It’s time to start taking Generation Z seriously. While the youngest of the generation, those born in 2012, are still just 10 years old, the oldest, born in 1997, are 25 years old: already full-fledged adults. Today, there are 68.6 million Gen Zs living in the United States, making up 20% of the country’s population. Already, Gen Z — despite its youth — makes up a quarter of the U.S. workforce.

As Gen Z ages into employment and Baby Boomers continue passing retirement, the younger generation’s influence on the world will only increase. And that influence will change the way our society operates.

Think about this: Generation Z is not only the first generation to be born after the ubiquity of the internet, making them true digital natives, but they’re also the first generation that doesn’t really remember a pre-9/11 America. Their lives have been drastically altered by the COVID-19 pandemic, and their worldviews were shaped by the struggles of the 2008 Great Recession.

“While the Millennials were children of the peace and prosperity of the 1990s, Generation Z are children of the war and uncertainty and recession and pandemic of the 2000s,” said Bruce Tulgan for Forbes. “They have been indelibly shaped by an era of profound change and perpetual anxiety.”

Gen Z has expe­ri­enced excep­tion­al­ly high pover­ty rates — greater than those of mil­len­ni­als, Gen Xers and baby boomers dur­ing 2010 to 2021, according to the KIDS COUNT data center.

64% of Gen Z respondents to an APA Stress in America survey report money and work to be stressors. Personal debt (33%) and housing instability (31%) were significant sources of stress, while nearly 28% cite hunger or food insecurity.

So as Gen Z matures into adulthood, the era in which they’ve grown up and the stressors they’ve experienced will shape the way they think about their futures, the role of education in their lives, and what they’re looking for in a career.

They work to live, not live to work. While just 61% of Gen Zers already in the workforce feel that work is a significant part of their identity, according to a Deloitte research report, 86% of bosses say that work is a significant part of their identity.

Deloitte found three primary disconnects between Gen Z workers and their bosses that reveal a lot about what Gen Z considers lacking in their adult lives:

Contrasting views on the importance of empathy
Divergent views on the impact of work on mental health
Disparate views on the importance of work to personal identity

While these disconnects are workplace-specific, they reveal a lot about how Gen Z views the entire institution of college and careers. Where Millennials wanted a college experience and a workplace that was an extension of their personal lives, with ping pong tables and local beers on tap, Gen Z views both education and employment more as a means to an end.

Because “Gen Z is the first generation to be born after the iPhone, and their whole lives they’ve had access to technology and more information than any generation before them,” said Juliana Stancampiano for Fast Company. “This has changed their outlook on the value and price of education.”

“They’ve watched Millennials before them take on crushing student loan debt, burdening them well into adulthood and limiting their ability to buy a first home and have children. Gen Z watched their parents and older Millennial acquaintances follow this path, but rather than it leading to prosperity, as promised, for many it meant delays in being able to afford a home, build a family, or save for retirement.”

Gen Z is seeing first-hand that the future they were promised is far from guaranteed — in more ways than one.

According to multiple surveys, climate change is Gen Z’s greatest fear. More than half of the 16- to 25-year-olds surveyed for the Lancet said they believe humanity is doomed. And yet, they haven’t given up. They are fighting for policies that support their mental health, politics that allow stability and dignity for all people, and sustainable legislation that could alter the planet’s path of ecological destruction. To continue that fight, they need careers that support their lives. But their fear of climate change means those careers will look different than those of their parents.

Gen Z is already skeptical of the idea of spending an entire career loyal to one company, after seeing their parents struggle with layoffs after decades of loyalty. They already value strategic job-hopping to not only increase their earning power but to add to their on-the-job skills.
Couple those values with a fear that the planet will cease to function before they hit middle age, and you have a recipe for young adults who appreciate immediately-applicable, always-in-demand transferable skills like those they could gain in a career training program.

So what’s the best way to steer Gen Z back toward higher education in a way that won’t hamstring their careers, finances or futures? Through innovative delivery models, meaningful program outcomes and college and university missions that align with their own.

“Not enough people are innovating enough in higher education,” said Larry Summers, economist and former president of Harvard University. “General Electric looks nothing like it looked in 1975. Harvard, Yale, Princeton, or Stanford look a lot like they looked in 1975. They’re about the same size to within a factor of two; they’re about the same number of buildings; they operate on about the same calendar; they have many of the same people or some number of the same people in significant positions.”

“The main thing to say is that, for something that’s all about ideas and for something that’s all about young people, the pace of innovation in higher education is stunningly slow,” Summers continued. “We’re still on a system where the break is in the summer. The reason we’re on that system is that when everybody went to pick the plants, that was the natural way to organize school, and it’s still going that way.”

The most innovative sector in higher education — the one that turned to year-round enrollment way ahead of the curve, that prioritized career-aligned training programs first, the one that pioneered distance learning — is the career college sector.

The problem is, it hasn’t been branded that way. There’s a major opportunity to endear Gen Z to career education. The sector’s leaders just need to get in front of them.

“Given young people’s high level of engagement with social media platforms, universities need a concerted digital strategy grounded in a deep understanding of influencers of brand trust among youth,” said Rahul Choudaha, author of a recent Morning Consult survey.

But a digital strategy alone is not enough.

“Word-of-mouth is also important to building trust among high schoolers, a majority of whom said a recommendation from someone they trust was key to influencing their perception about and trust in a particular college,” said Choudaha.

One of the biggest word-of-mouth influences on high school students’ higher education decisions are some of the most overlooked: Their high school counselors. These counselors understand Gen Z in a way most of us further removed from them never will, and can help guide them toward decisions that keep their best interests in mind for years to come.

That’s why the Imagine America Foundation believes establishing relationships within your community is vital to a healthy high school recruitment practice. We can help your college or university educate not only Gen Z, but their counselors, by stopping the stigma around career education.

Our proven high school recruitment program facilitates virtual presentations to local high school counselors via webinar. These attendance-guaranteed webinars have drawn an audience of more than 5,000 counselors, led 91% of attendees to request additional information from the hosting college or university, and resulted in increased scholarship applications and enrollment.

Ready to learn more about our webinar program and start connecting with Gen Z? Reach out to us today.

This blog post was sponsored by the Imagine America Foundation’s Career Students First Initiative.