Editorial: Zeroing in on Gen Z

Published 12:00 am Thursday, February 9, 2012

If Salisbury and Rowan County want to build a better future, the community needs to get better acquainted with “Generation Z.” That’s the group born approximately between 1990 and 2002 whose oldest members are on the cusp of full adulthood and ready to take on life’s challenges. The youngest members, age 9 or so, are still in elementary school, young, malleable and just beginning to think about the world they will both inherit and co-create.
Gen Z was the subject of a two-day forum this week at the Institute for Emerging Issues at N.C. State University. The forum provided a snapshot of Gen Z, while panelists discussed how it is already reshaping education, the workforce and other institutions. While every generation confronts change, Gen Z is riding a technological revolution in which transitions are measured in minutes, or at least months, rather than years and decades. Here are some key data points that define Gen Z, according to a forum background paper:
• Technology is in their DNA: Of teens aged 13-18, 93 percent go online regularly and 74 percent have broadband at home. More than 70 percent own a laptop; 69 percent own a portable MP3 player; 88 percent have used a cellphone to text; 75 percent use social media; 41 percent have a cellphone with no landline (vs. 13 percent for baby boomers).
• Entrepreneurially oriented: 54 percent of those aged 18-34 want to start their own businesses. The percentage is higher for young Latinos (64 percent) and African-Americans (63 percent).
• Well-traveled: Between 2000 and 2010, the number of youth who volunteered abroad increased 144 percent. However, that doesn’t appear to translate strongly to the local civic level …
• Less engaged civically: According to the 2010 North Carolina Civic Health Index, Gen Z is the least civically engaged of any age group, based on time spent volunteering in or otherwise serving the local community. Perhaps Gen Z has a broader definition of engagement and connection, including online communities, but this is an area of potential disconnect that bears watching.
• Less physically active: Health guidelines call for at least an hour per day of moderate to vigorous physical activity, but only about two in five North Carolina youth meet this standard. Lack of physical activity is putting Zers at risk of being the first generation to live shorter, less healthy lives than their parents.
That last item is particularly disturbing given that North Carolina has the 11th highest childhood obesity rate in the nation. Obviously, time spent in the virtual world doesn’t burn many calories or increase fitness. REI boss Sally Jewell, a forum panelist, pointed to part of the problem when she remarked on the overstructuring of youngsters’ lives. “Let ’em play,” she said. “Let them experience life. Let them make mistakes.”
There isn’t an app for that.