Understanding Generations Y & Z

Mr Richard Dobrenov | Deputy Principal & Head of Senior School

Generation Z

Michael McQueen a leading specialist in demographic shifts, change management and future trends spoke recently at a conference in Melbourne where he identified seven areas of paradigm rift between the Traditional Generation born before the mid 1940’s, the Baby Boomer Generation born between the mid 1940’s-mid 1960’s (Gen X) and Generation Y who were born between the early 1980’s-late 1990’s.  Generation Z, our students’ generation are described by McQueen “as having the same characteristics of Gen Y but on steroids.”  They are addicted to technology and need for things to happen instantly; yesterday if possible.

Generation Y

To understand Generational Theory, one must study the formative influences, values, attitudes and behaviours that shaped the generation and appreciate what was happening during the formative years of each group’s lives which then shaped their collective view of what is normal.  The Generation Y claim of “why can’t everyone else just be normal like me, listen to normal music and wear normal clothes?” is an issue many parents face today.

McQueen states that we see Generational Theory in action on a daily basis whether we are aware of it or not.  To illustrate this, he uses an example of a jar of peanut butter.  To Gen Y or Z, the jar is finished when you cannot be bothered scraping any more out of it.  It’s only $3 from the shop “so just buy a new one.”  Gen Y or Z will throw the jar out if you’re lucky but are more likely to put the nearly empty jar back in the cupboard and open a new one if there is one there.  The Traditional/ Builder Generation (Grandparents) will probably see the jar in the bin the next day and say “Oh my goodness, someone has made a mistake, there is still peanut butter in this jar” and promptly remove the jar and proceed to make five more sandwiches out of it.  It doesn’t end there though; the empty jar will then be washed up to be used for homemade jams or to hold screws or buttons.  It is these paradigms which cause the world to be viewed through various generational lenses.  These lenses change our perceptions without actually changing what is being viewed.

The challenge we face as parents is how do we see the world through the lenses of Gen Y & Z.  To do so we must take off our default lenses and see the world from their perspective.  McQueen has identified seven areas of paradigm rift based on a generational gap which causes conflict, miscommunication, misunderstanding and disengagement.

The first rift is based on the concept of Truth. To the Traditional Generation the concept of truth is absolute.  There is a right and a wrong, black and white and a line down the middle.  When relating the concept of truth to Gen Y or Z the defining word for Gen X and before, is Should.  The problem here is that “should” takes something that is basically neutral and places a judgement on it.  “If you want to be successful then you should finish School and go to University.” “If you want to be taken seriously then you should dress in a certain manner in social settings and you should speak in a certain tone when you are speaking to someone in authority.”  It is the right thing to do.  To Gen Y & Z, the word should, is met by an immediate response of WHY?  These generations see truth as not absolute, but relative.  If you dismiss the WHY with “because I said so” or “do as you’re told,” this makes engagement very difficult.  The challenge for both parents and educators is how do you communicate wisdoms, truths and principles to a generation for whom there is no such thing as absolute truth?  McQueen suggests that the most effective way of communicating these important principles in through narratives.  To Gen Y&Z, experience is King; it trumps evidence and logic.  As parents we should tell the children our stories because that is what resonates most and they will learn from our positive and negative life experiences.

The second rift is that of Respect. Traditionally respect was bestowed or given to a person based on title, role, years of experience or institution they represented.  Traditionally the Police were respected purely because they were the Police.  To Gen Y&Z, respect is a core value but they will only show respect based on two conditions.  The first is that it is reciprocal and the second is if it is based on a relationship that you have with them – not because of your title or role or years of experience.    The adage “I don’t care how much you know until I know how much you care” is crucial.

The third rift is that of Communication and the ways in which we communicate.  To the Traditionalists and Baby Boomers the prospect of “being out of range” is desirable, however; to Gen Y&Z, separation anxiety begins to develop if they are away from their phone for more than two minutes.  One only has to attend school camps to see the anxiety first hand.  Being connected is a core value of their identity and they have made up their own language to make communication even easier through SMS.  PAW means parents are watching.  PIR means Parent in the Room.  POS means Parent over shoulder.  This language is now spilling into formal assessment at School which brings about the predictable reaction from the Baby Boomers of “Why can’t they write essays or messages the way they SHOULD, by following the rules of spelling, grammar and punctuation?  Gen Y respond with “Why would I bother? It is quicker, easier and cheaper.” For them communication is about function not form.  Of course this has not been without detriment.  In 1950 the average 14-year-old had a vocabulary of 25000 words.  Today the average 14-year-old has a vocabulary of less than 10000 words.

“Patience is a virtue” and the value of patience is the fourth paradigm rift outlined by McQueen.  Traditionalists were taught and believe that “Good things come to those who wait.”  Life was not meant to be easy and frustrations, setbacks and disappointments are all part of life.  Suck it up and move on.  To Gen Y&Z patience is pointless, frustrating and largely unacceptable.  The notion of waiting for something is not evidence that I am on the right track; it is evidence that something is wrong here.  The advent of Convenience Stores, internet banking, extended trading hours and microwaves have all sped up the pace of life. The four messages that Gen Y are getting is that life is meant to be easy, fair, convenient and exciting.  The challenge is that life is invariably none of these four things.  To Gen Y&Z, when life gets hard they draw on one of two conclusions.  If life is meant to be easy and my life is really hard at the moment, there must be something wrong with the goal that I have set.  “I’m over this” or “I’m out of here”, are common responses to early starts, commuting long distances to work or grunt work.

Secondly and more alarmingly the response of, “If life is meant to be easy and at the moment it is really hard then there must be something wrong with me.”  This mentality has led to a large increase in mental health issues like depression, panic attacks and anxiety.  As parents how do we teach these children do delay gratification and to persist.  You cannot say you SHOULD, you must share stories of how you were faced with similar situations and how through persistence and endurance, it paid off.  Just as importantly how you quit and lived to regret doing so.

The fifth paradigm rift is that of Affirmation and the need for it.  Traditionally the internal sense of satisfaction gained by trying and persisting was the objective, awards and trophies were a bonus but not the sole reason for trying.  Gen Y expects to be congratulated for everything they do.  If nobody is going to notice them, then why do it in the first place?   Gen Y’s constant need for external affirmation is actually what drives their use of social media.  They post a message, photo or status update on Facebook and then log back in to see how many likes they have received and read what people have posted about them.

The Future is McQueen’s sixth source of paradigm rift.  Traditionalists plotted their futures on a linear path where they would rise through the ranks over time through persistence.  To Gen Y at the age of 15, a five-year plan represents 1/3 of their life.  They want to “keep their options open.”  If, as predicted, they will have 5-7 different career changes and that many of the jobs they may find themselves doing haven’t been invented yet, then why would they bother planning?  As parents we must show the students that what they learn in the classroom or at home is helping them prepare for the future regardless of what shape that takes.

The final paradigm rift is that of Learning.  Traditionally students learnt in classrooms with blackboards before they became white and smart.  Chalk and talk was the method of delivery and the students wrote down notes as quickly as possible before the teacher erased the board.  You sat at a desk to do your homework and study and hoped to demonstrate your understanding under examination conditions.  Gen Y&Z prefer lying on the floor and listening to music whilst they study.  Their parents say that they SHOULD have silence to learn because that’s how they studied.  Studies are now showing that Gen Y&Z students can and do learn with noise.  In fact, silence and solitude can cause stress for Gen Y.  Associate Professor Michael Rich from the Harvard Medical School has determined that by the age of 20, Gen Y will have spent 20,000 hours on the internet, 10,000 hours playing video games on top of the television they watch.  In 1978 more than 70% of people were auditory learners because of the prevalence of chalk and talk teaching.  Now there are less than 30% with a clear shift towards visual and kinaesthetic learning styles.  The recently enforced changes to the teaching and learning process, enforced by COVID-19, demonstrated the resilience and adaptability of Gen X and early Gen Y’s as they conquered the challenges of online platforms, through collaboration.

McQueen believes that Generation Y is confident and aware of their rights but behind the tough façade they are desperately looking for leadership, boundaries and mentoring.  Above all they want connection with adults.  McQueen found that 62% of Gen Y’s are growing up outside the influence of their biological father. As parents we can become too busy and stressed to really provide the solid and stable influence in the lives of our children and really connect with them.  If we don’t make an effort to understand McQueen’s paradigm rifts and really make a concerted effort to connect with our children and see the world through their lenses, then we will force them to seek connectedness elsewhere away from our sphere of influence.