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Here’s Why My Approach to Gen Z will be Different from Millennials

June 17, 2019 J. Andrew Shepardson Bentley University

As I reflect on this past academic year, from the start of new student orientation, it felt different, and the arrival of returning students reinforced that feeling. I noticed that especially among our first-year students, attendance at programs was down, from educational to fun events. More students were reporting anxiety and isolation. More faculty were reporting students missing significant class time.

While struggling to make sense of these changes, I attended the NASPA Region I Conference. As NASPA conferences often reveal, this was not something isolated to my campus. My VPSA colleagues were seeing the same things. It did not matter the type of institution or the type of student—things had taken a dramatic turn on campuses between May and September of 2018. Indeed, something very different was going on.

As the academic year progressed and I read and learned more, it became clear to me that what we were experiencing was the tipping point of a generational shift - the transition from students of the Millennial generation to students of the Gen Z generation. With 25 years of experience, I had been through a generational transition before in my career. I am determined to approach this one with more wisdom.

In the late ‘90s, as the shift  occurred from Generation X (my generation) to the Millennials, I will admit my approach focused more on disdain and frustration with this new generation rather than seeing the opportunity before me. Like many people, I thought Millennials expected the world to open doors for them without much work or effort. Halfway through their time on campuses, my thoughts changed.

First, a colleague reminded me that my complaining was not going to change an entire generation. The more I experienced and learned about this generation, the more I appreciated. I realized that even if the working “style” was not the same as mine—the quality of the end product was what mattered. As I worked with more students and more Millennials joined my staff, I saw their appreciation of collaboration, their commitment to social justice and a technological expertise I could only imagine having. Soon, I too, found the advantage of working from home to complete projects and let go of my belief that “work” only occurred between certain hours in specific places.

As we welcome Gen Z to campus this fall, I intend to be smarter and not wait a decade to embrace this new generation. I have learned that generational transitions require a complete reevaluation of how we work with our students. That, I find exciting and challenging. It is essential that we first understand what makes this generation unique and, in turn, redesign our services to best meet their needs. This can be challenging because their mindsets are not ours, and we will be making changes that may be counter-intuitive to how we think things should be.

I believe that Gen Z students will highlight the value we in student affairs bring to campuses. Student affairs appears to have entered a period where our contributions are noticed and respected. The increasing number of student affairs professionals becoming presidents is just one example of this value.

The rising mental health needs of Gen Z will require us to do better with the services we provide. Managing counseling centers and wellness services with increasing demands is one example but so is how we manage the impact in the classroom, in residence halls, on athletic fields, and in other campus areas. A small number of students will require significant staff time beyond counselors. Student affairs knows how to solve problems and achieve success despite limited resources. Our culture of sharing best practices and working collaboratively across campuses will help us become more efficient while making us more effective.

At the same time, we will need to balance these mental health demands with the much broader needs of this generation. Gen Z is the first to grow up in the age of smart phones and social media during a time when society did not fully understand these ever-changing, emerging technologies and their impacts on development. Many of our Gen Z students will arrive having spent more of their day-to-day interactions with others connected through their devices rather than in personal interaction, challenging us to help them master the social skills and community engagement that career and life require. Our expertise in student development uniquely positions us to lead these efforts.

This next generation will also challenge us to reevaluate our belief systems, our decision-making and ourselves. Gen Z is the most diverse of any previous generation and will expect us to live up to our inclusion values. They are also a generation that grew up during the Great Recession and will be much more critical of how we spend their tuition dollars. Gen Z, thanks in part to 24/7 information streams, is likely to be a generation that has opinions and is not afraid to voice them. Protests and tensions are likely to increase on campuses and our expertise in creating productive dialogue when issues escalate will be more needed than ever.

I have initiated dialogue on my campus to introduce my colleagues, my president, and our trustees to Gen Z and to the certainty that something very different is happening. I intend to be at the forefront in helping my campus prepare for and navigate this shift with an approach that is hopeful, optimistic and sees the opportunities before us so we can make decisions to best serve our next generation of students. This will likely be my last opportunity to lead during a generational shift. I’m realizing that the benefit of a long career is that sometimes we are given second chances. I intend to make the most of this one.