Canadian University Report 2016: The Generation Z Effect

October 22, 2015 | By Shelley White

There’s a sea change happening at universities across Canada.

For more than a decade, institutions of higher learning have been populated by the millennials (otherwise known as Generation Y) – those plentiful sons and daughters of the baby boomers. But as the millennials graduate and head off into the working world, a new crop of young people is taking over Canadian campuses. And while this demographic group doesn’t have a proper name yet, you can call them Generation Z.

Although there is debate about the parameters, Gen Z is loosely accepted as people born in the mid- to late-1990s and later. (According to the Pew Research Center in the United States, the last Gen Y was born in 1997, while Statistics Canada says Gen Z starts with people born in 1993.)

Gen Zers are true digital natives who have never known life without the Internet or smartphones and get their information from myriad sources (often all at once). As the children of Generation X, they grew up or came of age in the wake of the recession of 2008, says U.S. historian, economist and demographer Neil Howe.

“They have a lot more awareness of how the world is out there,” he says. “There’s been a lot more talk about the realities of making a living and money, while the millennials, who were in high school in the late ‘90s, were isolated from that.”

Perhaps the thing that will most define Gen Z is that they will graduate into a world that is changing more rapidly than ever before – a world where industries are regularly disrupted and “hot” careers are ever-shifting.

The idea of “lifelong learning” won’t be a option, it will be a necessity, says Toronto futurist Richard Worzel, author of Who Owns Tomorrow? 7 Secrets for the Future of Business.

“A degree will be fantastic for getting you in the door the first time, but after that it’s a matter of, ‘What can you do for me?’” says Mr. Worzel.

In this environment, choosing a career path is a daunting prospect that has some Gen Zers, and their parents, stressed.

“I feel like these days deciding what they’re going to do in life has become a really huge race for them,” says Randi Chapnik Myers of Toronto, the 48-year-old content creator and co-founder of and mother of three – Seth, 19, Rachel, 17 and Aaron, 13.

“I think from a parent perspective, we’re kind of in a race as well,” she says. “Our concern is, what if they don’t amount to something? What if they end up in my basement forever? What if they don’t become successful adults according to our own ideas of success? And so you’ve got these young kids under so much stress and pressure to succeed and decide how they’re going to do that, and it’s really overwhelming.”

A work world that demands more than knowledge

Choosing a major in the future will be tougher for Gen Z than ever before, because the work world will be more challenging than ever before, says Mr. Worzel.

First, there’s the challenge of the global economy, he says, which means that young graduates will have to compete for jobs with people from around the world. And as the power and sophistication of computers grows exponentially, jobs are being wiped out by automation and robotics – and not just blue-collar jobs. Even previously “safe” careers such as law and medicine are being disrupted by technology, he says.

Because of the massive disruptions in so many industries, simply gathering knowledge during your university career won’t cut it, he says.

“Unless somebody is creative, intuitive, innovative, regardless of what field they are in, they risk being displaced by a computer,” he says.

At the same time, universities are being disrupted as well, says Mr. Worzel. MOOCs, or massive open online courses, are being offered by many universities, “so you can study anything that MIT teaches undergrad online, for free,” he says.

Susan McCahan, vice-provost of innovations in undergraduate education at the University of Toronto, says that universities are recognizing the challenges that Gen Z will face in the future and are adapting to help their students succeed. “Some people think it’s a scary time because disruption is occurring, but on the other hand, I see that there is enormous opportunity.”

Dr. McCahan says innovations such as MOOCs are valuable because they are forcing universities to focus on what the value is of a university education.

The role of higher education will be less about just imparting knowledge and more about providing high-quality feedback to students as they develop the areas of cognitive ability that will be essential in a new, high competitive world, says Dr. McCahan.

“Creativity, critical thinking, the ability to design unique solutions to problems, teamwork, communication,” she says. “We’re increasingly understanding that those kinds of transferable abilities are as important as the topic we are teaching.”

In an effort to add value to its academic programs, the University of Manitoba is focusing on five areas to augment their value beyond the transfer of knowledge, says vice-provost of students Susan Gottheil: co-op and internships, service and community learning programs, student entrepreneurship programs, interdisciplinary projects and international student mobility programs (studying abroad).

Melissa Padfield, deputy registrar at the University of Alberta, points to a program called eHUB at her school – an entrepreneurship program open to students at U of A that is not part of their degree but contributes to their ability to succeed after graduating.

“Being able to work in eHUB and get mentorships from successful alumni and business people and professors all in one environment is important because that’s what the world of work look will look like for many of these students,” she says.

How technology is changing the learning process

Dr. McCahan says professors at U of T are increasingly using technology to help students succeed, including developing teaching modules or Digital Learning Objects (DLOs) that students can access online and refer to over and over again in order to help them understand a difficult concept. “I can point to a video of me explaining [the concept], a guy at Stanford explaining it and a MOOC that explains it from somewhere else,” she says of these DLOs. “They can hear and see it from multiple perspectives and then they can talk to me.”

Office hours happen at 8 p.m. from her basement, says Dr. McCahan (who is also an engineering professor), collaboratively online. “I may have 250 students listening, but always about 30 or 40 asking questions digitally,” she says.

Susan Bens, program and curriculum development strategist at the University of Saskatchewan, points to the “flipped” or inverted classroom as an example of how technology is improving interaction between instructor and student.

“With the flipped classroom, lectures are available beforehand,” she says. “They are posted in advance, so when the students gather with the expertise of the professor, they engage in more active learning strategies than listening alone provides.”

McGill University in Montreal is making it a priority to offer experiential learning opportunities, says Ollivier Dyens, deputy provost of student life and learning, including the chance to take part in research during their undergraduate studies. “A good researcher is a creative person, a person who is able to find a problem, to focus, to find a creative solution to address this problem, to translate research into a form that is understandable for the public,” he says. “Machines won’t be able to do that in the foreseeable future.”

A different perspective on success

“I get asked quite regularly by anxious parents, ‘What should my kids study so they can get a good job?’” says Mr. Worzel, “and the answer is you’re looking at the wrong end of the telescope. You’re looking at the job market and you should be looking at your kid, or your kid should be looking at themselves.”

If you’re a Gen Z competing with candidates from around the world, says Mr. Worzel, the only way to be successful in that environment is to pursue something you’re passionate about and good at.

“I would tell parents, first of all, that what worked for you won’t work for your kids, so don’t cram your answers down their throats,” he says. “Secondly, an assessment of where to go to university is no longer an easy decision, so stop trying to make it an easy decision.”

As for Ms. Chapnik Myers, she says that while many parents in her social circle are trying to steer their children into “hot” careers, such as engineering, she is trying to keep an open mind when it comes to her own children, who are still figuring it out.

“There are a lot of other things they could be doing besides the basic degrees we grew up with that defined success in our generation,” she says. “What’s really important as a parent is encouraging your kids to follow their passion rather than trying to set themselves up for life at the age of 17.”