How Generation Z Works

college students with selfie
Recognize them? Yep, they're Generation Z. NoSystem images/Getty Images

They are your sons and daughters. They populate your neighborhoods, their thumbs spastically banging out two-way conversations composed entirely of over-punctuated and under-constructed sentences. They may even work for you. Eventually, you will work for them.

This is Generation Z, and they have never known a world without the Internet, cell phones or iPods.


Experts disagree on when exactly Gen Z begins. Some argue that the inaugural members were born as early as 1991 and as late as 2001 [sources: Hawkins, Schmidt], while others contend that anyone born after 1995 is part of Gen Z [source: Walliker]. What is not in dispute, however, is what sets this generation apart from any that came before, and that's the unique era in which they are being raised.

This group has lived their entire life with instant access to mountains of data on any topic that flutters through their imaginations. They've never known the frustration or sheer physical effort of rifling through the M-O volume of the encyclopedia to find out about the Magna Carta. They're technologically savvy and just as likely to spend their time writing and programming video games as simply playing them.

But they're also coming up in a world shaped by 9/11, Columbine and the War on Terror. They have a sense of social justice, philanthropy and maturity that comes with growing up during one of the most severe economic recessions in history.

In this article, we'll take a closer look at who these kids are, why their approach to life is different from the generations to come before them, and what their impact on society is likely to be. It's in your best interest to keep reading because this group is only getting larger and more influential.


Understanding Generation Z

Kids these days. They prefer texting to actually holding a conversation with someone. The invention of short message service (SMS) makes you wonder how necessary the telephone would have been if Alexander Graham Bell had thought of texting first. The number of teenagers who use text messages to communicate has increased from 38 percent to 54 percent in just 18 months [source: Ludden].

The reason for this preference could be a matter of frequency rather than convenience. Instead of having a single face-to-face or phone conversation that may cover a multitude of topics over several minutes, teens would rather communicate in spurts of shorter, but more frequent, bursts of information [source: Lenhart]. And this gets to the heart of one of Gen Z's key differentiators: They crave constant and immediate feedback [source: Holmes]. This is the result of having every whim addressed with a few keystrokes. Want to know who played bass on the last White Stripes album? Google it. Forgot which chapters to read for biology? Text a classmate. The days of leaving a voicemail or shooting off an e-mail and waiting for a reply are long gone, and may have never really been part of this group's routine anyway. They need information now, and they have the tools to get it.


But if this makes Gen Z seem like an over-stimulated, impatient lot, then consider for a second the challenges they recognize in their future. For their entire lives, they've heard about the dangers of global warming, been subjected to terror alerts of varying colors and watched their parents weather the recent economic crisis. As a result, they're growing up fast and developing sensitivities beyond their years. For example, in a study conducted by Harris Interactive, 30 percent of students stated that the financial stability of their families is a concern [source: Posnick-Goodwin].

They see themselves as the solution to these problems and, as a result, are more likely to pursue careers they think will help society. And because of their ubiquitous use of social networking, they're quick to jump in and help when their circle of contacts alerts them to a need. This use of mobile technology makes them more available and being solicited by friends is more likely to interest them [source: Berland].

These are just some of the things that make Gen Z tick. In the next section, we'll explore some of the clashes that are occurring between these up-and-comers and the adults who are always on their cases.


Generation Z and the Lame-Os in Charge

Gen Z students present unique challenges to teachers.
Jupiterimages/┬ęGetty Images/Goodshoot/Thinkstock

Every generation has trouble with the one that comes behind them. Their clothes don't fit right (or fit too right), their music is too loud and they have no respect for anything. When Elvis Presley shook his moneymaker on the "Ed Sullivan Show," it may have been the first time generational cultural differences hit the mainstream with such fanfare. But if he were alive today, Elvis the Pelvis would be 76 years old.

Things change faster than anyone realizes, and they rarely go back. Educators are on the front lines of the Gen Z migration into adolescence, and they recognize that this group is different. One of the challenges the constant flow of information presents is that when tasked with solving a problem, today's students look for the quick answer rather than work toward solving the problem on their own. Their instinct is to pursue speed instead of accuracy [source: Hawkins].


Maybe the biggest hurdle facing teachers is that they're not on their home turf. They've had to learn technology as it was developed, experiencing these advancements as they happen while their students are "digital natives," meaning they've been raised in an environment where every piece of technology is intuitive, logical and mature.

At home, Gen Z is being raised by statistically older parents, and they may be the last wave in a four-stage generational cycle that repeats itself [source: Neal, Strauss]. Members of Generation X, or the MTV Generation, are now the parents, and they're more likely to be divorced and to work outside the home [source: Fleming].

According to some, this absenteeism compounds an issue already at work in Gen X's parenting style: overindulgence. The overriding desire for parents today is to raise children with high self-esteem, even if that means never correcting them or challenging them to achieve something beyond their reach. This approach to attachment parenting could be Gen X looking to overcompensate for being raised by Baby Boomers, who bucked traditional roles in the marriage, experienced the first spike in divorce rates and virtually invented the latchkey kid [source: Sanders].

The combination of the independence gained from powerful, mobile technology and the constant sense of affirmation from their parents has produced a sense of entitlement in Gen Z that can be seen as a double-edged sword. They have the resources and initiative to make positive changes where they see the need but may not have the experience with failure necessary to know what it takes to persevere.

In the next section, we'll take a look at what Generation Z will be when they grow up. Hint: anything they want to be.


When Generation Z is in Charge

Spend 40 hours a week in a cramped little cubicle, doing the same job for the rest of my life? No thanks, says Gen Z.

One in four Americans is younger than 18 [source: US Census Bureau], and that demographic is growing. Barring an unforeseen zombie outbreak, the world will be theirs to run one day. So, what are we in for?

Fortunately, it looks as though the planet is in capable hands. We've already discussed their technological savvy and how information is at their fingertips, but this group is also more self-directed [source: Trunk]. Kids today have little need to await direction. They can access whatever information they need relatively freely and that information is usually enough to base a decision on. Where previous generations had to rely on a parent or teacher or supervisor to explain something, Gen Z isn't bound by those constraints and can access the info they need when they need it and get to work.


In the workplace, they're going to expect flexibility. When baby boomers entered the workforce, working for the same company their entire career was a barometer of success. Gen Z is going to have little interest in being a desk jockey for 40 hours a week [source: Page]. Instead, they'll view themselves as professional, permanent freelancers. They will swoop in with their particular expertise (they'll all be an expert in something), collect their bones and be off to the next project. At least that's how they see themselves.

Finally, they're going to be smart -- smarter even than previous generations, argue some. Their ability to process massive amounts of information quickly is actually preparing them to perform more mentally demanding jobs. In effect, an entire generation is training itself to handle more complicated tasks [source: Trunk].

So take heart. While they may seem like self-centered prima donnas now, there is reason to believe that today's kids will have both the intelligence and sense of social responsibility to contribute in ways that will outlast their ridiculous haircuts.


Generation Z: Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • Berland, Michael. "What America Cares About: Compassion Counts More Than Ever." Parade. (March 27, 2010)
  • Derryberry, Adam. "Dispatch from the Digital Frontier: Insights From and About Generation Z." Learning Solutions. (April 26, 2011).
  • Fleming, Katherine. "Meet Generation Z." Marie Claire. (Oct. 29, 2010)
  • Hawkins, Peter and Lucinda Schmidt. "Gen Z: Digital Natives." Essential Baby. (July 18, 2008)
  • Howe, Neal and William Strauss. "Generations: The History of America's Future, 1584 to 2069." Quill. (Sept. 30, 1992)
  • Lenhart, Amanda. "Teens, Cell Phones, and Texting." Pew Research Center. (April 20, 2010).
  • Ludden, Jennifer. "Teen Texting Soars: Will Social Skills Suffer?" NPR. (April 20, 2010)
  • Posnick-Goodwin, Sherry. "Is Gen Z Growing Up too Fast?" California Teachers Association. (June 22, 2011)
  • Posnick-Goodwin, Sherry. "The Most Technologically Advanced yet." California Teachers Association. (June 22, 2011)
  • Posnick-Goodwin, Sherry. "Meet generation Z." California Teachers Association. (June 22, 2011)
  • Sanders, Bethany. "Is Generation X Raising Generation Rude?" Parent Dish. (May 14, 2009)
  • Schmidt, Lucinda and Peter Hawkins. "Gen Z: digital natives". Essential Baby. (July 18, 2008)
  • Sohn, Emily. "As Boomers Retire, Millennials Make Their Mark." Discovery News. (May 17, 2011)
  • Trunk, Penelope. "What Generation Z will be Like at Work." (July 27, 2009)
  • Walliker, Annalise. "Generation Z Comes of Age." Herald Sun. (Feb. 25, 2008)
  • Zumbach, Lauren. "The New Twitter Revolution." The Huffington Post. (May 9, 2011)