Gen Z: The New Millennials

September 26th, 2016
Gen Z Comes to Campus

Today I listened to what I’m sure was only one of about a million presentations I’m going to have to sit through on “Generation Z.” Not content with beating us over the head about Millennials, we have now started to characterize the next generation of students coming to our institutions with the oh-so-creative title of Gen Z.

As someone who works in marketing and communications at my institution, I absolutely understand the need to boil down an entire generation into a few traits to which we can easily market. And who better to market to than people we know will pay? In other words, we do surveys upon studies upon surveys of those people who are our consumers. And those people are the ones that make up the Millennial and Gen Z groups that we’ve been talking about for years (and will continue talking about for years, I suspect).

But today, as I sat in a student affairs division meeting and listened to someone tell us all the things we supposedly didn’t know about our newest students, I couldn’t help but think that this information was being shared with the wrong group of people.

Last time I checked, as people who work WITH students – not trying to recruit students or selling to them – the best thing we can do is to take each student as an individual. Every student that walks through our doors is unique, bringing their own backstory and set of circumstances. Not to mention that many of our students are not in the consumer group on which these generalizations are based – remember, consumers have expendable money, which is why we’re marketing to them. Of course we can use developmental theories as guiding principles, as long as we don’t work too hard at making square pegs fit into round holes. But by and large, the most effective way to help a student is to listen and learn about them as an individual.

The problem with having a marketing person come talk to student affairs about how they group students into Millennials and Generation Z is that too many people around the table start treating those categorizations as totally accurate descriptions of every student with whom they’ll be working. And this doesn’t just happen in student affairs – look at the number of articles about workplaces trying to stereotype every single person in their office into the Millennial generation. I can hardly wait to see all the articles about what is wrong with Generation Z (eyeroll).

What I also found troublesome at this meeting were the number of sighs and eyerolls at “kids today” as the marketing expert shared how much time they spent on their phones or using social media, among other things. We cannot afford to treat our students with this sort of “kids today” mentality – we might as well also be telling them to get off our lawn. Regardless of whether this is how you choose to spend your time, it is important to recognize that everyone is different – and isn’t it our job to understand differing perspectives?

So please, do me – and your students – a favor: quit taking to heart everything you hear about Millennials and Gen Z. That information isn’t for you – it’s for people who are trying to sell to those folks who have the money to buy. Instead, take the time you need to get to know who YOUR students are – I guarantee they will thank you for it (even if it’s not until much, much later).