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.
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.
“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.
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.