What makes Gen Z tick? You may be surprised

We recently heard Dr. Corey Seemiller, who teaches in the department of Leadership Studies in Education and Organizations at Wright State University, give a talk about Generation Z — the cohort of young people born in the mid-1990s to early 2000s who are coming up behind the much-discussed and closely watched Millennials. Her observations about Gen Z, what makes them tick and what makes them stand out, were fascinating. We talked her into sharing more of her studies, captured in a book she co-authored with Meghan Grace, “Generation Z Goes to College.” This conversation is compiled from condensed, edited excerpts from articles by Seemiller and by her and Grace, all of which can be found at their site, genzgoestocollege.com. We recommend a visit. — Ron Rollins

Q: So, what is Generation Z? It seems like the world, especially the business world, is still trying to figure out how Millennials are changing things.

A: Right? It seems like just yesterday we were introduced to those elusive Millennials. They have come to college, gone into the workforce, and many are now well into their careers. But, we have crossed over a threshold in which a new generation has come into adulthood, and it seems like there is less buzz about them. They have been called Generation iY, Digital Natives, and even iGen, a take on Apple products. More often they are referred to as Generation Z.

Being that Generation Z is backed up against the Millennial generation, it might be easy to expect them to be similar. They are, however, quite different in many respects. Those in Generation Z identify as loyal and responsible as well as thoughtful and compassionate. They see the world’s problems as theirs to solve and approach life in a we-centric manner. This veers a bit from what we have seen from Millennials who, like Generation Z, care deeply about giving back to the community but do so in short bursts of intense volunteerism rather than how Generation Z prefers to engage with the community by addressing root causes of social ills.

Q: How are they different from other previous generations?

A: Every 15-20 years, a new generation emerges with a unique set of characteristics and behaviors shaped by the societal events of their youth. For Baby Boomers, it was the post-World War II economic and population boom. Generation X was shaped by the economic decline and spike in divorce rates that persisted throughout the '70s and '80s. The prosperity of the '90s is echoed in the optimism of Millennials and mirrors the prosperous economy their Baby Boomer parents grew accustomed to.

Generation Z grew up post-9/11 during the war on terror, an economic recession, and political battles over marriage equality, immigration, gun regulations and affordable health care. The Occupy Movement happened during their childhood, as did massive budget cuts to schools. They took more standardized tests than you can imagine and witnessed the booming growth of charter schools and for-profit higher education. They also saw the rapid development of social media platforms and do not know of a world in which they cannot stream nearly any show or movie and access thousands of their favorite songs online at any time.

Q: How do they see themselves?

A: They believe they possess high levels of leadership skills, and they intend to solve the world's problems. They have high, but realistic, hopes for themselves, which leaves us to have high hopes for them as well.

Q: Previous generations may have also felt that way. How are these young people different?

A: In some respects, they are like the students who came before them: seeking friends, purpose and support while in college. Yet, Generation Z is different in many ways and will bring new energy and perspectives to the communities they populate. They are motivated by making a difference for others and not so much by public recognition. Their social circles are diverse, and they are supportive of inclusive practices. They prefer to "do" rather than "lead" when working in groups. As much as they love their technology, they prefer face-to-face communication.

Q: What else?

A: They are social-change minded and would rather engage in community work that addresses the underlying cause of an issue than engage in short-term service to address the symptoms. They lean left on social issues and center to right on financial issues. They use social media, but prefer to share on Instagram and follow on Facebook and Twitter. To learn something new, they "YouTube it" before they "Google it." They are intrapersonal learners and prefer individual work over group work. They care passionately about issues related to education, employment and racial equality.

Q: Interesting. How has technology affected all this?

A: Gen Z students are true digital natives. Because technology has always played a major role in their lives, we can expect them to not only drive demand for new technologies, but to take it upon themselves to develop them, too. The "get it when you need it" accessibility of online information and resources has impacted nearly every aspect of daily life for Generation Z. High-speed Internet makes it easy to shop, stream movies, connect with friends and chat with customer support at any hour of the day. And where you used to have to wait for the 5 o'clock news or the daily paper, there are now 24-hour news channels and the ability to receive news alerts on mobile devices as events unfold. To those from previous generations, these are handy tools that have made life easier, but to Generation Z they are an indispensable part of everyday life.

Q: Relate them to, say, yourself at the same age.

A: Gen Z is in the know. Our study revealed that more than half believe they are well versed in nearly all major current issues and keep up regularly on what is going on in the world. We all know that their access to what can feel like unlimited information contributes to their ability to stay informed; especially in the clever ways they consume it. Animated GIFs, top 10 lists, trending hashtags, and video clips that populate their social media are countless. Although it can be argued that cats with wigs or dancing rabbits do not necessarily constitute groundbreaking news, this type of edutainment format allows them to consume more serious news in interesting ways. They can read a Buzzfeed list about the economy, view memes that sum up a political debate in one minute, and read blog after blog on any topic they want.

Q: Older folks might actually consider that shallow, however.

A: Not all their news involves these approaches, though. They also get news in more traditional ways like through push notifications from news sites to their phones, updates posted on their social media, and like other generations, they look up information online to learn more about big events and breaking news.

But, it is not just access to news content that makes them smarter. Boomers at this age were entranced in a me-centric world. This may not differ from others who identify as Gen Xers or Millennials. But, Generation Z is different. They are a we-centric generation that cares more about all of us than about themselves. We found through our study that 75 percent of them care most deeply about issues that have a far-reaching impact, even if they personally are not affected. That is because they deeply care about people. This emotionally intelligent generation will combine the knowledge they consume from around them with the compassion and loyalty that describe them, resulting in what I think might be one of the smartest generations in history.

Q: Some of your articles and posts have delved into different Gen Z “identities.” Talk about those a bit.

A: Well,we talk about the "artist," in the sense of how nowadays, social media and technology have made creative pursuits different for these young people. Musicians, for instance — in the past, musicians who wanted to get their music out there would send recordings to studio after studio hoping for someone to listen to the demo. And, others would hope that a record exec would show up at the county fair or local mall to stake out new talent. Although these are still ways that musicians can get discovered, social media has created an outlet that never existed even 20 years ago. Today, musicians can put upload their music, create a fan following, and boost their brand through social media without hoping their recording doesn't get tossed in the trash at some music label. If you want to be a filmmaker, YouTube gives you exposure previously unimagined. Same with photographers and online resources for showing work. Finally, the ability to blog and create eBooks online makes it easier than ever to write and publish.

Q: What else?

A: There's the identity of the "inventor." Sustainable energy, economic stability, educational access, incurable diseases, and terrorism … seemingly insurmountable global issues facing our world today. Regardless of political affiliation, we know there are problems that need to be addressed over the course of the next generation. But, it is not just the mere presence of these problems that will impel those in Generation Z to address them. It is their social change mindset, sense of responsibility, and passion, characteristics that likely explain why 40 percent of Generation Z college students plan to invent something that will change the world.

Q: You also talk about their high level of entrepreneurship.

A: That's one of the biggest things. With an abundance of individuals operating as independent contractors, consultants, freelancers, and even people who have sole proprietorships on the side of their full-time jobs, it is no surprise that nearly 75 percent of those in Generation Z plan to work for themselves. And, they have a variety of options to do so. When Baby Boomers, Gen Xers, and Millennials emerged into adulthood, many found their careers in already established businesses and organizations. For example, they went on to become employees of companies, teachers in schools, servers in restaurants, and brokers at banks. They were part of the system. Today, Generation Z is emerging into adulthood during a time in which entrepreneurship is vastly different. Although there will still be CEOs along with small business owners, entrepreneurship has taken on a new life form that will be far more normal for Generation Z. In their worlds, everyone is an entrepreneur. Have a lawnmower? Post your landscaping services on Craigslist. Have a car? Drive for Uber. Want to babysit? Create a Weebly site and make some business cards. Although all of these opportunities are available to any generation, it is Generation Z who sees this as the normal way of doing business.

Q: Parting thoughts?

A: Most Gen Zers lean left on social issues, and they want to see more equality for people and not less. They want their politicians to remove laws that restrict some groups from receiving equal access, as well as support laws that protect underrepresented groups. They believe that ending discrimination is critical and will do what it takes to move towards a more equal and equitable society. One of their largest social concerns is racism. Many have expressed astonishment as to why there are obstacles and barriers to racial equality that still exist today. Being the most racially diverse generation in history and having the most diverse social circles, acts of racism hit close to home for all Generation Z students. A word of advice for candidates: Stop the racist rhetoric. This is a sure fire way to get Generation Z to write off your candidacy.

They care deeply about the environment and climate change, and even across party lines, overwhelmingly support same sex marriage, and nearly three-quarters believe that transgender people should have equal rights. Gen Zers as a whole are not really interested in issues related to immigration, unless they are undocumented or know someone who is. Of all the issues that could be on the forefront of Generation Z voters, some might find it interesting that they are concerned about limitations on personal freedom. But, our research found that this is a concern for more than 75 percent of them. Gen Zers want to limit what they see as government overreach. But, their interest in reducing government regulation only goes to a point. They believe that people have the right to their own choices until they encroach on or harm others, especially those who belong to underrepresented groups. Thus, they may advocate for gun ownership while at the same time support workplace protections for transgender employees.

Generation Z’s unique political perspectives do not necessarily align them readily with one political party. If they resonate more with social issues, they may vote for a Democrat, whereas if they resonate more with economic issues, they may vote for a Republican. The reality, though, is that they will likely be socially left-leaning Independents who vote simply for the issues, not the parties. So, move over Millennials — Generation Z is our new wave of voters, and their issues may make or break the election. We’ll just have to wait and see.

Corey Seemiller, Ph.D., has worked in higher education for more than 20 years in both faculty and administrative positions. She has both taught and directed programs related to her areas of expertise, which include leadership, civic engagement, career development, and social justice. Dr. Seemiller serves as an assistant professor in the department of Leadership Studies in Education and Organizations at Wright State University.

Meghan Grace received her undergraduate degree in Communication Studies from Chapman University and her Master's in Higher Education from the University of Arizona. She currently serves as the Director of Undergraduate Programming & University Partnership for Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity, where she coordinates orientation events and educational programs.

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