The Next Wave Isn't Blue or Red — It's Young: Understanding and Supporting Gen Z

Bob Ditter
January 2020
Camper crowd-surfing with help from staff and other campers

In November 2018, 15-year-old Greta Thunberg began a two-week strike in front of the Swedish Parliament. She was on a mission to bring attention to the looming threat of climate change and to protest the inaction of world leaders on the issue. When she started, she was alone. Less than a year later, on September 20, 2019, she was joined by a wave of more than 14 million people in a cascading series of protests that spanned the globe through 138 countries, beginning in Australia and ending 24 hours later in the Americas (Sengupta, 2019). Three days later, Thunberg, by then 16, addressed the UN General Assembly in New York. Her message, “We are in the beginning of a mass extinction and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you! You had a future and so should we” (Blint-Welsh, Winning, & Kantchev, 2019)!

This discussion is not about climate change or the politics that surround it. Nor is it about Greta Thunberg, except insofar as she typifies some of the characteristics of her generation. This is about the wave of bright, well-educated, cyber-sophisticated young people cresting — kids who are not afraid to tell you who they are, and who are looking for leaders who reflect their search for meaning and moral courage. The more you as a camp professional know about this newest group of young people, the more you can help them develop into the brand of strong, kind, savvy leaders they will need to be to meet the challenges of the next few decades. Welcome to Gen Z.

Who Is Gen Z?

Born between 1996 and 2011, these eightto 22-year-olds represent about 25 percent of the US population. By the time you read this they will account for about 40 percent of all consumer spending in the US (Baird & Witt, 2018). They would probably bristle at being labeled “Gen Z,” rightly pointing out how ludicrous it is to talk about an entire generation with sweeping statements about their characteristics. Yet every generation has events, fads, personalities, devices, and technology of their time that shape them. Everyone in my generation, for example, can tell you exactly where they were when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, and whether they watched the events unfold on a color or black-and-white television. Everyone who lived through it can tell you exactly where they were when the planes hit the Twin Towers in New York on September 11, 2001.

Gen Z, Technology, and Social Media

Gen Z has never known a time without cellphones or social media. They have always used social media as their main means of connection. According to the Pew Research Center, the platforms that are most popular with this group (shown as the percentage of teens who say they use it) are as follows:

YouTube 85 percent
Instagram 72 percent
Snapchat 69 percent
Facebook 51 percent 

(Anderson & Jiang, 2018).

 

If you want to reach them, stay current with them, or keep them together as a group, your camp needs to be active on one or more of these platforms. Facebook not so much.

Gen Z has also learned not to overshare on social media, having watched their older brothers and sisters create public disasters for themselves by naively sharing way too much online. It also means that Gen Z have constantly lived with fomo — the fear of missing out. As most of you know, young people today have been suffering from extremely high levels of anxiety (Ditter, 2019). Interestingly enough, when you ask members of Gen Z to go deeper and reflect on exactly what it is that is making them so anxious, what you often discover is that they are actually envious — an envy that comes from comparing what seems like their mundane life to what they perceive as the supposed fabulous lives of their peers as posted daily on social media (Brackett, 2019; Ditter, 2019).

The other characteristic we see in this generation is that they skim for content. Because they are flooded with information from being “plugged in” so much of the time, they must prioritize what reaches their attention. “TL/DR,” which in teen parlance means “too long, didn't read,” may be exactly how they treat your staff handbook or the procedures you write up for them during orientation. “Keep it simple, sweetheart!” has never been more appropriate for any generation of young staff members. One recommendation I have is something I call “pillow talk” at resident camp. Have a card printed up with the top seven things you want your staff to remember from their day of training and orientation and go around and place it on their pillows in their cabins before the end of the day. It is a great review and a way to reinforce the essentials of your messages from the day.

Authenticity

Greta Thunberg was very clear and upfront about having certain autistic traits. In her case, it means at least two things: 1) Once she gets an idea in her head, she doesn't let it go, and 2) she is able to divorce herself from most of the negative social feedback she may get about her stance on climate change — a characteristic that only serves to keep her from being distracted and slowed down by negative feedback. As she has stated in interviews, having these traits has probably helped her in her campaign around climate change awareness (Silberman, 2019).

Like Thunberg, Gen Z is more upfront and less apologetic about who they are as individuals. Depending on their specific at-home circumstances, they are less likely to be stigmatized by aspects of their identities than previous generations (Baird & Witt, 2018). As a camp professional, this tendency means several things at once:

  • Be ready for campers and staff members who are more likely to talk more openly about various aspects of their identities, whether it be race, gender and gender identity, sexual orientation, ethnicity, and so on.
  • Know that they are looking for camps that create environments where it is safe to be open about who they are.
  • Be able to step more completely into your own authentic self, because Gen Z is looking for authenticity in their camp leaders.

Being authentic means being less likely to do what Jennifer Brown calls “covering,” by which she means hiding aspects of yourself to avoid judgment from others (2019). Gen Z will not only talk about specific aspects of their identities, they will also resist being stereotyped. They know that not all people in any identity or affinity group are the same, and they honor and want to be recognized for their individual differences. This might show up at camp in the way some Gen Z campers will be looking for more individualized or custom programming, almost like electives on steroids. Another is that Gen Z campers want counselors who look like them or reflect their identities and who value authenticity. You can't have campers of color at your camp, for example, and not have a significant number of counselors of color on staff.

Meaning and Courage

Related to authenticity is the search for meaning in many young people today. Again, we see this demonstrated in Thunberg's mission regarding climate change. Gen Zers know there are major challenges in the world. As a generation, they are more aware of things like income inequality; social justice; the gender gap; racial, gender, and class equity; climate change; and other such issues. Your job as a camp professional is not so much to agree or disagree with their views, but to help them learn the skills of kind leadership and critical thinking. While it is true that many camps have leadership programs, it is not as clear whether those programs truly teach skills. All too often camp leadership programs throw adolescents in with younger kids and simply ask them to “watch the kids,” assuming leadership will somehow either emerge or sink in by osmosis. My own personal experience with Gen Z kids is that they will rise to the occasion when they are given real responsibilities, not just busy work, with the chance to talk about what they are learning with experienced mentors. The young people in Gen Z know they need to work for the opportunity to lead and not just be given that opportunity as an entitlement.

Tips for Working with Gen Z Staff

In addition to the previously addressed strategies for working with Gen Z, here are nine actionable items:

  1. Reveal the mission or work of camp by sharing true stories about campers and staff. Stories portray values in an emotionally connected way. Get to be a good storyteller.
  2. Share your own story. What made you pick camp? Where does your passion come from? What did you have to overcome in your early life to get where you are today? These are all aspects of yourself that will inspire Gen Z and encourage authenticity in others.
  3. Camp leadership should give young staff plenty of support in their work with the campers. As Gen Z staff have told me personally, “We can handle some stuff, but with bigger camper problems, we need more help!”
  4. They are confused about intensity (the f lashy, fun stuff at camp that makes a big splash) and consistency (the boring, day-to-day stuff that makes a dif ference over time). Show Simon Sinek's short video clip on the subject (youtube.com/watch?v=y5OV3RmXhbg; 2017).
  5. Go beyond icebreakers and shallow get-to-know-you mixers and get to know your staff in greater depth. Doing so models for them exactly what they need to do with their campers.
  6. Teach them old-fashioned games they can play with their campers. Gen Z hungers for real play time, not just organized performance sports, but play whose sole purpose is fun rather than winning.
  7. Gather your high-performing, returning staff and have them create new ideas for orienting and teaching the staff new to camp.
  8. Create a “TikTok Club” of counselors (or campers) and teach them how to make fun, short (less than one minute) videos of their campers' experiences (Lorenz, 2019).
  9. Make up cards for the end of each day during orientation that highlight the “Top 7” things you most want them to remember from the day's training.

Camp's overall mission is to help promote growth in young people of all ages. Working with Gen Z in these ways is doing exactly that! Creating environments where young people feel safe to explore, indulge in their curiosity, and share their experiences is what camp is all about.

References

  • Anderson, M. & Jiang, J. (2018, May 31). Teens, social media and technology. Pew Research Center. Retrieved from pewinternet.org/2018/05/31/teens-social-mediatechnology-2018/
  • Baird, D. E. & Witt, G. (2018). The Gen Z frequency: How brands tune in and build credibility. New York, NY: Kogan Page Limited.
  • Blint-Welsh, T., Winning, D., & Kantchev, G. (2019, September 21). Students take to the streets for day of action on climate change. The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from wsj.com/articles/studentstake-to-the-streets-for-day-of-action-on-climatechange-11568988239
  • Brackett, M. (2019, October 18–19). Permission to feel. Coaching in Leadership and Health Care, McLean Hospital/Harvard Medical School professional development conference. Boston, Massachusetts.
  • Brown, J. (2019, August) How to be an inclusive leader. Google Books.
  • Ditter, B. (2019, September). Biting my nails: Revisiting staff anxiety,” Camping Magazine Retrieved from ACAcamps.org/resource-library/camping-magazine/biting-my-nails-revisiting-staff-anxiety
  • Lorenz, T. (2019, October 19). High schools to TikTok: We're catching feelings. The New York Times. Retrieved from nytimes.com/2019/10/19/style/highschool-tiktok-clubs.html
  • Sengupta, S. (2019, September 20). Protesting climate change, young people take to streets in global strike. The New York Times. Retrieved from nytimes.com/2019/09/20/climate/global-climatestrike.html
  • Silberman, S. (2019, September 24). Greta Thunberg became a climate activist not in spite of her autism, but because of it. Vox. Retrieved from vox.com/first-person/2019/5/6/18531551/gretathunberg-autism-aspergers
  • Sinek, S. (2017). Simon Sinek on intensity vs. consistency. YouTube. Retrieved from youtube.com/ watch?v=y5OV3RmXhbg

Bob Ditter is a licensed clinical social worker specializing in child, adolescent, and family therapy. Bob can be reached at bobditter@gmail.com.

Photo courtesy of Camp Champions; Marble Falls, Texas.