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Generation Z

Why the ELCA Youth Gathering Succeeds Where Others Fail

The ELCA is defying odds and succeeding in its efforts to engage Gen Z according to one of XYZ U's own Team Gen Z members.

Over the years, research has shown the steady decline of youth participation in religion. However, the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) Youth Gathering seems to defy all odds with its 31,000 youth attendees in 2018. So, what makes the ELCA so unique in its overabundance of attendees when for so many other organizations it is very difficult? I traveled to Houston, Texas, to find out.

It was a truly stunning experience that I am so grateful for.

One of the ways the program captivated youth was through an Interactive Learning Day - a day where a portion of the 31,000 attendees gathered in a convention center about the size of 12 football fields. The center was filled to the brim with live music, activities and various themed and informative stations – there was even a Star Wars themed station in the mix! The different stations served to educate and offer attendees the opportunity to discuss important issues of the day. Topics included the refugee crisis, human trafficking, sexuality, racism, world hunger and diversity – each bringing awareness to the wrongs of the world.

Another way the experience was captivating was its Service Learning Day. Each church represented at the gathering was sent out to volunteer and make a difference in the Houston community. My church’s job was to clean up an outdoor community center that had been neglected after many residents moved out of the neighborhood in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. We picked up trash, weeded and listened to the owner tell her story and the stories of the struggling neighborhood.

The most influential experience for me while at the event was the mass gathering. At the end of each day all 31,000 of us gathered in the NRG Stadium for worship, concert-like performances and amazing stories shared by multiple guest speakers. Each night, different speakers told powerful stories about rising above their fears and struggles – stories about sexuality, eating disorders, conversion, depression, justice, sexism, drug addiction, and chronic illness to name just a few. Each one left the listener with a feeling of hope in a world full of so many wrongs.

Overall, the reason I think the ELCA Youth Gathering is so successful is that it targets youth by shaping it to what they enjoy and value. By incorporating pop culture into their messages they created a sense of interest, and by showing how youth can change the world they created a sense of purpose; a purpose that will transform the world as we know it.

Zs came of age in an era of disruption

In many ways, it’s symbolic that Generation Z is named after the last letter in the alphabet because their arrival marks the end of clearly defined roles, traditions, and experiences. After all, Gen Z is coming of age on the heels of what has been referred to as the most disruptive decade of the last century. America has become an increasingly changing and complex place.

For example:

  • ‍Zs were born into a “modern family era” in which highly involved dads help out at home, and the nuclear family model (two parents, married, with children) represent only 46% of American households.
  • ‍Zs are the first generation to be born into a world where everything physical, from people to places to pennies, has a digital equivalent.
  • From the time they were infants, Zs had access to mobile technology. As a result, their brains have been trained to absorb large amounts of information, and Zs are especially adept at shifting between skills and subject matter.
  • Zs tend to have crystal-clear memories of sitting up for the first time at six months old because they can easily and quickly reference the photos and videos their parents shared on social media or saved in the “cloud”. 

Members of this generation have undoubtedly been shaped by crisis and disruption. This generation will largely be responsible for confronting the aftermath of the Great Recession, high youth unemployment, the effects of climate change, terrorism, energy sustainability, and more. These dark events have undoubtedly made this generation more cautious and pragmatic, but they have also provided this generation with the inspiration to change the world – and their grit will likely allow them to do it.

Coming of age during disruption means that most Zs will be comfortable being the disruptors. While Millennials tend to be collaborative and innovative, this generation tends to be sincere, reflective, thick-skinned, and self-directed, and will likely approach work in much the same way.

Zs were raised to be competitive

In the era following World War II, Boomers (1946-1964) were born and eventually became the wealthiest, most prosperous generation in history. Raised to aspire for the American Dream, this very large generation moved into positions of power and influence, and served as the workforce majority for 34 years.

With the American Dream alive and well, Boomers had no reason to teach their children, mostly Millennials, about competition. Instead, they taught them to focus on academic achievement and to be team players because if everyone works hard, everyone can win.

Enter Generation X (1965-1981). In contrast Boomers, Xers came of age during a time when change and economic and political uncertainty began to take root. They have lived through four recessions, struggled with debt and economic decline most of their lives, and watched the best educated and accomplished generation of all time (Millennials) graduate during the Great Recession and become the most debt-ridden generation in history.

Gen Xers can be defined by their independence and anti-status quo approach to life, and they have taught their Gen Z children to be competitive, believing only the best can win. They have encouraged their children to be realists, finding something they are good at and aggressively pursuing it.

Xers have raised their Zs with an intense focus on competitiveness -- in academics, sports, and other activities. This approach to parenting has many implications, but one stands out in terms of business: Gen Z is likely to lead.

Millennials in the workplace created and aggressively advocated for collaborative work environments. In fact, their aversion to leadership has been so strong, some Millennials sought out companies that boasted boss-free or team-managed workplaces.

In contrast, Zs have been raised with an individualistic, realistic, and competitive nature. They have been taught the skills to successfully defy the norm. This means we’re going to see the pendulum shift away from collaborative workplaces towards a widespread demand for, and pursuit of, leadership development.

Zs are career-focused.

While Millennials have been criticized for their “delayed adulthood”, Gen Z is showing signs of “early adulthood”. Educators and parents often describe this generation as being more serious and contemplative about the world. Zs are thinking about their career paths and exposing themselves to career training at an earlier age than Millennials. It’s probable that some of this early onset of adulthood is caused by parents, who are pressuring their children to be competitive and successful and to avoid the debt that plagued both the Gen Xers and Millennials.

The numbers from our global research found 46% of Gen Z said they know what career to pursue and 51% have taken a class at school focused on their career interests. Forty percent joined an extracurricular program (team, club) based on their career interests.

Zs are seeking financial security. 

Zs have been shaped by the aftermath of the Great Recession. They watched Millennials become debt-ridden and are concerned about falling into the same trap. XYZ University’s survey results show 66% of Zs said financial stability is more important than doing work they enjoy, which is the exact opposite of Millennial survey results.  Also, 71% of survey-takers have a paying job.

Zs value leaders who are positive and trustworthy.

When presented a list of leadership traits, Zs ranked positive and trustworthy the highest. While Millennials and Gen Zs both value trust in a leader, Millennials usually cite collaboration and vision as most important. In other words, Millennials focus on the outcomes leaders inspire, whereas Zs are more likely to consider leaders’ attitudes and personalities. To Z, what leaders encourage others to do isn’t as valuable as how they make them feel.

 

Zs want to be challenged.

Both Millennials and Gen Zs place a very high value on feeling challenged and appreciated in the workplace. However, according to our survey results Millennials rank appreciation slightly higher than challenge, whereas Zs rank feeling challenged slightly higher than appreciation.

Time will tell how Zs go down in history, but we know this generation’s influence on history will be unlike any other.

 

Does your organization have what it takes to engage the next generation? Take this quiz to find out.

 

Sarah Sladek is CEO of XYZ University. Our generational intelligence can assist you with engaging and retaining young talent and members.

Anna Sladek

When she’s not preparing speeches or arguments for her high school speech and debate team, Anna Sladek is writing about the major issues facing her generation -- Generation Z. Inspired to create positive change and bring the youth voice to national and global issues, she contributes to XYZ University’s research projects and is a featured blogger.

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