Gen Z and the Power of Purpose

“Purpose provides activation energy for living.”

~Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Daniel Pink, the author of Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, points out that much of what we know about motivation is wrong. Traditional approaches to managing behavior such as rewards and punishments are anachronistic in modern times because today’s students and workers must possess 21st-century skills such as creativity, collaboration, and problem-solving. The carrot and the stick approach may be appropriate in circumstances when the task is algorithmic, reinforcing basic mechanical skills, but it is less effective at motivating people to do creative work and other higher-order thinking tasks. Pink points out that “The science shows that the secret to high performance isn’t our biological drive or our reward-and-punishment drive, but how our third drive-our deep-seated desire to direct our own lives, to extend and expand our abilities, and to make a contribution” is what truly inspires us. To motivate people beyond doing simple tasks, Pink suggests that workers should be supported in the three areas of autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Autonomy means that people have a voice and choice in their work and increases engagement versus simple compliance. Mastery means that people have a desire to get better at what they do, and they have a desire to learn new skills. Finally, purpose implies that people have an innate desire to do something that has meaning and is important to them. According to William Damon, the author of The Path to Purpose: How Young People Find Their Calling, purpose is a “stable and generalized intention to accomplish something that is at the same time meaningful to the self and consequential for the world beyond the self” (Damon, 2010, P. 33). For example, students want to know why they are doing a particular task at school. They want to know how the assignment relates to them and why they must do it. But to understand our student’s sense of purpose, it is essential to understand who our students are.

Most students today belong to Generation Z. Gen Z is comprised of people born between the years 1997 and 2012 and are between the ages of 6 and 24. There are 68 million members of Gen Z in the United States and over 2 billion globally. It is the second-largest generation in American history after the Millennials, which consists of 72.26 million. Gen Z is also the most diverse generation in the nation’s history, as 48% report being non-Caucasian. Further, diversity matters to them across several dimensions, including race and gender. A recent survey by the job recruiting website Monster indicated that 83% of Gen Z job candidates said that a prospective employers’ commitment to diversity and inclusion is essential in their decision to work for them.

Just as The Great Depression and WWII shaped the Greatest Generations’ world view, and 9/11 and the global economic crisis in 2007 influenced the Millennial Generation. Events have influenced Gen Z in significant ways. They have had to contend with extreme political polarization, the racial reckoning stemming from the murder of George Floyd and other unarmed Black people at the hands of the police, and the deadly worldwide Coronavirus pandemic. The subsequent quarantine ripped students from their schools, social groups, sporting activities, and just about every aspect of “normal life,” causing severe emotional trauma for many students. A recent study indicated that 71% of students reported feelings of isolation, anxiety, and depression as they experienced fear and worry over their health and the health of loved ones.

Despite these incredible challenges, Gen Z is on track to be the best-educated cohort in American history. According to the Pew research center, 57% of 18–21-year-olds who are no longer in high school were enrolled in a two- or four-year college. That is significantly higher than Millennials, with 52% going to college in 2003 and 43% of Gen X going to college in 1987. Gen Z was born into a high-tech world of high-speed internet and mobile technology and are sometimes referred to as digital natives or the iGeneration. To illustrate this point, 95% of 13–17-year-olds reported that they have access to a smartphone and use on average up to five screens a day, spending 10 hours or more on electronic devices. Gen Z came of age at a time when they had instant access to news and information from around the world instantaneously, connecting them in ways that were unimaginable by previous generations. Despite the significant amount of time spent on devices, however, Gen Z craves real-life connections that go beyond computer screens.

Gen Z is significantly impacting the workplace. Demographers predict that by 2025, Gen Z will be 30% of the U.S. workforce. That percentage will continue to grow as the generation matures and moves through school and higher education. While wages and working conditions are significant issues for most Gen Z, they are also interested in making a difference. According to a report from Wespire, Gen Z has a “Dream big” and “we can change the world” attitude. They are the first generation to prioritize purpose over money and are referred to by many as the “change generation.” They want to see a connection between what they are doing at work and broader social impacts. Meaningful work drives motivation, as 75% believe that work should have a greater meaning than just a paycheck. They want work that matters that is positive and purposeful. This attitude is reflected in the companies that have adopted positive social missions as part of their corporate identities. Take, for example, a recent social media advertisement from HP “The world needs our actions now. It’s why HP is taking bold steps to drive climate action, protect human rights, and accelerate digital equity. #SustainableImpact

Educators can connect to and support Gen Z by helping them explore their purpose. Research suggests that when students have a sense of purpose, they have higher engagement, they approach their studies more efficiently, and they experience higher degrees of success and satisfaction in their studies (Xerri, Radford, & Shacklock, 2018). There are several things that teachers can do to help students discover and nurture their purpose at school.

Cultivate Curiosity Classrooms should be places where students explore their worlds to include the people, ideas, events, and controversies that have shaped them. Give students opportunities to cultivate their curiosity by creating opportunities to investigate personally interesting topics. When students find something that ignites their passion, teachers should encourage them to explore it further. Sometimes students need to be encouraged that what they care about matters, even if it is not academically related. Too often, we elevate testable material over everything else, including the things students care about most. We must validate our students’ curiosity and interests to help them find their purpose. Pedagogical approaches that cultivate curiosity include project-based learning and inquiry-based learning, or any method that allows students to ask questions and explore personal interests. Additionally, students should be taught to be skeptical. Derived from the Greek word skeptikos, “to inquire,” skeptics require evidence before accepting a premise to be true. Teach students to challenge the status quo and conventional wisdom by developing an open mind and the ability to ask good questions.

Self-Reflection Students should have regular opportunities to reflect on their purpose by thinking about their life’s journey. Have students contemplate the challenges they have had to overcome, their successes, and what brings them genuine joy. Students should be aware that the process of acquiring a goal and fulfilling their purpose is just as important as the destination. Finally, students should think about how much time, energy, and effort they are willing to invest to achieve their purpose. A thoughtful cost and benefit analysis can help students realize what is truly important in their lives and the sacrifices required to achieve their goals. Teachers can get students to reflect through reflective thinking activities such as a think-pair-share, class and small group discussion prompts, journaling, and exit tickets.

Goal Setting

Teachers can help students set goals by assisting them in articulating clear and measurable areas of improvement. The goal may be academic, personal, or professional, or a combination of all three. An excellent way to introduce goalsetting is by having students set SMART goals. A SMART goal is specific. Students must address a specific thing that they want to achieve or improve upon. The more detailed, the better, encourage students to articulate what they want to accomplish by writing a clear goal statement. Second, the goal must be measurable, which means that students need to have a way to gauge their progress to know if they are on the right track or if they need to adjust their strategy. Third, the goals must be attainable. In other words, there must be a reasonable expectation that the goal can be accomplished within a certain amount of time. Fourth, the goal must be relevant, meaning that the goal should be directed toward a long-term objective. Finally, the goal needs to be time-based. This means that the goal needs to be accomplished within a realistic but ambitious timeframe to motivate students to prioritize and achieve their goals.

Model and Mentor

Teachers should model for their students what living with a sense of purpose looks like. They can do this by sharing how their values, worldview, and goals influenced their purpose and their steps to live out their purpose in their daily lives. Students should understand that finding one’s purpose is not something everyone discovers right away, but it will eventually become clear with persistence, determination, and time. Teachers can mentor students as they search for their purpose by having an open dialogue about what matters most to them. Teachers can support their students through the process of self-discovery by being good listeners and cultivating respectful and healthy relationships.

Connect to the real world Too often, students see school as a set of perfunctory “hoops” that they must jump through to graduate and begin their “real lives.” Instead, teachers should make school relevant by connecting what students learn with the world beyond the schoolhouse gate. Teachers ought to provide students with opportunities to examine issues rooted in the real world by introducing the news, events, people, and controversies that matter to them. Teachers can begin each class with a “in the news” discussion or by showing students CNN 10. CNN 10 is a 10-minute news feature made for middle and high school students. It is an unbiased overview of the day’s news without the commentary.

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