Five keys to understanding Generation Z

Published 22 August 2014  |  
(Photo: Mateusz Stachowski)

Forget about Gen X. The Millenials are yesterday's news. We have a whole new 'generation' to get our heads around - the apocalyptically-titled 'Gen Z'. Born across the last 12-18 years (depending on which commentator you listen to; there's no absolute agreement on dates), this is the generation currently occupying our schools, youth groups and various online environments that those of us over 30 shouldn't even pretend to understand. So who are Gen Z, and what do we need to know about them if we're going to offer them a compelling place of belonging within our churches?

1) They're highly connected 'digital natives'

Even the last generation were born into a world where the Internet was taking faltering steps out of dial-up modems and wi-fi was assumed to be an obscure martial art. Today's youth - dubbed 'screenagers' by the media - are the first to have truly grown up in a digital culture, where online media, touch screens and cloud storage are as regular a part of everyday life as television and trees. As a result they refer and defer constantly to the Internet; New York ad-man Dan Gould told The Times that teenagers rely on the Internet as 'a kind of extra brain' - which is why they're significantly poorer at remembering rote facts and giving directions. So - anyone hoping to engage with Gen Z-ers better have a decent wi-fi connection installed and embrace, rather than express concern at, their digitally-enhanced lifestyle.

2) They want to change the world

Ideas conference TED has recently featured a number of high-profile teenage contributors, including the amazing Logan LaPlante, whose 'Hackschooling' talk has been viewed millions of times online. Gen Z-ers have big ambitions and big ideas, and they're unafraid to express them. They're ambitious, but unlike previous generations (most notably the Baby Boomers) who were driven by the acquisition of power and money, these kids want to bring about change. Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai, 17, defied the Taliban to attend school and was shot for doing so; having survived the ordeal she's now become an advocate for young women and victims of oppression worldwide. Young people like this are undaunted by the size of the problems facing the world - they believe they can be a part of addressing them, and they don't want to wait until they're 'adults' to do so.

3) They're worried about the future

Being born so close to 9/11 has left its impact on today's young people. Unlike previous generations who've grown up in a post-war wave of western capitalist optimism - however frail that actually was - Gen Z see political instability, climate change and financial uncertainty and hold some bleak concerns about the planet's future. That's why books and films such as the Hunger Games series are so popular; and why no.1 gaming smash The Last of Us and TV shows such as The Walking Dead  and The Leftovers have found huge audiences. These stories, which all concern themselves with apocalyptic futures, tap into teenager's latent fears that the future isn't bright. The Times reports that one marketing agency poll found that 63 per cent of 7-13 year olds believe the world to be "a scary place right now."

4) They embody diversity

As Western nations have become more and more ethnically and socially diverse over time, so the emerging generations themselves have both become more diverse and more and more comfortable with notions of tolerance and mixed culture. US Marketing firm Magid records not only that Gen Z are the most ethnically diverse group ever (only 55 per cent in that age group in the USA are white caucasian), they also feel positive about the idea of increasing racial diversity, and are much more likely than their parents to form social groups containing a mix of race and religion. By the same token, they feel a keen sense of injustice when others don't agree with their multicultural and socially-inclusive perspective. So if they were to believe an institution such as the Church were racist, sexist or otherwise exclusive of certain groups, they'd be less than impressed...

5) They're more morally conservative than their elders

There's a surprising twist in the tale for anyone who assumes a new generation brings an ever-more relaxed set of social morals. Gen Z-ers aren't necessarily more socially liberal than their older brothers and sisters - in fact research suggests that they drink less, smoke less, take fewer drugs and have less sex. Before the conservatives get too excited however, they have some pretty liberal ideas about relationships, with some commentators suggesting that polygamy might become a future trend...

oh, and...

Bonus: They're not definitely called Generation Z

At present, various media and marketing brains are vying to coin a definitive name for the new generation. They're called Plurals by some (mainly because of point 4), and post-millenials by others (obviously those with less imagination). One website dubbed them the Homeland generation - not because of their love of Damian Lewis and Claire Danes, but because the war on terror might make them less prone to travel - but again that doesn't seem to have taken root. For now then they're Generation Z, defined at least partly by their fear that they could be the last.

So what will we make of this new generation, and what will we be to them? Will we be the irrelevant relic in the background, embodying prejudice and looking like just another reason why their world's in such a mess? Or maybe, just maybe, will we take this group of digitally-empowered, tolerant young people and give them the cause and the future hope that the analysts claim they're looking for?

Martin Saunders is an author, screenwriter and creative director at Youthscape. Follow him on Twitter.

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