Who are Generation Z?
The term Generation Z refers to teens and pre-teens born after 1995 and was officially launched in 2014 as part of a marketing presentation. The salient characteristic of their generation is its apparent fondness love of and comfort with new technology.
So, in order to find out more about Generation Z, we asked middle school students about theirs and their families’ relationship with technology. And found no easy generalizations.
And what does this all have to do with that pesky “digital natives” conversation?
Who are Generation Z?
In this episode of our podcast, we try to figure out what Generation Z’s relationship with technology looks like, and how it differs from that of the older generations in their family. And we do this by taking the remarkably simple step of asking some of its members.
A full transcript of the podcast appears below.
On this episode of the 21st Century Classroom:
Student 1: I’m not like a super-techy person, I’m not like one of those persons who knows everything and like can figure out computer problems.
Student 2: I think I like using technology better than, like, writing it in a book or something. Or researching it.
We talked to members of Generation Z to find out how they really feel about technology.
Student 3: My mom got an iPhone and she was super-excited and she couldn’t figure out how to use it, and I go, “Mom, I’ve never had an iPhone,” but I knew how to operate it — because my friends all have iPhones, so I knew how they operate them.
Who are Generation Z?
Announcer: First there was the Lost Generation. Then came the Greatest Generation. Followed by the Silent Generation, the Me Generation and Generation X. Now comes the over-scheduled, over-protected, hyper-parented generation.
Loosely defined as teens and pre-teens born after 1995, the term Generation Z has gained widespread notoriety as the result of a 2014 presentation made by a New York City advertising firm. They described the post-Millennial generation as, among other things, inherently technology-savvy, a discussion that’s resurrected the idea that students today can be considered so-called “digital natives“, while their teachers and parents are “digital immigrants”.
Pundits have been quick to pick up on Generation Z’s purported technophilia, with author and consultant Don Tapscott maintaining technology is quote “like air to them” and Macleans magazine columnist Anne Kingston writing of the most profound generation gap ever: a digital divide between parents who see the Internet as disrupting society as we know it and… their kids.
But how accurate can a blanket statement about an entire generation be?
We sat down and tried to figure out how Generation Z’s relationship with technology differs from that of their parents and older family members.
And we did this by going out and asking some middle schoolers at Crossett Brook Middle School and Warren Elementary how technology influences their lives.
What we found is that they — and their families — don’t fit into any easy generalization.
Student 4: Well, my mom got a new iPhone awhile ago and I had to explain to her what to do, ’cause, like, I’ve had technology all my life.
Student 5: Some of the apps on my mom’s phone are untouched, actually.
Student 6: I think me and my mom are pretty much in the same amount of understanding and the amount that we use it. She understands it, but my dad is really techie and a computer guy.
Student 5: My dad has his own cleaning business and he’s always on the computer or on his iPad to see who paid or he’s always on the computer almost every day.
Student 1: I myself and my family: my mom, she doesn’t really use the technology that much (she’ll kind of just rather look at books) but my sister definitely loves technology too.
Educator Life LeGeros recently relocated to Vermont from Massachusetts. He’s been a math teacher, assistant principal and Director of State Math Initiatives at the Massachusetts Department of Education:
Life LeGeros: My first thoughts were that there was something to this “Gen Z” thing. You know, I’d been working with adolescents for quite some time, most of my professional career, and not only are they clearly growing up in a totally different environment and mindset than my experiences, but I’ve seen that even change drastically over the past 10 or 15 years, for them.
I grew up in Nebraska, and I was in the capital city, but there were ideas and influences that we did not have access to, much less the kids living 100 miles west of me in the cornfields. But these days, kids — not only has society changed a lot, but — it’s in their face. And they have it at their fingertips, the different ideas out there. This whole dynamic is very confused right now, where the adults don’t necessarily know more, but you can’t assume the kids know everything, so who’s actually going to help them with it?
So we put that question to the students: who helps them with new technology?
Student 1: In school last year we did a lot more, we did coding, there’s websites for coding. And at the library — my mom works at the library — she did a program about coding where you got to go on a website and do your own coding.
Student 7: Yeah, I love apps so I just go out there and try it.
Student 8: I’m sort of the same, where I read the directions ’cause sometimes I don’t get how to play the game?
Student 7 Same.
Life LeGeros: Do you read the directions first?
Student 8: Yeah, before I start pushing ‘Play’.
Student 4: I’d be like hands-on like self-taught, like I wouldn’t need help on how to use it.
A common fear that’s sprung up around the Generation Z idea is that technology is already so ubiquitous in students’ lives that it’s crowding out other activities.
Except that the students we spoke to seem to have a pretty advanced grip on screen time balance:
Student 1: I own an iPhone, so I like to play games on that and watch Netflix on it, but I try to make it sort of even. I feel like if I spend one day sort of inside watching tv a lot I try to make it so I go outside more because I don’t want to just spend all my time inside looking at the screen all day.
Student 2: I play for like an hour or so, then we go out and bounce on my brother’s trampoline. And most of the time we just have to go to hockey because most of the winter we have hockey four days a week and we have pre-season now.
Student 9: In normal times I probably get in about an hour of games after my homework, but I’m more outside in the meadow, climbing a random tree.
University of Vermont graduate research fellow Mark Olofson does research into technology integration in education. Here’s what he has to say:
Mark Olofson: This narrative of digital natives is really reductive in nature. It ignores that there’s individual student differences, that there are regional differences, that there’s differences that align with different socioeconomic stuff and it’s really important for us when we’re thinking about technology integration that, if we resort to this reductive thinking we miss the necessary teaching and learning that has to happen in order for students to be able to utilize the technology in the world that they are going to encounter.
And so when we just take it as “Yep these kids they’re Generation Z, they know how to do all this stuff, they’re natural learners, when it comes to technology, they take to it like a fish in water” and that sort of thing, not only do we miss the opportunity to teach kids and set them up for success, we further exasperate the existing gaps between kids who have had the opportunity to interact and the time and the resources to work with all these pieces and those who haven’t. Those who have chosen not to. And that can even just be a mindset difference. And if we ignore those differences and just assume the kids are what the articles and what the rhetoric around Generation Z are, that we disadvantage a lot of kids.
And back to Life Legeros:
Life LeGeros: It brings back to me what are these stereotypes good for? What are generalizations good for? What is reduction good for? Well it’s really efficient, you can’t cater to every individual. Then again in education, that’s kind of what we’re going for. To try to cater to individuals as much as we can.
So it seems more problematic than ever to try to quantify an entire generation.
In doing so, we… kind of sound like crotchety old folks.
Student 7: Say your grandfather comes over and he sees you sitting back on the couch relaxing and playing Mortal Kombat–
Student 8: He’s like ‘We didn’t have these games when I was little.’
Student 7: “Back when I was a kid there was no things like this. We were back there just twiddlin’ our thumbs and doin’ our homework n’ things.’
The music for this episode is, as always, “Amphibious Circuits” by dirtwire, used by the artist’s permission. The audio clip referencing the different generations is from this US Department of Transportation public service announcement. A huge thank you goes out to Heidi Ringer and the students at Warren Elementary School, and Sara Huff and the students of Crossett Brook Middle School for taking the time out of their day to speak with us.