Three Facts You Need to Know to Connect With Generation Z

For more than 30 years now, I have been tracking generational trends and changes. At first, I noticed how Generation X differed from the Baby Boomers during the 1980s. Then, I began noticing how Millennials were breaking from Gen Xers in 2000. Today, I’m watching how Generation Z (today’s high school and college students) is separating themselves from Millennials.

Generation Z—as with any generation—is living in a new “narrative.” In today’s world, kids are growing up in a time that is both exhilarating and frightening for them. This is causing changes that can be difficult to understand. In fact, they are so different from older generations that parents and adult leaders can feel both frustrated with them and fearful for them at the same time.

What isn’t different about Generation Z is that students today are reacting to older generations in much the same way that youth have always reacted to their elders. Historians Neil Howe and William Strauss remind us that every generation naturally performs three acts as they mature.

Each generation:

1. Breaks with the previous generation: “You are cool, but we are cooler.”

A Gen Z high school student may know a 30-year old Millennial who is now a young professional a few years into their career. That Millennial is now an adult and has joined the establishment. Typically, a student views one generation ahead of them this way: “You are cool, but we are the newest form of cool.” You wear one brand of blue jeans, but we wear another. You grew up with one preferred platform of social media, we are growing up with another. You have your vernacular, but we have a new set of terms in our vocabulary. At one time, you were the cool kids; now we are. We will not imitate you and we don’t want to be identified with you—as lazy slackers, entitled employees or narcissistic people. We are gritty, we save money more than spend it, and we will create our own reality, instead of buy into the company line. I believe Millennials can play the role of a “big brother” or “sister,” offering insight as to what’s ahead as Gen Z begins their career. Millennials should not try to win the “cool” war, but be the wise older sibling or uncle they can trust.

2. Corrects those two generations older: “I won’t do what my parents did.”

As Gen Z matures, they perform a second act. They attempt to correct their parents’ generation, as if to say: “I love my mom and dad, but I will never do that with my kids.” Youthful populations intuitively feel they must react this way, even if it is a subconscious act. Mom and dad are OK, but they do not get where this world is going…like I do. They don’t understand social media the way I do; they dress older (even though they are trying desperately to look young) and they even talk in an antiquated fashion. Correcting may take a few forms. Gen Z and Gen X may share a similar skeptical paradigm, but the kids yearn to do something their parent’s generation failed to do. So, teens may identify with their parents but feel they must right the wrongs. Gen Xers must be secure enough to be the “bad cop” and risk not being “liked” each week by the Gen Z kids. They must be leaders who earn their respect, more than their friendship. Be real instead of trying to be cool.

3. Replaces those three generations older than them: “I love ‘retro’ and cherish my grandparents’ generation.”

Finally, each youth generation tends to view their grandparents’ generation as one that’s slipping away, with all of its heritage and “retro” vibe. Often, the youth embrace it and want to replace it—from vinyl records and record players to 70s memorabilia to the music itself. As they see an aging generation threaten to pass away, they don’t want to lose it. I have spoken to many parents and grandparents who confirm that children often bond quicker to their elders than mom and dad. Grandparents are seen as intriguing and almost vintage, and their scarcity is increasing. Those grandparents are similar, and yet so different, having grown up in different times, so they may have the intrigue of a cross-cultural relationship. Boomers and Builders should play the role of mentor, reminding Gen Z of the timeless virtues and skills they will need, even in the 21st century.

Keep in mind, this is not an exact science, but rather social science. Certainly, different personalities play a role in how generations connect or fail to connect. It’s now our turn to lead the young. So, my questions for you are:

  1. What is your approach as you connect with students today?
  2. Are you playing the appropriate role based on how they see you?
  3. What value do you add to their life?

Credit: (Tim Elmore, Artificial Maturity)

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