The Super-Empathy of Generation Z: How We’ve All Been Wrong

Erin Harvell, Clemson College of Education

“Mommy look — I am a robot on Mars in this game. My job is to chase the other robots and chomp them. I am a great robot!”

My son relates to the world in a fully different way than I do. I can imagine myself as a robot, can pretend I am a robot — no. My son, born in the late 2000's, does not go through those mental gymnastics. He is the robot. A simple game played on my iPhone 6s opened a porthole for him and he stepped through into an avatar’s world and body. He assumed a new identity. He did not tell me he was pretending to be a robot. He identified himself to me as the robot. This is crashingly intense. While we all thought Generation Z illiterate in so many things outside of technology, we’ve been missing how brilliantly — how fully involved they are in becoming.

We all know Generation Z (the kids born 1995 or later) is tech-literate beyond even Generation Y’s (Millenials, or us old people born between 1976 and 1994) wildest dreams. AdWeek even warns marketers that they must get to know and adapt to this technologically advanced group, even though their total weekly pocket money only comes out to about $16 and some change. In the same article, AdWeek references a study done by Sparks & Honey, which emphasizes that, “At 25.9 percent . . . Generation Z makes up the largest population demographic.” This statistic is not just for the US — a quarter of the world’s population is in Generation Z. Marketing agencies are not the only parties who should be concerned with understanding this group. The marketers who produced the infographic below are ultra-dedicated to understanding this generation. They want their money. But did they not do a good job at data collection? At a fancy graphic? Does Honey & Sparks know more about the children in public education than us educators do?

The second my son showed me that he could fully understand robot life through my iPhone 6s screen, I started straining for ideas on how I could harness his and all his school buddies’ awesome tech-literacy to increase their dedication to education. Did you read what Honey & Sparks said? 52% of Generation Z uses social media or YouTube for research assignments at school. Perhaps most stunningly, “Growing up in a time of uncertainty (the post-9/11 world, economic recession) and changing norms (increased racial diversity, shifting gender roles), Gen Z is mature, self-directed, and resourceful.” These kids are not insolent, self-absorbed, social media zombies. They are perhaps the most adaptable, grown-up, empathetic humans to ever walk the earth. I believe Gen Z deserves more respect from us old educators- after all, they are the first generation in American history to “inherit a nation in decline,” according to genup.net. Using their inherent literacy skills (no, maybe not in reading Dickens or Tolstoy), educators can instill the knowledge Generation Z needs to become successful in this new world. Educators need to be working harder than the marketers at understanding this generation, because so far, we’ve just been telling them to get off their phones and quit messing around on social media. Don’t we love them more than big businesses do?


Quick Thoughts:

  • Nick Sousanis, in his dissertation, Unflattening, makes the not-so-subtle point that American education (possibly global education?) is forcing students into a standardized mold which cramps their (our) creative energy into a shoe that does not fit. By admiting that Gen Z students are never going to be Millenial students or Baby Boomer students, educators can move towards unstandardizing. Us old people still have a lot to do with shaping the future. Let’s unpinch the future.
  • Learning, becoming, knowing: this will always be the coolest, most riveting stuff ever. That is never going away. Educators can harness the adaptability and natural empathy these Gen Z, social media butterflies have to help them learn. We can even take advantage of the marketing strategies Honey & Sparks put together to make education appeal to students.
  • People like Malcolm Gladwell (author of Blink, The Tipping Point, and many other mind-bending books) use multimodal techniques to grip students of all ages in his new podcast called, “Revisionist History.” In his August 3, 2016 episode, “Blame Game,” Gladwell embeds a clip of a 911 call in which several people die in a terrifying car accident. The soundbite raises the heart rate of any listener. Why? Because we experience the crash first-hand. The listener is in the car too, in that moment. Just like my son becoming the robot on my iPhone, the listener becomes a passenger in a traumatic experience. I listened to “Blame Game” a month ago and can still feel the panic of the Toyota recall — Gladwell grabbed my interest through first-person interaction and educated me. If educators are as interested in grabbing Gen Z’s interest using the literacy they seem to have been born with, as Gladwell is, we can go a long way towards reaching students where they are.


Erin Harvell