Apr 25, 2016


Welcome to college, Generation Z

Tom Knight helps collegiate leaders look beyond Millennials and prepare for Generation Z.

While political pundits, sociologists, and religious leaders continue to weigh the virtues and vices of Millennials, those doing ministry on the college campus are turning a new page. Called Generation Z, Wii generation, Post-millennial, or Homeland, a new generation is reaching the halls of collegiate life. If we take 1998 as the ending point of the Millennial generation, then Generation Z will be on the campus this fall.  But who are the students of Generation Z and what are they like? Though we are just seeing them emerge from childhood, there are several important themes we do know about them.

They will be the most racially diverse generation.  According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the United States will become a majority minority country by 2043. The fastest growing demographic in Generation Z is biracial. Immigration also continues to bring in new religions, races, and nationalities. If we are going to be relevant, our churches and campus ministries must reflect the many shades of students on campus. This is true of our leadership composition as well.

They will be more numerous than Millennials.  While Millennials have outnumbered both Baby Boomers and Generation X, Generation Z is set to become the largest generation. This means the college-age cohort of this generation is going to continue for some time. Also, research shows that one out of two from Generation Z wants a college education. But there is a twist. These kids are growing up in an age of education transformation and many of them will spend more time at community colleges, early college programs, and online than ever before. We will need to adjust assumptions about where these college students will spend the bulk of their time, and figure out how to reach these education pioneers.

Raised in an Age of Authenticity.  In his magisterial book A Secular Age, philosopher Charles Taylor shows how we in the Western world have moved to an age where expressive individualism is how we authenticate meaning. It’s a world which can be summed up as “bare choice as a prime value, irrespective of what it is a choice between, or in what domain. . . the only sin which is not tolerated is intolerance.” Gen Z is growing up with 58 choices for gender on Facebook and gender neutral pronouns at colleges (“Ze has a great GPA,” for instance). Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner as a Vanity Fair pinup. Everyone gets to choose and woe be zir or hir who is seen as intolerant.

Social Media Natives.  Gen Z has grown up in a world of computers, internet, and smartphones. They are tech natives who love to create content not just consume. Never before has so much information been readily available for distribution, cross-reference, and debate. Not only are Obama and Trump fact-checked after or during a speech, but so are you. Gen Z is also part of a global youth culture where friendships cross national boundaries through social media and easy, often free communication. They are influenced by people from around the world, yet can also influence like never before.

Crisis Marked.  Having grown up in the War on Terrorism in a post-911 world that was also wracked by financial turmoil and ever increasing tuition costs, these students have seen their older siblings without jobs or back at home. Neil Howe, creator of the term Millennial, calls them the Homeland Generation. They are also realists in many ways with a leaning towards entrepreneurial creativity. In a Sparks and Honey survey, 42% said they wanted to work for themselves. They are getting back to basics and understand the need for financial security. A college education is important to them, but they don’t want huge debt hanging around their necks. There are a lot of choices in education now, and they are creative in how they hack education.

Every fall is a new beginning, but we are starting to see generational change as we look out over our campuses. Like all change this one will bring challenges and opportunities. Large and cosmopolitan, this generation will be able to include people from different races and backgrounds, could be more practical and businesslike, yet wiling to use its entrepreneurial skills in ministry proclamation. They are influenced by more non-Christian sources than ever before, yet have the potential to reach more non-Christians than ever before. Many will balk at the exclusivity of Christ, yet life in a “thin and narrow” world of consumerism and immanence will continue to disappoint, leaving open the doubt of something more. The generals are always left refighting the last war, and for us on the frontline of collegiate ministry its time to let Millennials go, and welcome Generation Z.

about the author

Tom Knight

Tom is a collegiate strategist in North Carolina, specializing in international student work. He holds a law degree from Wake Forest and an Mdiv from Princeton. He is the author of No Passport Required: Collegiate Ministry as Global Missions.