don’t understand social media the way I do; they dress older (even though they are trying desperately to look young) and they even talk in an antiquated fashion. Correcting may take a few forms. Gen Z and Gen X may share a similar skeptical paradigm, but the kids yearn to do something their parent’s generation failed to do. So, teens may identify with their parents but feel they must right the wrongs. Gen Xers must be secure enough to be the “bad cop” and risk not being “liked” each week by the Gen Z kids. They must be leaders who earn their respect, more than their friendship. Be real instead of trying to be cool.
3. Replaces three generations older than them: “I love ‘retro’ and cherish my grandparents generation.”
Finally, each youth generation tends to view their grandparent’s generation as one that’s slipping away, with all of its heritage and “retro” vibe. And often, the youth embrace it and want to replace it—from vinyl records and record players, to 70s memorabilia, to the music itself from that generation. As they see an aging generation threaten to pass away, they don’t want to lose it. I have spoken to many parents and grandparents who confirm that the children often bond quicker to the elders than mom and dad. Grandparents are seen as intriguing and almost vintage. And their scarcity is increasing. Those grandparents are similar, and yet so different, having grown up in different times, so they may have the intrigue of a cross-cultural relationship. Boomers and Builders should play the role of mentor, reminding Gen Z of the timeless virtues and skills they will need, even in the 21s century.
Keep in mind, this is not an exact science, but rather social science. Certainly, different personalities play a role in how generations connect or fail to connect. It’s now our turn to lead the young. So, my questions for you are:
- What is your approach as you connect with students today?
- Are you playing the appropriate role based on how they see you?
- What value do you add to their life?
Order Now: Marching Off the Map
Inspire Students to Navigate a Brand New World
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.
From decades of research and hands-on experience, Dr. Tim Elmore and Andrew McPeak collate their conclusions into one resource 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 mentally, 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