These days, we hear a lot about “Generation Z.” However, there seems to be some confusion about who it is we are referring to when we use that term.
So who exactly is “Generation Z”?
The term “Gen Z” refers to anyone born after 1997. That means that the oldest members of this cohort are 23 years old, and that a large portion of today’s college students belong to this generation. By the year 2020, Generation Z will represent 40% of the world’s population. What’s more, this segment represents an ever-growing consumer base and will command over $140 billion in spending power by that time.
“Something that differentiates us from other generations is our ability to use and bend technology.”
- Think with Google Survey Report on Generation Z
This generation is the first one to have lived their entire lives with the internet. As a result, they can be considered “digital natives.” They’ve never had to deal with dial-up internet or brick-shaped mobile phones. Rather, they’ve grown up with the knowledge that they can speak to anyone around the world at a moment’s notice because that is what they’ve been doing their entire lives.
Everything they do is digital — from connecting with friends to learning and entertainment. As a result, they are “welded to their devices,” as evidenced by the near-universal adoption of smartphones by this generation. In fact, 97% of Gen Z own a smartphone and, on average, spend over 4 hours per day on their devices. That accounts for 52% of their time spent online.
This generation is the closest humans have gotten to technological symbiosis. The technological advances that may seem outlandish and unfathomable to other generations are a normal part of life for Generation Z.
Along with these technological advances being a normal part of their lives, this generation has also grown up in a time of severe financial and political insecurity. They’ve grown up in a post-9-11 world and have experienced the most severe financial crisis since the great depression. For them, coping with the world’s insecurity is not the exception, but rather the norm.
The environment that Gen Z have grown up in has shaped their behavior. They have a reputation for being very frugal and cautious compared to previous generations. Their familiarity with technology, constant access to information and the uncertainty of the world around them means that they are keen to research everything.
However, this also means that this generation is one of tolerance; they have grown up in a world that is more diverse and multicultural than any before it. Their access to the internet and social media means they regularly interact with people of different races, cultures, and beliefs. In fact, 56% of Gen Z knows someone who uses gender-neutral pronouns, and 81% of Gen Z have at least one friend of a different race. This exposure is reflected in their own behaviors and beliefs:
“…over half of kids in America will belong to a minority race or ethnic group [by 2020], so diversity in the traditional sense of the word has actually become the norm.”
- Christopher Wolf, Goldman Sachs Research analyst.
Ultimately, Generation Z is a diverse, tolerant but cautious generation who are constantly connected and have access to boundless information.
To put the amount of information that Generation Z is regularly exposed to into context, let’s look at some key events that took place last year.
Looking back at the past year, it seems like some of these events took place a lifetime ago. For example, Black Panther was released in January 2018. Since then, we’ve seen the release of 4 major Marvel movies: Avengers: Infinity War, Ant-Man and the Wasp, Captain Marvel, and Avengers: Endgame. Put into this context, Black Panther feels as though it was released years ago, rather than just 17 months ago. The same can be applied to all of the events listed.
These events feel like they occurred a lifetime ago because so much has happened since they took place. In our ultra-connected world, news cycles are shrinking. An event or piece of news is only relevant for a few days (sometimes only hours) before something else takes its place. As a result, we feel as though these events took place much earlier because so much has happened since then.
Now put yourself in the shoes of Generation Z and try to comprehend the amount of information that they are having to process on a regular basis. Not only do they have to cope with societal events, but they are also keeping up with their friends, family, and school. They’ve grown up in a world where their options are limitless but their time is not and, as a result, they’ve developed a mechanism to cope with this information overload.
Gen Z is subject to so much information on a regular basis that they have developed an “8-second filter” to determine what is interesting and relevant to them. This means that if a headline or piece of information doesn’t catch their attention within 8 seconds, they move on to the next item. An important part of this 8-second filter is a heavy reliance on trending content and feeds to help sift through the information. In addition, they turn to trusted curators and influencers to help them identify information that is important or relevant.
This “8-second filter” is strongly reflected in how they engage with information.
The amount of information that Gen Z has to process, as well as the development of an 8-second filter mean that their relationship to information has fundamentally changed.
Generation Z doesn’t use the “phone” part of their mobile devices anymore. Instead, they use apps to do everything from communicating to entertainment to banking. In fact, 89% of Generation Z said that they use 10 apps per day. What’s more, close to 90% of Generation Z said that they use Snapchat to keep in touch with friends, and 72% of Generation Z said that Instagram was the most important social media platform.
What’s interesting about Snapchat, Instagram and many other social media platforms is that these companies are aware of the 8-second filter and have developed their platform with it in mind.
Snapchat and Instagram “Stories” are the most popular features on each of these platforms. These features limit a piece of content to around 10 seconds, ensuring that they are keeping with Generation Z’s 8-second filter. Once again, if a piece of content doesn’t catch Gen Z’s attention within 8–10 seconds, they will simply swipe to the next piece of content
In general, mobile has become Generation Z’s primary method of engagement with the outside world. If you look at the trend in search queries on mobile versus desktop, you can see that the number of queries on mobile and skyrocketed in the last 5 years, while those on desktop have decreased.
When a student wants to research a course subject, find a restaurant, or buy a pair of headphones, the first thing they do is pull out their mobile devices and “Google” it. Due to the amount of information available to them, Generation Z wants to have the answer to a question as soon as that question arises. In fact, 62% of Gen Z will not use apps or websites that are slow or difficult to navigate.
Ultimately, Generation Z wants something that works seamlessly and intuitively.
Generation Z’s constant connectivity and access to information means that they expect to have information available to them on demand. This generation has grown up being able to access information and content whenever they want. If they want to watch a video, they go to YouTube. For movies, they browse the Netflix catalog. To listen to their favorite band or artist, they fire up Spotify. This generation is not used to flipping through channels on their TV to watch a movie or switching the radio station to listen to their favorite song. They are used to having these things available to them on demand, and expect the same thing from their education.
“…today’s students tend toward shorter, more concentrated bursts of studying anywhere they’re able, rather than waiting for several hours to hunker down in the library,”
- Sharon Loeb, VP of Marketing, McGraw-Hill Education.
If you look around campuses these days, you’ll find students listening to podcasts, watching videos and scrolling their phones while on the go. This is how they consume information. They have a lot on their plates and want to squeeze in shorts bursts of studying whenever they can to keep up with their course material.
And they want it to be personalized.
If you look at the various platforms that Generation Z use to consume information and content, you’ll see that they each have a layer of personalization. For example, YouTube provides video recommendation based on previous views while Netflix and Spotify build recommended playlists that are based on previous activity. Put simply, these platforms learn and adapt from past activities and recommend relevant content based on that behavior.
Having grown up with this engagement model, Gen Z expects similar experiences in all of their interactions, education included. Generation Z expects their past activities, such as course-selection, on-campus events, and interest in groups and clubs to suggest future activities. 72% of today’s students agreed that study-technology should feel tailored, and 79% of them agreed that study technology should be individualized. What’s more, they are willing to share their data in order to enable a personalized experience. In fact, 83% of today's consumers are willing to share data in order to enable a personalized experience
Generation Z expect access to information and content on demand, and they want it to be personalized to their needs and interests.
Given their constant connectivity, ease of access to information, and the breakneck speed of their lives, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Generation Z faces a number of challenges, including issues with mental health.
Over half of this generation say they are not happy with their lives. That is an astounding number. In order to understand why such a large portion of them feel this way, let’s look at a few factors that impact mental health:
If we examine the trend in the how often teenagers physically spend time with their friends over the last 40 years, there is a distinct and sharp decline around the year 2007. Since then, in-person social interactions have been trending downwards consistently.
It should not come as a surprise that this decline coincides with the release of the most popular consumer device in history — the iPhone. Instead of physically spending time with friends, teenagers are having these social interactions virtually.
Let's also look at the amount of sleep that Generation Z is getting. Since 2007 (i.e. the year the iPhone was released), we can see a sharp increase in the percentage of teenagers who get less than seven hours of sleep at night. Students these days are on their phones later into the day and as a result, they get significantly less sleep than previous generations.
Finally, let's look at the percentage of teenagers who agree with the statement “ I often feel left out of things” or “A lot of times I feel lonely”. Both of these metrics have taken off since 2007. What’s surprising is that even though Generation Z is the most connected generation, they feel lonelier than any generation that came before them.
As a result of their constant connectivity and access to information, Gen Z feels overwhelmed because they don’t have the time to do everything they need to do. Ultimately, this has a severe negative impact on their education. For example, 79% of Generation Z said they have commitments outside of class, and 51% say they don’t have time to engage outside of class.
As a result of these factors (i.e. lack of sleep, increased sense of loneliness, perceived lack of time, etc.), Gen Z reports enduring more “extreme” stress than any generation before them. In fact, 58% say they are at least moderately stressed, while 10% say they are extremely stressed.
A by-product of being constantly connected to their phones and, by extension, the world around them is that Generation Z regularly comes in contact with “cool people doing cool things.” This constant connectivity exacerbates their concern of being left out. Generation Z may spend less time interacting in-person, but when they do, they document everything on social media, making those not invited to come along keenly aware of it. In fact, Generation Z has a specific word they use when referring to this: FOMO (“fear of missing out” ).
Ultimately, all of these factors result in increased incidences of depression in Generation Z. In fact, heavy users of social media increased their risk of depression by 27%. Put simply, the more connected Generation Z is, the more likely they are to report symptoms of depression.
Given everything that we’ve learned about Generation Z, it is clear that institutions need to adopt a new engagement approach in order to keep up. Also, we must realize that we are not going to change Generation Z’s behavior. Because they’ve grown up in this fast-paced, connected world, trying to peel Gen Z away from their phones and engage them through more traditional methods is simply not going to work. In fact, institutions are the ones that need to change since the onus is on them to adjust the way they support Generation Z.
In order to support this uber-connected generation (no pun intended), the first (and most important) thing that institutions need to do is be where Gen Z is: their phones. Institutions need to adjust their support-services to be more accessible through mobile devices since this is how Gen Z wants to engage with information. Not only do institutions need to speak Generation Z’s language, they need to do it on the platforms Gen Z is using.
Traditional service delivery methods don’t meet the needs of this generation. Institutions need to broaden access to services by adopting digitally enabled student services to supplement their traditional, in-person services.
Students facing an issue should not have to wait until office hours to see a counselor or to get assistance. They should be able to do that when needed, and the primary way to do this is through mobile devices. This is how Generation Z want to engage with information and this is what it has come to expect. As a result, this is what institutions need to provide.
Institutions must change the way they support Generation Z by providing today’s students with a mobile platform that consolidates all support resources and services into one place. When students have a question or need assistance, they should not have to search through various websites and resources for the solution. They should be able to get the information they need, at the time they need it, wherever they may be.
Institutions must also adjust their resources to adhere to the 8-second filter. In this regard, these resources must be easy to find and navigate when they are needed by the student, at all hours of the day. Remember, Generation Z is used to engaging with platforms that surface information when they need it and this must also be the case with institutional support resources as well.
Support services and resources must also be personalized to the individual student. Institutions often have various on-campus systems that have information about their students. In order to provide personalized resources for their students, it is essential for these systems to be integrated with each other. This integration allows data to be shared across all the various systems, and for the important and relevant information to be surfaced to a student when they need it.
It is also essential to consider how institutions are currently communicating with their students. While email is still the traditional method of communication for most campuses, it is outdated considering who is on the other end of these communications. These emails, especially those from advisors, contain vital information. However, since institutions are using an outdated method of communication, this information is not being received by the student.
In order to reach Gen Z effectively, institutions must understand how they are communicating. This generation has grown up on push notifications and instant messaging, which is why they want to continue communicating this way.
Institutions should supplement their traditional communication methods with push notifications. In fact, Generation Z is 3x likelier to open a chat message received through a push notification than an email. Institutions that do not have the ability to send push notifications to students are overlooking an essential method of communicating with this generation.
Finally, institutions must include Generation Z in their student experience if they want to engage effectively with them. This means asking students for feedback and adjusting their services based on that feedback.
It is also essential to consider how institutions ask their students for feedback. Traditionally, institutions rely on long-form surveys conducted at the end of the year. In reality, surveying students in April about an experience they had in August is a grossly ineffective way of getting actionable feedback. By that point in the year, whatever issue or grievance the student had is too far gone — that ship has sailed.
Generation Z wants to give feedback about an interaction right away. They are used to receiving short, micro-surveys after an event or interaction (think Uber or Yelp). Institutions must replicate this experience by providing students with a mobile platform that asks for feedback on Gen Z’s interaction by sending a push notification directly to their phones. Once received, the institution must reduce the improvement loop and make adjustments based on student feedback right away. This will allow students to see that they are being included in their student-experience and that the institution is listening. This will also develop a culture of feedback and will encourage students to continue engaging with the institution.
Today’s students refuse to be passive learners. They expect to be fully engaged and to be a part of the learning process themselves.
It is clear that the world around us has changed and the students who are arriving on today’s campuses have changed as a result of it. Institutions can no longer depend on the time-honored engagement methods that worked for previous generations; they must adjust their methods towards a carefully balanced, omni-channel and personalized approach.
It is more important than ever that today’s campuses are able to engage with their students on the platforms that those students are using. For Generation Z, this means developing a strong mobile engagement strategy to supplement their existing efforts.
Ali Janjua is a Content Marketing Manager at Ready Education. He has been with Ready Education since 2016 and has worked with over 40 partners during that time, ranging from small community colleges to large, multi-campus institutions. He has over 10 years' experience in higher education, having worked at McGill University in Montreal, Canada prior to joining Ready Education. At McGill, Ali was responsible for designing career and engagement programs for students and young alumni.