Back in the summer of 2019 I spent a few months reading everything I could find on Generation Z.
I think I’m not exaggerating to say I read every scholarly paper I could access through my University, and every book on the subject in its libraries. I wrote a paper for my network of churches, Grace Connection, which you can find here. I’ve also written on the subject for Premier Christianity here and here.
Realistically everything will have moved on a little in the last couple of years. I’ve been on the ground, discipling students and working at a University rather than reading new texts of which I’m sure there are many. Everything I’ve seen has confirmed what I previously wrote, though.
Some church leaders are really struggling with the generation too, not because they’re ‘leaving the church in droves’, at least here in the UK that isn’t true as our cultural Christianity is vestigial at best. Instead because Gen Z are different to Millennials and they don’t know how to react, or as one church leader put it to me the other day, they’re ‘scared of them’. There’s no need for fear, but understanding is helpful.
So, in short, who are Gen Z? Born 1995-2012, and commonly called ‘Generation Z’, there are some surprisingly stark differences between Gen Z and the previous generation, commonly called ‘Millennials’. When I’ve summarised my research for others, I’ve done under these three headings.
Generation Z reached adolescence after 2007’s digital revolution. Their adult lives have been lived in and around smart phones and social media. This is a natural environment for them, it was learned as a habitat at the same time the wider world was. They are much less likely to distinguish between the ‘real’ and virtual worlds.
They live in a world of constant connection—and that’s not hyperbole, ask some of your Gen Z friends how often they turn their phones off—and of the asynchronous communication phones are most often used for.
Research is showing that as—we presume—a result of these trends, it is harder for Gen Z to trust, to analyse information, and to read long prose than for Millennials at comparable points of development. Generation Z score lower on emotional intelligence and are described as having lower social skills.1
Generation Z are the children of the great recession of 2008 and following. They have notable concerns about financial security which seem to affect a wide range of their decisions.2
Their anxiety seems to be more generalised than this though, research shows them to be more lonely; more shy; more isolated; more unhappy; and more overwhelmed than millennials. Depression has doubled, as has suicidal behaviour.3
Like all of us, Generation Z experience ambient anxiety caused by 24-hour news, push notifications, and social media. What Douglas Rushkoff calls present shock, that sense that everything is happening right now, and all of it is overwhelming. Unlike the rest of us, Gen Z have had to experience this as teenagers and are especially vulnerable to its effects. They’re worried. About everything.
Growing up Slower
As thoroughly documented in Jean Twenge’s book iGen, Gen Z reach ‘adulthood’ milestones like learning to drive, losing their virginity or first drinking alcohol later than Millennials did. Whatever we might think of whether these are good markers for adulthood, they do trace a sociological trend: they’re younger than their predecessors. On average Gen Z arrive at University approximately 3 years ‘younger’ than Millennials.4 As a church near a campus of a significant University (where, incidentally, I work) we’ve really noticed this. Even comparing myself, a mid-30s millennial, to new students arriving in Birmingham as they sit around our dining table, I notice this.
Some academics at my University have theorised that Covid will have exacerbated this with the new intake in September.
This is then combined with the well documented rise of ‘safetyism’ and ‘emotional reasoning’ (think particularly of Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt’s The Coddling of the American Mind) on University campuses, and you have a cocktail where a generation is anxious about growing up.
Perhaps of most interest to Christian readers is how marriage has shifted from a cornerstone to a capstone. It’s something that you do later in life when you’re ‘ready’ rather than something you do to build a life from. While this is no different from my friends who don’t follow Jesus, is it notably different from my Christian peers at the same age—it’s hardly universal, a wedding invitation for a couple in their early twenties arrived this week, but it’s a growing trend.
Generation Z have also grown up in the same culture the rest of us are living in, experiencing the forces of individualism, for example, as a deeply forming cultural trend. These three features aren’t exhaustive, but they do give a sense of a shape to a group.
They’re great too
So, that’s been mighty negative. But, if you’ve spent any time with this generation, I hope you’ve noticed that they’re great. I could write a list of deep generational flaws for my own generation too, they just aren’t as interesting because they’re well known!
For the sake of balance, it’s important to know that they’re deeply concerned about justice, much more likely than millennials to take life seriously, much less entitled and self-centred, more interested in contributing to society, and they want to take responsibility for themselves even if they don’t always know how.
There is much to hope about, but churches need to consider carefully how to best approach Generation Z with the wonderful truth of the gospel.
I’ll start expanding these ideas in blog posts over the coming months, but for now check out the paper and start to think: what does authentic discipleship for Gen Z look like? It won’t be that different to what discipleship has looked like for centuries, but it will be a bit different.
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1 Seemiller, C. & Grace, M., Generation Z: A Century in the Making, Routledge, 2018, 49-50, 139-140, 229-231. Fromm, J. & Read, A., Marketing to Gen Z: The Rules for Reaching This Vast–And Very Different–Generation of Influencers, Amacom, 2018, 108, 118. Twenge, J., iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy–and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood, Atria, 2017, 49-50, 114. Iorgulescu, M., ‘Generation Z and its Perception of Work’, Cross-Cultural Management Journal 18:1, 2016, 47-54. Esqueda, O., ‘What Every Church Needs to Know About Generation Z’, Talbot Magazine, 14/11/2018. Illing, S., ‘Why social media is terrible for multiethnic democracies’, Vox, 15/11/16. Konrath, S., ‘Changes in Dispositional Empathy in American College Students Over Time: A Meta-Analysis’, Personality and Social Psychology Review 15:2, 2011, 180-98
2 White, J. E., Meet Generation Z: Understanding the Reaching the New Post-Christian World, Baker, 2017, 27. Generation Z, 32, 109. Twenge, J., Generation Me, Atria, 2006, 262. Barna Group, “Is Gen Z the Most Success Oriented Generation?” Research Releases in Millennials & Generations, July 24, 2019. Adecco, Generation Z vs. Millennials, 2015.
3 Generation Z, 120, 148-150. Young Woman’s Trust Annual Survey 2016. Lukianoff, G. & Haidt J., The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting Up a Generation for Failure, Allen Lane, 2018, 150-151. iGen, 97, 103. American Psychological Association, ‘Stress in America: Generation Z’, 2018.
4 iGen, 24-29.