Understanding Generation Z (7 to 21-year-olds)
I have some catching up to do. I’m guessing you and your church do too. What do you know about the youngest generation, Generation Z?
I had a bit of an existential crisis on a recent ministry course when I realized a number of the students were born the year I graduated high school! I was reminded a number of times how the younger generation is different than my generation and older generations, and not just by how many times I said “You don’t remember that?” You should have heard us comparing TV shows from our childhood! This youngest generation is much different than previous generations.
Here is what I’m finding, many of us in the church are trying to reach this generation of kids, teens, and emerging adults as if they were Millennials, and Generation Z is not at all the same as Millennials. We’ve got to catch up! The truth is Millennials are not youth anymore at all! (I know…existential crisis, right?!) Millennials are those born between 1980 and 1995, making them 22 to 37 years old. They are pushing 40!
Generation Z is those born between 1996 and 2010, making them 7 to 21 years old. Gen Z is our pre-teens, teenagers, and emerging adults. Let me tell you, they are very different than Millennials.
Church, we better understand this if we are going to reach and engage this younger generation with the Gospel.
Here are a few things to understand about Generation Z. These are all adapted from the book “Meet Generation Z” By James Emery White and a podcast James did with Carey Nieuwhof about the book. I’d highly recommend both. They are full of lots of great, well-researched information and will give you help on how to reach this young generation.
Please remember, as you read this list, whenever we try to capture a whole generation we are making broad generalizations, even stereotypes, based on the group as a whole. As always, the best way to get to know a generation or sub-culture is to talk to them, take interesting in them, and build relationships with them.
Meet Generation Z:
1. Internet-in-its-pocket generation – they have always been able to google or “ask Siri” for the answer. Millennials can’t remember a world without computers, while Gen Z hasn’t known a world without constant, immediate access to the web. They’ve lived in a world that is “always on” and connected. They’ve lived in a world with few constraints. They’ve lived in a world with a computer and internet in their back pocket.
For Generation Z, social media has always been a primary source of communication and email is archaic. On social media, unlike older generations, they tend to be more private about things. Therefore, they are rarely on Facebook and more likely to change social media platforms often, and use platforms that are more anonymous, like Snapchat and text messaging.
2. Visual - On social media and apps, and in life in general, they are incredibly visual. Generation Z are more likely to use pictures and emoticons to communicate rather than words. Basically, you’ve got eight seconds to communicate with them, but you better use pictures and do it quickly. They’ve got quick and fast filters. They’ll decide almost instantly whether to ignore you and move on or engage further.
3. Independent - Individual freedom is their greatest value. They are fiercely independent and self-directed. It has never been necessary for them to use an outside person (librarian, doctor, parent, teacher…) to look something up or solve a problem, why should they start now? They have been leaderless and yet had a plethora of information at their fingertips, so they’ve quickly taught themselves to be independent.
So much of the world has been and is available to them on demand, they’ve learned to be self-directed and follow their own whims and desires. This has also made them the most entrepreneurial generation.
4. Loss of childhood – more than even the Millennial generation before them they’ve been forced to grow up extremely quickly.
They’ve experienced the loss of their childhood for a number of reasons:
- they are exposed to many of the worries, dangers , and complexities of our world at an early age
- a lot of their parents have taken a hands-off parenting approach and have themselves, as parents, only be partially present with their own kids because of their busy lives and their own engagement with technology and social media
- parents haven’t known how to regulate such a complex, world-in-your-back-pocket society
- Gen Z is more globally aware and concerned from a young age
- they've never lived in a world without terror threats
- pornography has always been, unfortunately, readily accessible and even bombarded them. As James says “Porn is the wallpaper of their life.”
- in our sexualized culture, we’ve come to expect them to grow-up and act older sooner
What I'm observing this means is it takes more for them to react. They’ve already seen and heard it all. Nothing really surprises them and they are dealing with the complexities of an adult world at younger and younger ages.
5. Lack of coping skills & wisdom – Generation Z has been forced to grow-up before they were ready, they’ve had a ton of information and unlimited access at their fingertips, and yet they have not had protection, they’ve not had wisdom, to handle all that comes towards them. This seems to have created a more anxious generation, with a lack of all the necessary coping skills for living in a complex world.
6. Sexually fluid – Generation Z is a strong supporter for things such as same-sex marriage and transgender rights. They have come of age in the era where LGBTQ has been mainstream and same-sex marriage has been legal in Canada (since 2005). Experimentation, questioning, and fluidity in sexuality has been encouraged. Generation Z has become sexually and relationally amorphous. Sexuality is viewed as something that should be set free from any labels and all restrictions. Generation Z believes people should be allowed to follow their desires, moment by moment.
7. Post-Christian, Post-Religious – many have been brought up by parents who did not have any religious affiliation (the “none’s”) themselves. Therefore, most of these kids and youth have zero understanding of what religion is, what the Bible is, who Jesus is, any Bible stories, what a church is for etc. They have zero background or understanding. We can’t presume they know anything. In fact, if they’ve picked up anything about Christianity through social media and media it’s likely negative. Unless they personally know Christians, they are not likely seeking any faith, nor do they feel anything is missing from their life.
I’ll never forget speaking to a group of youth one night and one young man being shocked when I started to talk about “Jesus Christ.” He thought I was swearing, as that was the only context in which he’d heard the name of Jesus before. I had a lot of explaining to do and had to give a lot of back story, before I could unpack the Scripture for that night. We need to always go back ten steps and explain everything carefully, not making any presumptions about previous knowledge or understanding, with Generation Z.
Are you getting the picture? This, my friends, is Generation Z. Our 7 to 21 year olds. It can seem challenging, as you look at this list, to think about engaging this young generation with the Gospel. It is also an exciting and amazing opportunity! Look at the list again, what an opportunity we have to meet this generation and build relationships with them! The Gospel offers belonging, identity, purpose and new life to this and each generation. If we are willing to reach out and engage this generation on their platforms, God is absolutely at work in this generation. We can paint a picture for them of the peaceful, hopefully, joyous, adventurous…Kingdom of God, that invites them to come and lay down their live for God’s bigger story.
Hope this helps.
Thank you for joining Generation Z in your neighbourhoods and networks.
One more spot to look for help on this is at imaginativehope.ca It's a report from Canadian leaders on what it will take to reach this generation.