Boomers mock Millennials for their participation ribbons and sense of entitlement, while Millennials combat accusations of laziness with the lack of opportunity and crushing student debt. The battle has raged on since Millennials stepped foot onto college campuses, but this generation has graduated and in doing so, has made room for the next cohort of young adults: Generation Z.
Though there are many differences in attitudes, values, and behaviors within Generations, they are often defined by specific historical and cultural circumstances. Baby boomers grieved together after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, whereas Millennials came of age after watching the twin towers fall. Generation Z, on the other hand, spent their formative years observing the consequences of a crashing economy. They witnessed family members lose their jobs, and college graduates return to their parents’ home in an attempt to begin making a dent in their newfound debt.
This has resulted in a more risk-averse generation that thinks about higher education and their eventual careers more skeptically than their Millennial predecessors, and in more practical terms. Members of Generation Z will closely weigh the cost of education against the perceived return on investment. 67% of Gen Z have indicated that their top concern is the affordability of college.
The aversion to risk has also extended to drinking and substance abuse. Data from the Monitoring the Future survey shows that alcohol use and high-risk drinking has continued to decline over time. Currently, 61.2% of 12th graders report ever using alcohol, down from 81.7% in 1997. As these students pragmatically weigh the pros and cons of stepping foot onto our campuses, how can we create appealing environments that acknowledge the diminishing interest in high-risk drinking?
In light of a generation that emphasizes being “mature and in control”, we should look to create environments and social options that focus on the healthy majority. Alcohol-free entertainment options and social environments can detract from high-risk alcohol use by providing students who do not drink, or do so infrequently, with viable options that do not involve alcohol. Student data can shed light on how to market such opportunities and involve those who may be interested in both planning and participation. Taking on this type of environmental prevention also demonstrates an institutional commitment to student health and safety, while affirming the choice to not drink.
With the oldest members of Generation Z ousting the last of the millennials on campus, we need to embrace their shift from optimism to sensibility, and follow suit by creating an environment that meets and fosters their needs.