Generation Z comes of age determined to be different

Today’s teenagers differ from millennials on issues from individualism to careers

Don’t write off Generation Z just yet. Born between the mid-1990s and the early 2000s, they have grown up in an age of mass shootings, terrorism, fake news and general cynicism, and if anything they are more life-savvy and wise than previous generations.

The American Marketing Association's annual symposium for the marketing of higher education took place in Florida this year. The location is significant given it is the same state where the most recent, but now commonplace, US school shooting took place at Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school in the city of Parkland. A former student killed 17 classmates and faculty members with an AR-15 style rifle.

Much of the discussion at the symposium centred on Generation Z (Gen Z), the demographic on the cusp of taking the spotlight from millennials. Keynote speaker Jaime Casap, Google's top education evangelist, said the current education model at third level – that is, one where students are required to take narrowly-defined subjects in outdated academic programmes – won't cut it with Gen Z. Today's teenagers are essentially very different from millennials.

For starters, they are more entrepreneurial. Various surveys presented at the symposium concluded the majority of Gen Z want their careers to be akin to a hobby. They will likely take more risks and start their own companies rather than opting for safer bets as entry-level rookies in big corporations.


To accuse them of being too informal, and suggest they have negative attitudes to work and/or authority, is to apply one generation’s understanding of formality, authority and the workplace environment on to another – a risky venture, given how rapidly ‘norms’ change. Many young employees for major, respectable corporations already work from home in their pyjamas every day. It may not seem acceptable to some but it is fast becoming the norm.

Cultural diversity

Besides, the pyjamas don’t maketh the man, woman or third gender – something Gen Z understands better than most. While millennials may have bucked the trend as the first generation to question labels and categories, members of Gen Z don’t see race, gender, culture or nationality. Growing up with internet as a ubiquitous tool, cultural differences have been omnipresent, despite whatever lack of diversity there may be in their own personal domestic experience.

Individualism, therefore, is paramount and it feeds into their understanding of work and play. They will expect education and career to be more tailored life experiences than their predecessors were accustomed to. Not only can the digital generation order a pair of shoes online with exact colour and feature specifications, they can also design shoes entirely by themselves with the right software and a 3D printer.

That being said, Gen Z is likely to be more financially responsible than millennials. Having witnessed the great recession as children, the experience of watching first hand while friends and family lost their jobs and homes has likely left its mark. In the US, for example, college tuition fees remain exorbitantly high but have historically been a problem for the parents of students to stress over. For many in Gen Z, it is their problem now. So they want to ensure their education leads to sustainable, professional outcomes.

Notwithstanding recent economic hardships, this has also been a period where mass shootings, terrorism, fake news and general cynicism in society have become matters of routine for this generation. They’re far more mature, life-savvy and wise (if not also a little cynical) than they are given credit for.

Lastly, it is getting pretty old to condemn Gen Z for being “addicted” to their smartphones or other devices. They are products of the digital age. That should not be something we hold against them. Social interaction is changing. Communication exchange is now governed by a composite of channels, used by each individual in different ways. It might appear antisocial and mind-numbing. In fact, their brains are developing in such a way so as to be more adept at processing information coming from many sources simultaneously. Perhaps men will finally figure out how to multitask.

But that is precisely the kind of throwaway, stereotypical comment you’d expect from a Generation X-er like myself. While in many ways I have had to be taught tolerance and the importance of equality, Gen Z-ers already have such values entrenched in their minds. They will likely not, therefore, be so quick to underestimate the generations that follow them.