Gen Z in the college classroom: how to best understand and teach the new generation of students?

I recently finished two books that offer some early evidence of the values and habits of the GenZ generation, those born in the late 1990s through the early 2010s. They are starting to enter college and for the first time my students will be of a different generation label than me. (Yes, it finally happened.)

These books are:

Some of the key take-aways about the Gen Zers from these two books include:

  • Coming of age during the global financial crisis of the late 2000s has often led them to be hyper-anxious about their future economic stability and security. “Getting a job” is the primary (if not exclusive) reason that most of them go to college.
    • “Happiness” tends to be equated with financial security and economic independence. That is the primary goal that they’re anxious and highly motivated to achieve before they reach 30.
    • They want practical, applicable knowledge and skills for job competitiveness.
    • The perceived need for college credentials has led to the accumulation of massive amounts of student debt, seeing it as a necessary step toward economic stability and self-sufficiency through a college degree, but has also been accompanied by widespread anxiety about the ability to ever pay the loans off.
    • Given these uncertainties, there is a general craving for predictability and order in an uncertain world. They are less likely to take risks than previous generations (fewer rates of drug use, teenage pregnancy, etc.) while simultaneously experiencing more anxiety about the future.
  • Digital natives — most have never known life without a smartphone. They are often constantly on their devices.
    • This has pros: easy and instant access to a world of information, being able to form social groups and find opportunities online, often becoming knowledge “specialists” rather than generalists.
    • It also has its cons: shorter attention spans, hyper-vigilance about online profiles, more difficult to foster interpersonal interaction skills, etc. It tends to produce rates of anxiety and depression at higher rates than previous generations.
  • Diversity is a given and to be celebrated, not a reality to be tolerated. About half identify as non-white.
    • Identity, including gender and sexuality, is considered fluid and self-determined.
    • To GenZers, the worst thing you can do is offend someone or make them think that you’re judging their self-selected values or identities.
  • Texting/instant messaging is the default communication method. Email is what adults do. Facebook is what they use to connect with older family and friends, but Twitter and Instagram are used to connect to peers.
  • They perceive effective leaders as those who can facilitate collective action and decision making to accomplish shared objectives, complex thinking, adaptability, interdependence. They want honesty and transparency in leadership instead of paternalistic information-shielding.
    • They do not tend to admire their bosses, religious leaders, celebrities, or political leaders.
  • They have grown up in a world where major institutions (economic, religious, political) have not produced many good results and have hurt the world in many ways, and so are skeptical of the virtue and effectiveness of institutions.

 

After reading these books, I am still ruminating on a series of questions regarding my vocation as a college professor:

  1. The culture of liberal arts colleges (and much of higher education in general) is to push back against the idea that a college education is merely an instrumental means to the ultimate goal of career preparation and economic security. We often explicitly remind students that becoming a well-educated person has its own intrinsic value as a step toward self-actualization and intellectual freedom, separate from whatever economic advantage it may give someone. But this research seems to indicate that economic security and “getting a job” is the top motivating concern and source of anxiety for the Gen Z generation. How should this inform the culture and values of our classrooms, syllabi, and institutions? Should it?
  2. To what extent is it the job of a college education to promote healthy technology skills and values? Should we be actively reminding students about how too much reliance on social media is associated with anxiety and depression? Should we be intentionally fostering healthier technology habits…? Or is that the job of some other institution (or at all)?
  3. How might we balance the very admirable values of inclusivity, mutual respect, and compassion that characterize the Gen Z generation with the need to teach and practice skills of argument, debate, and civil disagreement that are vital to democratic citizenship?
  4. Should college professors take the reality of shorter attention spans as a given and actively create lesson plans accordingly? Or should professors work to help students foster longer attention spans by designing lesson plans that require sustained focus for long periods of time?
  5. How should colleges and professors respond to increasing levels of anxiety and depression among Gen Z students that seem to be strongly related to cell phone use and social media? To what extent should our lesson plans and group discussion formats be designed to minimize student anxiety? Is anxiety management within the purview of college instructors? We often say that learning most often occurs when students get “outside their comfort zone.” How might this be effectively accomplished in a way that does not increase already-higher-than-average levels of anxiety and depression?

Discuss.

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