Rev. Melissa Cooper

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Who is [Gen Z]? Let's take a look ...
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Last week, we heard from the Barna Group about the first major study done on [Generation Z], the generation estimated to be born from 1999-2015. As the first of their cohort is just beginning to graduate high school, the information we can acquire about them as a generation is limited, but Barna took the opportunity to get a small glimpse into the lives of this current youngest generation. 

As a committed student of generational theory, I was excited about this first look at the post-Millennial generation, so I ordered the study report as quickly as the internet would allow, and broke into it the moment it arrived on the doorstep.

The Challenges with the Research

Before I dig into the pertinent findings, though, I have to make a few caveats about this "research." 

  • First, this is not generational research. At this stage, it's polling of a group of people from a specific age cohort. This was one of the most disappointing things for me as a student of generational theory. While the study is able to make some solid generalizations about [Gen Z], the researchers often choose to compare them to other generations. Unfortunately, they're not making comparisons about other generations at the same age, but those other generations today. It shouldn't be shocking to anyone that the priorities of teenagers and the priorities of sixty-somethings are different. So, while the data still may be valid, the comparisons only give us a point-in-time reference rather than a generational one, so it's hard to parse out what are generational characteristics and what are just related to age and stage in life.
  • This study only included Protestant Christians. Excluding Catholics and Catholic Churches excludes a significant population of churchgoers, so is simply not a representation of all of the landscape of Christianity in the US. Whatever this study tells us, we have to be aware that it only represents a segment of the Christian population. 
  • The other major challenge I faced in reading the research is the religious bias. No doubt, Barna is a religious research group and their partner for this study, Impact360, is an evangelical organization, and in their words, they "cultivate a biblical worldview." Unfortunately, most mainline Christians would not qualify as having a "biblical worldview" under their definition. So as the data are interpreted throughout the report, some comparisons and evaluation are skewed toward a conservative evangelical approach. It's not subtle, though, so it's not hard to distinguish the evangelical Christian agenda from some of the raw data. 

So with those caveats in place, let's look at what we have now learned about [Gen Z] at this point in time.

My Questions

As I approached the report, I had a few key questions I hoped to have answered: What characteristics will arise? Will they match my experience with [Gen Z] teens and kids? Will technology be the focus of everything or will we be able to move past that distraction to look at the actual people technology is shaping? Will these [Gen Z] kids carry on the Strauss/Howe four-type cycle and carry some of the traits of their great grandparents in the Silent Generation?

I can't say any of my questions was answered completely (and some not at all), but there were some findings of interest and some key themes that arose.

Reclusive & Communal

[Generation Z] has been said to be the loneliest generation on record, and it appears for good reason. Overall, [Gen Z] is less likely to leave their homes, drink alcohol, get their license, and go out on dates than generations before them at the same age. Teen pregnancy rates are down, even rare, but teen suicide and depression greater than ever.

Why? It appears that the over-the-top parenting techniques, commonly referred to as "helicopter" parenting have moved them in this direction. This restrictive but involved form of parenting has created a generation with curated lives, each moment of their day scheduled, and with more homework from educational institutions than ever before.

So, when they don't have control over most of their lives, [Gen Z] seeks out agency and community in the only way they can: through technology and social media. They spend time on social media because they hunger for community and that is the only way THEY can create it.

And the community they seek out? A diverse one. Whereas Millennials embrace and are comfortable with diversity, [Gen Z] expects it. The study showed that they say they find joy in being around people different from them, a shift from previous generations who often express fear and anxiety about being with different cultures.

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The Future is the Focus (and that's scary)

One of the most poignant findings in this study is now future-focused this generation is. Personal achievement kept coming up as central to the [Gen Z] identity. And while it's not new for teenagers to be focused on college and considering career, it seems to have spiked with this group. 

Much like their carefully curated childhoods, they are learning to curate their online presences not for the sake of propriety or social inclusion, but because from a young age, they've been told that colleges and future employers will be monitoring their online engagement.

When asked about their role models, the majority of the reasons they chose role models were related to future personal achievement - six of the top ten reasons given were related to career or financial success.

And no wonder this is also the most stressed-out generation in history; in addition to the personal pressures they feel, they are also distrustful of the future in general on a global scale. As far as they know, the world has always been at war, and these kids have greater global awareness than any previous generation. (I know I don't remember having such nuanced opinions about the government when I was their age!)

Spiritual & Don't Know How to be Religious

When it comes to the church, they've inherited an interesting bag. Like Millennials, they are drawn to spirituality, but even more so than Millennials, they don't have the foundation for religious and theological exploration that previous generations had. They're working from a blank slate - and depending on how you see it, that can be a gift or a challenge.

They also appear indecisive at times. They are reluctant to form strong opinions for fear of offending someone. In the end, they tend to end in indecision, and they find it hard to give an answer when needed.

They also don't necessarily feel warm and fuzzy about the church in general. When asked, they chose images that were neutral or judgmental (a cross and a finger pointing over a Bible) to describe the church.

And yet, when they were asked to choose between extremes for their "ideal church," they often chose some pretty traditional images. They chose community over solitude and being in a sanctuary over an auditorium. Unsurprisingly, they preferred a casual, varied experience, but on almost everything else, they were split nearly 50/50: quiet vs loud, traditional vs modern, relaxed vs exciting, performance vs ritual, classic vs trendy. Much like with Millennials, a hip, non-traditional, contemporary church is not the magic bullet for young people of any age. 

As much to Teach us as We have to Teach Them

While there may be some response needed in knowing the lack of conviction and penchant for indecision of [Gen Z], that same characteristic highlights one of their key positive characteristics: empathy. [Gen Z] seems to be able to tap into and anticipate the feelings of others, and they have a great desire not to do harm or offend. They have a high tolerance and low desire to antaagonize; I would say most of our adult generations could learn a few things!

That being said, a lifetime of indecision will not do them well. They need to be given opportunities to practice and skills for critical thinking and discernment. From my experience, when given those tools, they shine brightly! 

While this list is nowhere near the extent of the research from Barna, nor does it even scratch the surface of the intricacies of an entire generation, we are beginning to see the emergence of a new, distinct group in our society, and before we know it, they'll be among our workforce and leading in our churches and our society.

Keep in mind, though, that the youngest of this generation is estimated to be only three years old. This research, even with all the limitations already mentioned, is also limited by the fact that it can only really survey a maximum of about half of the generation.

My hope is we will continue to challenge this generation, and continue asking some of the right questions so that we can not only figure out what makes them tick but also be the best possible mentors and leaders for them, inviting them to participate in a society we choose to create together.