The Great Divide Between Generation Z and Millennials

I recently met a woman who’s 99 years old. She’s amazing and still able to articulate the vast history she lived through during the 20th century. She was born on the heels of World War I and remembers people talking about the battles fought in Europe, women’s voting rights and the economic depression. She literally attended a one-room schoolhouse.

She and I had an intriguing conversation about changes through the generations.

Every Generation Has a Narrative

Every generation can be described by narratives. Those narratives make up the way a generation thinks and acts, as adolescents and adults. For instance, while all Baby Boomers didn’t smoke pot, enjoy free sex, participate in protests and love rock and roll, those components were integrated into the narrative of the youth population in the 1960s. It was a time of expanding self-confidence for youth. Generation X grew up after those Boomers, during the time of the birth control pill, the Vietnam War, the Watergate scandal and rising divorce rates, hence embodying a more jaded paradigm as they entered adulthood. It was a time of skepticism and cynicism. You get the idea.

Knowing this should never lead to stereotyping. Every individual is unique and no one wants to be put into a “box” where others assume they know exactly who you are based on your age, gender, ethnicity or creed. However, knowing the narratives that shaped each generation—and how each reacts to former generations—is helpful in understanding a person’s psyche. At Growing Leaders, our speaker team has done an increasing number of events around the world on “generational diversity.” It’s a hot topic because five generations are alive and well today, influencing each other.

Today, the newest generation is distancing themselves from the Millennials.

How Generation Z Is Breaking with the Millennials

So, just how is today’s population of kids breaking with the one before them? As I dig through the data, the following are meta-narratives that Millennials bought into that Generation Z has discovered did not work for them:

1. “Just go to college and you’ll get a great job.”

This is a narrative almost every Millennial embraced. In 2000 when the first batch of them were preparing to graduate high school, 90 percent of teens planned to go to college. After all, parents told them: “Just go to college and you’ll launch a great career.” Afterward, too many of them were unable to find that great job. Plus, they were $28,000 in debt and they had to move back home and take a job folding clothes at the Gap. Generation Z watched this, and now they plan to find their own way into a career, mixing and matching post-secondary prep experiences. Many still attend a college, but more are leaving the stereotype.

Question: How can you help students make wise decisions as they graduate?

2. “You are special and will do special things.”

We’ve all heard it before. Millennials grew up with syrupy lines that parents offered to help them feel good about themselves. Our cars bore bumper stickers saying we were the parents of an honor roll student. We gave them trophies and ribbons just for participating. Our message was that kids are special and deserve to be treated that way. This fostered an entitled attitude that came back to haunt them as young employees. Generation Z has begun to see the consequences and knows they have to do something to feel special.

Question: How can you build good self-esteem while equipping them to solve problems in order to feel special?

3. “Share anything you want on social media.”

For years Millennials posted everything they did on social media. Some posted selfies of them drinking at that big party they attended on Friday, only to have a potential employer reject their application at a job interview on Monday because they saw that picture. Generation Z may share the same addiction to posting, but has learned to use Snapchat and Whispr where the photos can be sent to specific people and go away within seconds. They are more cautious and savvy than their Millennial counterparts.

Question: How can you help students make wise choices on social media?

4. “You can do anything you want to do.”

While I said this to my kids when they were young, I changed my tune as I saw the unintended consequences of it. A growing number from Gen Z has spotted the flaw in the statement too. Our life and career goals must be compatible with our talents and strengths. We can’t randomly decide to be a football star, a fashion model or a celebrity. Too many Millennials possessed a superficial set of goals without thinking deeply about them. Generation Z has seen that and has come away much more cautious about career pursuits. They also saw their older counterparts lack grit and resilience, and they want to correct that too.

Question: How can you enable students to choose careers based on strengths?

5. “You’re a winner and winners don’t fail.”

This is yet another line parents fed their kids beginning 30 years ago. The result was that kids began to fear failing—at anything. School courses. Games. Contests. Relationships. Sports. You name it. We created a “fixed mindset” instead of a “growth mindset” in our young. Many kids stopped trying to do anything they felt they couldn’t be the best at doing. Generation Z wants to be different, but is not sure how. We adults must create different messaging to students today. We must affirm effort, resilience, work ethic and good strategy, which can be replicated as they mature into adulthood.

Question: How can you remove the fear of failure from students?

I believe it’s our job to keep up with the shifts in culture and in our students, in order to lead them well and offer them what they need most.

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The Great Divide Between Generation Z and Millennials