Six Terms that Summarize Generation Z’s Mindset

In 2016, Growing Leaders hosted five focus groups, made up of high school and middle school teens, from various states across the U.S. Our purpose was to uncover the mindset of these students and how it has shifted from that of the Millennials.

Today, I offer you six commonly used terms that seem to summarize Gen Z (kids growing up in the 21st century). In addition, I will provide a summary of how we can best lead them, given their mindset (psyche) and circumstances.

1. DIY

You know this term: Do It Yourself. Today’s students have grown up in a world of “do it yourself”—from purchasing products on-line, to pumping gasoline, to tailoring their Nike shoes to Googling answers. Generation Z learned from their Millennial counterparts who believed what adults told them: graduate high school, do community service, get a degree from a four-year college and you’ll end up in a great job and career. For millions, life did not turn out this way. Gen Z plans to be less conventional with their future opportunities. They are “hackers” who plan to figure out what works best for them, even before they graduate.

Our response: Our leadership style should resemble The Home Depot motto: “You can do it. We can help.” Instead of hovering over them like helicopters, what if we let them process their goal and the steps to reach it—and we act like consultants, not supervisors.

2. GPA

This acronym has been used for decades to describe a student’s Grade Point Average. Over the last forty years, the importance of GPA has been rising among high school and college students. A recent Bates College study found that a high school GPA is the best indicator of success in college—not standardized test scores. It’s become so central that it’s produced anxiety among students who made it a “god,” not a “guide” for success. Today, although some colleges have lowered requirements due to lower enrollment, GPA remains a high priority for students and parents. In fact, the top two pressures teens feel today are family stress and their GPA.

Our response: Our style should resemble the Kit Kat slogan: Give Me a Break! Help students lighten up on the GPA scorecard. Academics are important but over-stressed students do worse on exams. Put grades in perspective and be sure kids have margin in the day to reflect on what they really learned. No doubt, some kids need to learn to concentrate—but many need to learn how to be at peace.

3. FYI

We use this term all the time: For Your Information. Generation Z is all about this: both sending and receiving more data than any generation before them. They’ve never known a day without social media. They no longer need adults to get information. What’s scary is—much of the information is fake, damaging or outright lies. But, alas, information rules the day. The information overload has led to angst and depression as kids’ brains consume more than 10,000 bits of data each day. Herbert Simon once said, “A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.”

Our response: We must help them “filter” the information coming at them. We must talk about what online content is worth their time and what isn’t. We must alert them to how damaging multiple personas on social media can be. We must help them to reject “friend requests” or sources of information that could be distracting or damaging. Students need to be encouraged to embrace the phrase: “Less is more.”

4. FOMO and FOLO

These terms have become popular over the last 5-7 years: Fear Of Missing Out and Fear Of Living Off-line. They arose due to social media posts revealing fun stuff going on in friends’ lives (particularly if you weren’t invited) and feeling your life pales in comparison. Hours on Instagram or Facebook actually foster angst and depression—from seeing how great others’ lives are (or at least “great lives” are being projected on social media). Let’s face it. Today, we have never been less self-aware, yet more socially aware. Further, much of what kids fear they’ll miss out on are unnecessary; like pictures of food on Instagram or ridiculous shows like The Kardashians or The Bachelorette.

Our response: Our leadership style should be more like Nike: “Just Do It.” Host conversations with students to show them that paranoia over what they’re missing causes them to miss out on what’s right in front of them. They frequently stress over items that are out of their control and miss items that are in their control.

5. OJT

We learned this term when we got our first job or perhaps when we launched our career: On the Job Training. Generation Z plans to be educated, but they intend to start working earlier than Millennials. They may be school “hackers” rather than attend a four-year liberal arts college. Their resume may look more like a “mutt” than a thoroughbred, as they do MOOCs (massive on-line, open courses), internships, gigs, and certificate programs. While GPA is important, OJT is on the rise as equally important.

Our response: Our leadership should mirror Aetna’s new slogan: You don’t join us. We join you. If students are going to practice metacognition, adults must let them do the work, create the plan, make the mistakes—and even fail. Not all high school grads should go to college, especially if career preparation is better found in vocational training or tech schools. The world is different now and employers know it.

6. OMG

This term is overused today, in my opinion. It’s commonly used on a text or via social media to express: “Oh My Gosh!” or “Oh My God!” This term describes the high level of emotion Gen Z experiences. In a global survey, teens’ view of their own generation is: lazy, curious, carefree, motivated, positive, and excited. That’s a pretty honest assessment. They’ve grown up in a day of hyperbole and nonsensical humor, as well as impulsive remarks on social media—and lots of emotion. To get heard, it seems you have to stretch the truth and use boatloads of exclamation points and emojis.

Our response: Back in 2005, Coca Cola first used the slogan: Make It Real, probably a derivative of their earlier phrase: It’s the real thing. The irony of students is that they claim to value authenticity, yet they may buy into more fake and disingenuous communication than anyone. We must remind them: Emotions make a wonderful servant but a poor master. Truth is most potent with no added artificial ingredients.

Question—Can you think of any other descriptors and solutions?

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Six Terms that Summarize Generation Z’s Mindset