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Characterizing Today’s Students: Realists, Survivors and Future Problem-Solvers?

Allison Boye and Suzanne Tapp Texas Tech University

What characteristics come to mind when you think of a particular generation? Maybe you think of the word “hero” when referring to the Greatest Generation (which includes those who fought in WWII). Perhaps you think of the apathy and independence associated with Generation X, or the optimism attributed to the Millenial generation by the research team of Howe and Strauss (2000). But how will we define the emerging generation that some are tentatively calling Generation Z? Many of these students, born between the mid-1990s to approximately 2010, are now college students and it behooves us to get to know them!

Generational researchers often look to defining cultural events when attempting to characterize a generational group. For example, national tragedies like 9/11 or the school shooting at Columbine stand out as events that trigger lasting memories; people remember exactly where they were when they heard the news and even what they were wearing. These events contribute to the monikers applied to different generations and the characteristics or stereotypes that we associate with them. But what other forces shape – or reflect – the peer personality of a generation? Surely we can look to the economic power of publishing houses and Hollywood producers and see their influence.

In our work with college students, we recognize the value of being familiar with the movies and books our students are likely to have read or watched. But perhaps this familiarity has more value than simply finding common ground and building rapport with students. Indeed, we think that a fascinating profile of our up-and-coming students emerges when examining popular movies and books from their formative childhood and young teenage years that may just help us begin to define them broadly as a group and even think about teaching approaches that best fit them in our individual classrooms.

Influential Books and Movies

Consider the chart-topping books for children or the young adult market from the years 2000 to approximately 2013; there appears to be a palpable switch in themes over the past ten years and a move to messages that reflect grim and darker subjects. For example, we considered the best selling books (or series) listed for the young adult market from the early 2000’s and found titles such as Harry Potter, Artemis Fowl, and Eragon. Admittedly, these texts certainly contain some dark elements woven into “good versus evil” storylines, but are still set in magical worlds and maintain generally hopeful undertones. The shift in mood and theme becomes more conspicuous with each passing year, from the sullen vampires of the Twilight series, to the somber, post-apocalyptic storylines of The Hunger Games and Divergent, and even the tragic, “real world” love story from The Fault in Our Stars.

We also surveyed the movies aimed at children and young adults since the year 2000, and likewise noticed some interesting and revealing trends. If we consider movies targeting young audiences in 2000, we see expected films such as The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, Chicken Run, The Tigger Movie and Pokemon. By 2006, those darker topics we see in books also begin to surface in films such as Wall-e, The Spiderwick Chronicles, and Nim’s Island, and by 2013, those gloomier, more adult themes become even more apparent in films such as The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Oz the Great and Powerful, and The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones.

Another interesting trend is the apparent rise in popularity and consumer value of these films. In 2000, only 9 films from these markets appeared in the 100 top-grossing films of the year. By 2006, 14 appeared on the list, and by 2013, 17 made that list, with 5 even appearing in the top 10. Further, musicals and concerts gain a movie audience with films such as High School Musical, Hannah Montana: The Movie, and One Direction: This is Us.

What can we gather from these developments? It could be that the buying power of this age group has gained power (evidenced by the increase in ticket sales and top movies aimed at children and young adults), and we see ripples of consumerism in the increasing entertainment for this generation.

Figure 1: Top Children’s/Young Adult Books and Movies, 2000 – 2013

Perhaps the shift in the themes of the books and movies aligns well to a phenomena noticed by many: children are losing innocence at an earlier age.  Psychologist Andrew Fuller remarks that “we’re seeing an erosion of childhood” and that “kids aren’t allowed to be kids for very long, and they’re made into little consumers at a very young age” (Walliker, 2008). As such, we suspect that this generation may someday be called the “realist” generation. The shift in popular book and movie themes from the imaginary to the real, from the fun and fantastical to the dark and terrifying, could reflect the responsibility that we place early on this group to solve looming and potentially grave future problems such as an aging population; shortages of water, electricity, oil, and housing; climate change; terrorism; and many other pressing, complicated global issues. This generation is also already facing concerns over issues that affect (or will affect) them directly, namely crushing student debt and job placement (Business Wire, 2013). It is, of course, hard to know if these pop culture trends helped to shape the “realistic” character of the generation, or simply reflect it. But regardless, it seems apparent that this generation could be exemplified, in more ways than one, by the heavy concerns that weigh upon them.

That less optimistic, more “realistic” quality of this forthcoming generation is also revealed in the responses we received to a recent survey we conducted with students on our own college campus. When asked to respond to an open-ended question about what worries them about the future, students highlighted some very pragmatic and weighty concerns. Half of them indicated that they indeed were worried about simply being able to find a job or stick with their chosen career field, and 14% shared anxiety about finances and debt. Many of them also revealed their concerns about environmental issues, the global economy, and world politics – something that we might not typically expect from 18-21 year-olds!

Implications for Teaching and Learning

So what exactly does all of this mean for us as instructors in the classroom? How can we take these tendencies toward practicality and cynicism under consideration in our teaching? The simplest answer to these questions is also one that aligns with just plain old good teaching:  emphasizing the relevance and utility of the material, and ultimately how it might help them in that scary place called “the real world”! These are students who are not interested in busy work; they have a lot on their plates, are potentially contending with serious debt just to fund their college education, and face a lot of pressure and challenges upon graduation. It therefore makes sense that they would want to know how the course material is relevant to their current and future lives. In other words, be transparent with students about why what they are learning is important and meaningful to them! Why is it important that they learn to write a cohesive argument, or think critically about gender roles, or demonstrate an understanding of mitosis?  How will this knowledge or those skills serve them in real ways?

You might also consider assigning projects that invite students to address “real” audiences, to apply skills that will be useful for future careers, or to create a product that could be included in a professional portfolio. For instance, a Marketing instructor might ask students to complete an extensive campaign project, perhaps even working with a real community partner who could use that campaign.  Students in a variety of disciplines could write personal statements to be used in graduate school or job applications, or analyses of current events related to course material that could be submitted to real publications like newspapers, websites, or blogs (an op-ed on the immunization controversy, perhaps?). The possibilities are endless, and ultimately, your anxiety-ridden realists will find comfort in knowing that their time is being spent on constructive endeavors that will help them make their way in the daunting, post-graduation world.

Undoubtedly time will reveal the personality of Generation Z in more relief and we will see our predictions of their emerging peer personality play out, perhaps as the realists who need to survive and solve the problems of the world around us. But as we welcome them into our college classrooms now, it can be worthwhile to consider the experiences and apprehension they are bringing with them and use that knowledge to do whatever we can to help ease their transition.


Business Wire. (Aug. 7, 2013). New Citi/Seventeen survey: College students take control of their financial futures.

Howe, N. & Strauss, W. (2000). Millennials rising. New York: Vintage.

Walliker, A. (Feb. 25, 2008). Get ready, here comes Generation Z.

1 This blog is based in part on a presentation made at the 2015 Lilly Conference – Bethesda.

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