As a higher education professional who also happens to have been born at the cusp of being a Millennial and Generation Y’er, I am both personally and professionally familiar with the many negative stereotypes that have been cast on the Millennial generation. Terms like “special snowflakes”, “participation trophies”, and “the me-me-me generation” often punctuate conversations about this age demographic, and they have quickly become the punchline for the jokes of elders and the mainstream media alike. Working as a clinician in a college counseling center, I had the privilege of holding space with Millennials as they shared the intimate details of their lives—their fears, their hopes, and their experiences. I also had the privilege of seeing the tremendous strengths that existed: tenacity, hunger for life, and a steadfast desire to succeed both in their academics and in bettering the world.
In 2017, the generation following the Millennials entered the collegiate world. Known as “Generation Z” and classified as the demographic cohort born between 1996 and 2010, this generation is surely entering college at an interesting, and uncertain, time. As professionals tasked with supporting their growth and development, it is important that we take steps to learn who Generation Z really is. We owe it to them, and to ourselves, to do our part in understanding them, and in preventing them from falling prey to the blanket statements and scrutiny that befell the Millennials that came before them.
When thinking about wellness and prevention efforts, it is important to take into account that the students of Generation Z are vastly different, and healthier, than past generations. Compared to Generation Y, for example, they are more likely to wear seatbelts and less likely to become pregnant as teenagers, drop out of high school, or try alcohol. In fact, over the past 10 years there has been a significant decline in the number of students who enter college as drinkers, and a significant increase in the number of students who enter as abstainers. As we think about how to best support the students of Generation Z, it is critical to think about the ways in which we can maximize these strengths.
For nearly a decade, EVERFI data has told the story of a healthy majority. That is, the vast majority of students starting college are entering with healthy attitudes, behaviors, and beliefs. Students want to engage in positive conversations about sexuality, want to have skills to know how to support friends who might be struggling with mental health issues, and want to engage in behaviors and communities that are healthy. Despite this, many practitioners and institutions continue to operate from a biased or slanted perspective, catering primarily to preventing negative behaviors rather than promoting positive ones. While it is important to balance both, when working with the students of Generation Z, it is critical to look at the strengths that exist within the community and to confront and challenge misperceptions. It is worthwhile for practitioners to look at their efforts and ask the questions “Who is my target audience, and how is this initiative promoting healthy behavior?”
One of the most misperceived attributes of this generation is reliance on social media. While it is true that Generation Z is more technologically connected than generations of old, studies have actually found that those students who spend the most time socializing online also spend the most time socializing “in real life.” Much to the dismay of naysaying elders, the oft-uttered sentiment that “no one socializes in person anymore” is actually a myth. It is true, however, that Generation Z is the first generation to have grown up from birth with cell phones and laptops as the norm. These are both important factors to consider when tailoring prevention efforts. Multi-modal offerings (both in-person, and online) can ensure that you’re meeting your mark with both technologically and non-technologically oriented students. This is also an important factor to consider when marketing wellness related services and events.
Data from the 2016 The American Freshman report paints a picture of incoming students that are healthy, compassionate, and actively involved in their communities. 82% get at least one hour of exercise per week, and 80% spend at least one hour per week participating in an extracurricular club. Will they be exposed to similar opportunities when they step foot on campus? 76% ranked themselves as “above average” in their drive to succeed, and 73% in their ability to be understanding of others. Are we creating environments where “success” is aligned with engaging in healthy behaviors, and where their desire to support peers is nurtured and encouraged? Additionally, almost 50% report that they are likely to communicate regularly with their professors. Are we empowering faculty to be a part of creating the healthy institutions that we desire?
When developing prevention efforts, consider ways in which you can maximize the protective factors that exist among Generation Z students. Look at your wellness efforts and consider the audience that they are geared towards. Are you targeting those students who already have healthy behaviors and enabling them to maintain them, or are you catering your efforts to the minority of students who are less healthy? By creating systems, policies, and programs that support the healthy factors that exist among Generation Z, you can further support the growth of healthy and proactive communities. The time for change is now. As Generation Z enters the collegiate world, there is tremendous opportunity for a shift away from the status quo. By catering to those members of the community that are the healthiest, and by understanding the strengths of the students that we serve, we can begin to foster the positive environments that they seek to be a part of.