So Today’s Teens are Part of Generation Z—What Does That Even Mean?

generationZ Clockwise from top left: iStock, Shutterstock, Shutterstock, Shutterstock

You’ll have to excuse us for being a little late on this one, as we’ve been letting it all sink in. But approximately two weeks ago, a cultural strategy firm called Sparks & Honey released a hefty 56-page report on the next cohort of American society. In it, they introduce us to “Generation Z” (read: Americans born after 1995) and hunt for insights by pitting its members against the most researched—and arguably the most reviled—generation in American history.

Not surprisingly, the Internet was equally enthralled and unimpressed.

So what does Team Choices think about Meet Generation Z: Forget Everything You Learned About Millennials? Here’s the thing: We’re completely conscious of the fact that generational divides are often created as mere marketing opportunities, and for those of us who interact with teens every day, many of the report’s major revelations (“They speak in emoji!”) are anything but.

What we are always interested in, however, is any exploration of shifts—subtle or otherwise— in sociocultural norms. As we’ve written about before (specifically regarding social media/tech), we truly believe that it’s critical for educators and parents to make every effort possible to understand and nurture the unique way in which their teens see the world. And if we all agree that we won’t take any of the report’s hard data or its looser conclusions as gospel, is there really any harm in being more open to the ways in which teens are downright different than us…or even their older siblings?

The bottom line is, you really can’t ignore the circumstances that have made this generation who they are. Growing up in a post-9/11 world, gripped by the tenacious teeth of a grueling financial recession, their personalities have developed in the midst of chaos and uncertainty. In fact, the report even paints some pretty interesting parallels to pop culture, pointing out the popularity of post-apocalyptic franchises that feed on darkness and disorder, like The Hunger Games and Divergent. (A selective case study? Perhaps. But as keen observers of the media teens consume and crave, we think it has legs.)

What that leads us to is a somewhat interesting postulation that Gen Z has a survivor-like mentality: It’s full of industrious realists—more future-focused than Millennials, and willing to work harder for their success. We think that’s pretty accurate, and pretty promising too.

You can click through the entire deck here, but we’ve teased out a few key insights and stats that we deem most interesting for parents and teachers. Here goes...

1. What you see as “diversity,” they simply see as normal. Just think about what their world has always looked like to them, in light of these stats from the report. (How cool is that?!)

  • +400% — the increase in black/white multiracial marriages in the last 30 years
  • +1000% — the increase in Asian/White multiracial marriages in the last 30 years

2. They’re skeptical of following traditional paths to success. Fewer consider earning an advanced degree as one of their life goals, and they know there are no guarantees. That’s why they’d rather be in control of their careers—and find purpose and enjoyment in what they do.

  • 72% of high school students want to start a business someday
  • 61% of high school students want to be an entrepreneur vs. an employee
  • 60% of Gen Z wants to have an impact on the world with their jobs (compared to 39% of Millenials), and social entrepreneurship is one of their most popular career choices
  • 76% of Gen Z wishes their hobby would turn into their full-time job (compared to 50% of Millenials)

3. They’re digital natives. I often cringe at this term, but if a conversation around it is happening (it is!), I want to be a part of it. Tech is shaping the way kids and teens learn, process information, communicate and connect. As parents and teachers, we need to stop thinking that’s a bad thing—and adapt. So keep these insights in mind:

  • Teens think spatially and in 4D—they have always known how to zoom, swipe and pinch, and hardly know a world without Google Maps.
  • They have global social circles, thanks to social media, which allow them to connect with like-minded teens around the world.
  • Texting may be making them less precise communicators, but they are communicating—and expressing themselves—more than ever before. (So if we go where they are, we can harness that incredible power…and foster their innate desire to create and debate.)

Now tell us what you think: Are these conclusions enlightening—or reductive? Do they match the observations you've made in your home or your classroom? And how might you use them to better connect to the teens in your life? Sound off below.