Time to Change Everything Again…For Generation Z | From the Bell Tower

We were told we needed to change to adapt to Gen X and Millennials. Get ready to change again. Gen Z is on the way to our libraries. A new survey offers some insights into what we need to know.
Steven BellWe were told we needed to change to adapt to Gen X and Millennials. Get ready to change again. Gen Z is on the way to our libraries. A new survey offers some insights into what we need to know. Believing the next generation will be better and achieve great things the current ones fail to accomplish—or clean up the mess we’ve made—is what gives us hope for the future. Consider a wicked problem such as open access. The current generation of scholars is making some progress, but there’s still much work to be done. Widespread adoption of open access in higher education may need to wait for a future generation of scholars who will more readily accept the benefits of a culture of open sharing and learning. How long must we wait for that next generation to bring our hopes to fruition? It would help if that generation regarded itself as always looking for new ways to do things. According to a new survey of Gen Z students and their educators, there may be some hope in store. Since they will soon be filling our classrooms, today’s generation of academic librarians needs to know more about Gen Z.

Who Are They?

Although sometimes simply referred to as the generation after millennials, those currently ages 6–19 are considered Gen Z. By comparison, millennials are 20–35. At roughly 60 million, Gen Z outnumbers millennials by a million. With the top end of Gen Z, at 18 and 19, having more in common with millennials than their grade school generation mates, these older members are often grouped in with millennials. One area where millennials and Gen Z are similar is their relationship with technology, which is to say their lives are shaped by ever-present tech. When it comes to concerns about their privacy, staying safe by taking fewer risks and being career-oriented, Gen Z parts ways with millennials. Those who want to know more about the qualities and characteristics of Gen Z can learn from this slide deck.

Creative Learners

Gen-Z in the Classroom: Creating the Future” reports a national survey of 1,007 students ages 11–17 plus 414 of their teachers. Both groups identified technology as the defining characteristic of Gen Z. The students describe themselves as “smart and creative” and “always looking for a better way to do something.” That’s good to know because the world they will inherit needs plenty of improvement. While there are worries that school won’t prepare them adequately for the workplace, members of Gen Z want to learn and work in ways that lets them tap into their creativity. Gen Z students rate themselves as smarter and more creative than previous generations, and believe their understanding of technology makes them better problem solvers. Their teachers acknowledge they are tech savvy, but worry that the students are too dependent on technology and need more opportunities to develop analytical skills.

What and How to Learn

The survey delves into the ways in which Gen Z students learn. That can inform how librarian-educators could best engage them in the classroom and library. More than past generations, this one wants to use video production, podcasting, and other digital media to develop learning projects. This fits with the high value they place on hands-on learning and developing skills desired in the workforce. When asked what activities help them learn, after “doing/creating” and “watching”, Generation Z students indicated that “research online” was more important than reading and writing. I suspect that means “surfing the web,” but perhaps that’s something librarian-educators could leverage to build interest in academic content. What’s clear is that Gen Z has little interest in being lectured to or given rote skill drills. Its members’ priority is getting hands-on, real world problem-solving challenges that allow them to engage with technology. To the extent possible, educators who want to connect with Gen Z learners need to bring creativity to their teaching. Forward looking higher education institutions are already developing spaces and curricular programs that are designed to maximize creative, technology-based learning.

Change Again?

What is your past experience adapting to next-gen students or connecting with Gen Xers and Millennials in the workplace? Experts predicted that having digital natives in the classroom or coworkers seeking more life balance would require significant learning and workplace change. Educators continue to debate whether new generations of students learn any differently from their predecessors. No doubt some observed change led to new practices, but the reality for most of us was that changing generations of students or colleagues was less than cataclysmic. When OCLC did a comparative study of millennials and boomers in the workplace they discovered more common ground than differences. We also need to recognize local environments deviate from national surveys. Too many students from disadvantaged school districts still lack access to technology and struggle to graduate, rather than experiencing angst over their teachers’ ability to adequately nourish creative tendencies. Academic librarians need not drastically rethink or modify services and outreach methods, but it is prudent to invest time to learn how Gen Z thinks and acts, and what might work best in motivating them to connect with us. It’s unknown if Gen Z is the generation to fulfill our hopes, but I think we can look forward to working with them. If they like tackling problems and developing creative solutions, then Gen Z students should offer academic librarians some unique opportunities.
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One definite characteristic of Gen Z is that they are VERY proactive in terms of their careers. When they feel they need to move on, they will do so. They also aren't into the hierarchy underpinning libraries and supporting the top. Administrators/managers/leaders/whatever ignore this at their peril and are often shocked - shocked! - when people leave after a short period of time for greener pastures. I'm seeing this in my own institution, where those in charge are in their last jobs before retirement and have mistakenly assumed that there will be a smooth transition and/or succession (and the next 5 years are not going to be pretty). When I joined this profession 30 years ago, it was "wait your turn", even if that would be 20 years. There is no such mindset with Gen Z, and I believe it is much healthier, generated though it is by massive economic and career uncertainty.

Posted : Dec 15, 2016 11:54

Kenny Martin

I don't think we should separate people into groups, such as Gen X, Millennials, Gen Z, etc. and look to a single group to build a better future. I think a better future comes from collaboration, when an older person doesn't discount the ideas of another just because they are younger and a younger person doesn't assume the knowledge of an older person as antiquated. If people stop collaborating and we leave the future solely to Gen Z, then history will repeat itself. People who are used to not knowing how things work, as you described Gen Z, may be able to unhinge their creativity because they are not bogged down by the inner workings, but they will likely head down a road that was followed and led to dead ends because they do not understand how things work. Collaborating with people who have more experience is vital to everyone. Again, though, it's not a matter of generations. Just because someone is in their 50s doesn't mean they can't have creative ideas and just because someone is 10 doesn't mean they can't know how things work. I think it is good to take the results of the survey and use it to make modifications to programming in schools and libraries, such as makerspaces, but it would be a mistake to only focus on so-called Gen Z and tip programming too much in one direction. Thanks for the article!

Posted : Dec 13, 2016 11:07


Glad you enjoyed it and thanks for sharing your opinion. I tend to feel the same way about college rankings. It just segments higher ed into baskets of someone's idea of who is better. It really has nothing to do with where any individual student will get the best education - and these rankings may actually be doing a disservice to many of those who use them. You make good points about why we would want to think about Gen-Z as more than just a bunch of people put into a basket so we can conveniently compare them to others. That said, it doesn't have to mean that we always treat them differently based on the data and studies. In some cases, it may indeed help us to develop services that will better serve this group - or it may tell us how we can do better at engaging them. What would help to get them interested in using the library? In that respect, they are not like baby boomers. They have different wants and needs. I would agree. We should be careful not to change everything for or focus our efforts on any one generation.

Posted : Dec 13, 2016 11:07


i wonder if lumping huge groups of human beings in this way (by age) makes sense any more. maybe you need to further define them by economics, education, geography... etc i guess if you are talking about the subset who will go to college maybe it's possible, but even then? does it do them a disservice? it bothers me and feels like i am being a little disrespectful of individuals, their experiences and their environment. i'm not sure it's productive. just a thought.

Posted : Dec 11, 2016 07:55


Thanks for sharing your perspective laura. I alluded to this issue when I mentioned that many of those who fall into this cohort do not have access to technology, probably a phone but perhaps not much more than that. Of course the generalizations about the different generations is not going to apply to everyone in that age cohort, but the value of the surveys, from my perspective, is that it gives us somewhere to start if we are to better understand the next generation coming along. Take it for what it is, but be mindful about acknowledging the differences within the group.

Posted : Dec 11, 2016 07:55


I am a millennial and a librarian who sees a lot of these "Generation Z" kids. I have noticed across the board that there's a big difference between their technology understanding and ours (millennials). We grew up learning how computers work; today's kids are often shockingly computer illiterate and only use their phones. Our knowledge started with DOS and spanned everything that came after it. We made cute little websites in school using tedious HTML. We grew up as kids with other "computer gut" lingo like URL, cursor, file, icon, drive, etc. These are all things that Generation Z does not know about. With great frequency, they don't understand the background systems that operate the technology they use. What they know is a touch screen with apps-- it's very user friendly and straightforward, but then they get on a computer to do a school assignment and they really struggle. It still surprises me. When I help a teen on the computer, it is bizarrely similar to helping an elderly person with the same thing. Increasingly, the standard way to do everything that you need to do as an adult (higher education assignments, apply for jobs, do taxes, renew licenses, etc.) is set up by millennials who understand how computers work. That is simultaneously leaving behind both older people and younger people.

Posted : Dec 11, 2016 02:37


Thanks for sharing your thoughts. How good are you at using Snapchat or any of dozens of other apps? Every generation masters various aspects of technology. I could make a modem dance and sing, but what good is that now? It won't be long before all you have to know is how to ask a computer to do whatever you want it to do. Then it won't matter what generation you are or how much you know about coding, software, or sending files to printers. What will matter is how creative you are when it comes to using tech to identify and solve problems. Maybe that's where Gen-Z will excel - exactly because they don't care about much about how computers work. Does anyone driving a car these days know a damn thing about what's happening under the hood? (excepting some engineers and technicians). No one cares who set it up to work that way. They just want to get fro point a to point b. Again, the playing field is leveled. I'm no better at driving or maintaining a car than any other generation member. I might just be more responsible about keeping it maintained and not driving while i'm using a smartphone. Guess what I'm trying to say is let's give these Gen-Zers a chance - especially when most of them haven't even gotten to college yet.

Posted : Dec 11, 2016 02:37

SpongeBob Librarypants

So what's next, Generation Double A? For some time now every new generation has brought out the pundits who talk up that generation's outstanding qualities, or in the case of my generation, X, their lesser qualities (slackers). In most instances, at the end of the day, when members of every generation reach a certain age and milestone in adulthood, things change and they all tend to have similar qualities. With age family becomes important, stability becomes important, etc. Sure there are always rebels, radicals, and outliers, but by and large maturity and aging tend to even things out among most people as far as what is important in life. Look at the Baby Boomers, all those 60's radicals who ended up in jobs and working for the very Man they despised in their youth. Churchill once remarked something like "Show me a young Conservative and I'll show you someone with no heart. Show me an old Liberal and I'll show you someone with no brains." I think the point of this quote, that at certain stages of life we all have certain outlooks or feelings, is well taken and has a lot of truth. Sure, when Generation Z is young it is all about technology, creativity, risk taking, etc. Let them get into their forties and have a couple of children and that will change. I remember when I was in college and all the talk was about what will ever become of Generation X, those lazy slackers. Well, most of us didn't end up ruling the world but we didn't end up ruining it either. The same with Generation Y and it will be the same with Z. Life goes on. Of course each generation has its broad eccentricities and its own uniqueness, but we're all still human with many similarities from generation to generation. And for what it is worth, which isn't much, TED Talks are the biggest bunch of hot air out there, just stages for individuals, some known and some unknown, to use a lot of jargon and big words to show us all how much smarter they are than we are. I'd rather watch baseball.

Posted : Dec 09, 2016 12:26


Was there a Generation A? I don't think so. Maybe Gen-A is next. Or maybe it's Gen- Zz. I had similar thoughts while reading up on Gen-Z. Perhaps they are no more creative than any other generation - but at least they seem to recognize the importance of creativity in their lives. Chances are when they get into their forties, as you say, they won't be that much different. But you never know - they could be as different from Millennials as Boomers are from Traditionalists. I see it differently on Ted Talks. Some of them I learn from - after all these are experts sharing their knowledge. Some of them I am inspired by - there are great stories and life experiences shared. Some of them I stop after the first minute. But seriously, how can you not like the guy who talks about procrastination. I think a lot of people are bored to death by baseball, so let's just accept we all like different stuff and just let it go at that.

Posted : Dec 09, 2016 12:26


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