Today’s high school and college students are living, maturing and learning in a changed world, and educators are struggling to motivate and reach this generation of students – millennials and Generation Zers — that has perplexed and vexed traditional higher education. Born between 1996 and 2014, Gen Z has been characterized in many ways. Positive aspects of Gen Z include their desire for authenticity, belief that they can positively impact the world, their status as the first generation of true digital natives, strong sense of racial and social justice and attributes of practicality and confidence. Every generation has its categorical strengths and weaknesses. And within every generation, there is a defining moment, a call to action, a time where the positive and negative aspects of generational characteristics collide and generational expectations are reframed.
COVID-19 threatens the society and culture that created Gen Z’s universe. For today’s adolescents and young adults, COVID-19 won’t just be a life-altering time period; it will be the defining moment of their generation, their chance to shape and impact the future, their war. Surviving two economic downturns, watching parents worry about money and living in a world, unlike previous generations, where fear of terrorism prevails, this generation is sober, pragmatic and perhaps has been training their entire lives to reshape their worlds.
Almost ten months into this horrific pandemic, we reflect upon the intersection of Generation Z, COVID-19 and education. At best, students are distracted, anxious, and missing the old version of normal. At worst, they are dealing with losses of loved ones, economic hardships and/or the inability to see the people they love most. As educational leaders, how do we keep students motivated, and – to an even more central question – why? Is now really the time to prioritize education when so many are struggling just to get by?
The purpose of education is to learn to think and apply theoretical ideas to real problems within our communities, to lead students to create a personal GPS of sorts that will guide their thinking and help them detour around challenges to create new paths. Education is the vehicle that must and will help this generation rise to meet its defining challenge. It is our role as educators to help this generation reframe crisis, to look at hardship, specifically COVID-19, as a necessary journey to create the world they see as valuable and needed for themselves and future generations.
If we are to fully physically, emotionally, economically and psychologically recover from the effects of COVID-19, we will need Gen Z to step in. Beyond this winter and spring, COVID-19 will continue to shape the world as we know it. Education has changed; relationships have changed; our very way of interaction has changed. We will need Gen Z to help us reexamine what was true before COVID-19 to help us reflect upon what parts of “normal” are worth returning to and to channel their generational characteristics for good. Their desire to construct new knowledge, support authenticity and contribute to idea creation has never been more important or needed. The last thing we’ll need at the end of this pandemic is a generation of adolescents and young adults returning to the status quo and blindly doing what they are told or what they think is best without informed context. Now is the time to question core beliefs, question the society this generation wants to mature in and do the work of making that society a reality.
Education, now more than ever, isn’t just a theoretical exercise for today’s young adults. It’s a real practical vehicle for making a true social and economic impact for a generation. It’s the Z’s moment in time, and our responsibility, as their educators, is to help them understand their own individual and collective power to shape history.
(Murray is Lackawanna College President; Barone-Prici is LC Provost; and Decker is LC Associate Vice President of Social and Economic Impact.)