Is your child reluctant to participate in activities?
Are they struggling to connect socially with you or their peers?
Are they struggling to make decisions?
About a year ago, a worried parent of a 9th grader sought our help as their child was demonstrating the general malaise that can seem typical of current high schoolers. The student was uninterested in any activities, indifferent about college, and generally demonstrating a brand of nihilism. This was a marked change from his behavior before the pandemic, and it was concerning to the parent.
After several sessions, we were able to help the student start to rebuild a sense of purpose and progression, enough so that he wanted to make plans for the future again. The key to this was recognizing what was actually motivating for him. He was no longer interested in activities for their own sake, but needed to see them in the context of the bigger real-world picture. We were recently discussing majors with him, and his focus was on what kinds of jobs come out of that major and whether or not those industries were actively growing. For him, a 10th grader, this choice was about building a future he could depend on and expect to grow.
His situation actually reminded me of when I was graduating from high school. It was the tail end of the financial crisis and nobody I knew thought good times were ahead. My English teacher told my entire class, ‘stay in college as long as you can. There is nothing for you out there right now.’
Now, over a decade later, I’m watching high schoolers graduating into a world that looks a lot like the one I entered with even less hope and preparation.
This is not, however, the whole picture.
Gen Z (the generation born between 1997 and 2013) is not unmotivated, lazy, or hopeless. Their priorities have shifted and to help our students handle their struggles, we need to understand that shift.
Gen Z has two unique factors we need to consider:
They are hyper-aware of the world around them due to their digital native status. This awareness is a double-edged sword, however, as it gives them both the potential to be very educated but also very overwhelmed by an onslaught of often very discouraging data. They know what their economic prospects are. They know how the pandemic impacted industries. They were in the middle of it all, flooded with data from every form of social media and news outlet available.
They have a collective trauma of watching society collapse around them which has impacted their entire worldview. The trauma of the pandemic should not be underestimated. Gen Z was actually set up to inherit a recovering economy with record-low employment. It was possible for them to overcome many of the barriers the previous generation faced. Then the pandemic hit and all of that hope was yanked away. They learned a hard lesson about the fickle nature of the economy, as piece by piece, they lost the pillars they were depending on. Schools closed, and with them went activities, sports teams, and orchestras, all their social events disappeared. Unemployment skyrocketed, affecting their parents’ jobs and their own employment prospects.
The effects of the pandemic persist even as Covid recedes. With this two-year gap of school, Gen Z has left behind academically, emotionally, and in maturity. In our experience working with students from across the U.S., it takes these new generations of students much longer to reach their goals. They lack many of the soft skills needed in the workforce. They need considerably more hand-holding to manage themselves.
However, it would be a mistake to believe that these difficulties define Gen Z. Their perspective has shifted.
They have goals and drives, but they revolve around a desire for stability. They are a generation of pragmatics. We can see this in the shifts in their approach to the job market, to education, and to life in general.
A Handshake poll showed that 52.9% of respondents think it will be harder to get a job than when their parents graduated. Almost 25% of Gen Z respondents to a McKinsey study do not expect to retire and only 41% think they will be able to own a home one day, which would seem like an indicator that they have no hope in a future economic state for themselves.
However, what this means is that they want to take steps to brace themselves for a potentially difficult economic future. Within college, there is a much stronger shift towards STEM majors as Gen Z feels that the job prospects are much more stable than liberal arts degrees. During college, 36.3% will complete 2-3 internships before graduating and 76.8% will have at least one.
They are a generation of anxiety, but this has led to them also developing instincts for self-improvement and savvy planning.
So how can we help Gen Z stay motivated to persevere beyond their circumstances?
Here are a few tips.
Be open about information sharing and communication, even with negative information. Gen Z is the information generation. Remember, they want to feel confident in moving forward and that requires understanding the whole picture. Increased information-sharing alleviates anxiety and develops trust.
Help them explore long-term career pathways. They want to see the bigger picture and how the work they do now can have a real effect on their lives. They need to understand the purpose and see the end results.
Give them opportunities to engage with their communities. Gen Z is particularly interested in their impact on the world. Let them take part in it. It’s important to them already and will give them opportunities to develop the soft skills they need.
Recognize their anxiety. Gen Z is highly driven by empathy and they respond well to leaders who recognize their struggles. Mental health struggles dramatically increased over the course of the pandemic. 55% of respondents aged 18-24 to a McKinsey poll reported having a diagnosis or treatment for mental illness. Prioritizing their mental health will go a long way to helping them feel confident in pushing forward.
Give them room for autonomy. Gen Z wants to be successful. They want to have the skills needed. The more opportunities they have to practice working on their own, the more they will recover from the pandemic effects.
Above all, believe that Gen Z has the ability to be better than any generation before them. They have more tools, more knowledge, and more empathy than anyone ever has. The pandemic rocked their boat, but they kept sailing. They may need extra help right now, but in the end they will be a world-changing generation. We just need to give them the right chance.
All of our classes and programs are designed to help students develop the skills and motivation to succeed. Our BranchOut! program gives students the opportunities to take leadership positions and serve the community. Our advising curriculum teaches students how to think deeply and reflectively about their experiences and dreams. Check out our programs and see how we can help your child grow!
Also, come meet our team at any of our monthly workshops! We have an upcoming workshop on motivating children to read this April!