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Defining Characteristics of Generation Z

  • Dr. James Emery White

    James Emery Whiteis the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and a former professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he…

  • 2017 Jul 27

They are growing up in a post-9/11 world. They are experiencing radical changes in technology and understandings of family, sexuality and gender. They live in multigenerational households, and the fastest-growing demographic within their age group is multiracial.

Who are “they”? Generation Z.

And to understand them it’s important to dig deep into the characteristics that define them as a generation. In my latest book, Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World, I outline five defining characteristics beginning with…

Recession Marked

With most members of Gen Z being born after 9/11, the most defining event in their lifetimes is the Great Recession. Beginning in 2007, this economic era is widely considered the worst global downturn since World War II. While Millennials were “raised during the boom times and relative peace of the 1990s, only to see their sunny world dashed by the September 11 attacks and two economic crashes, in 2000 and 2008… Generation Z, by contrast,” says the New York Times, “has had its eyes open from the beginning, coming along in the aftermath of those cataclysms in the era of the war on terror and the Great Recession.” This helps explain the (surprising to many) embrace of socialism among young voters in the 2016 presidential election, in marked contrast to older voters. A YouGov study found that 26% of those between the ages of 18 and 39 had a favorable view of socialism, compared to only 15% over the age of 65.

As members of Gen Z develop their personalities and life skills in a socioeconomic environment marked by chaos, uncertainty, volatility and complexity, it is no surprise that blockbusters like The Hunger Games and Divergent, with their depictions of teens left alone to face a dystopian future, connect with them. Simply put, they are deeply worried about the present.

They are not alone.

The Public Religion Research Institute’s (PRRI) annual American Values Survey “documents discontent among all major religious groups, races and political views.” As PRRI CEO Robert Jones commented, “I am struck by the high level of anxiety and worry on all fronts.” For the first time in six years of the survey, Americans are split – 49% to 49% – on whether “America’s best days are ahead of us or behind us… Americans of all faiths and viewpoints are gloomy about the economy, anxious about Islam, bothered by immigrants and mistrustful across racial lines.” And adding to the joy, more than 7 out of 10 (72%) believe that the country is still in a recession.

“No wonder,” says the research report of Sparks and Honey, “Gen Z developed coping mechanisms and a certain resourcefulness.” Even when news broke of the widespread terrorist attacks in Paris in November 2015, the younger people I engaged were shocked but not surprised. There’s a difference. And the difference is that attacks like these are not simply reality but what life has always been like.

Their coping mechanisms have led to a strong sense of independence and an entrepreneurial spirit. According to a study by Northeastern University, a “notable 42% of Generation Z respondents expect to work for themselves during their careers.” But their goal is not simply economic security. They are marked by a very strong sense of wanting to make a difference – and thinking that they can.

Among the attendees at a Generation Z conference at American University in Washington, DC, was Sejal Makheja. At the age of 14, she founded the Elevator Project, an organization that aims to lift people out of poverty through apprenticeship, vocational training and job placement. She said she went to the Gen Z conference because she wanted to cultivate the skills she’ll need to take the Elevator Project to a national scale. “The young people at the conference want to take an active role in their communities and futures,” she said. “It’s an upbeat group that’s full of passion.”

Not surprisingly, the research of Sparks and Honey reveals that social entrepreneurship is one of Generation Z’s most popular career choices.

This may explain why, when MTV conducted a nationwide survey of 1,000 respondents born after the year 2000 to see how they would identify themselves if they had the choice, they came up with the self-important name “The Founders” – as in needing to “found the new world,” rescuing it from the sins of its past.

Want to dig deeper into the other characteristics? You’ll have to read the book.

Why is it important to know and understand these characteristics about Gen Z?

Because understanding and reaching this generation is the heart of understanding and reaching our post-Christian world.

James Emery White



Adapted from James Emery White, Meet Generation Z (Baker).

Alex Williams, “Move Over Millennials: Here Comes Generation Z,” The New York Times, September 18, 2015, read online.

Sam Sanders, “Why Do Young People Like Socialism More Than Older People?” National Public Radio, November 21, 2015, read online.

Sparks and Honey Culture Forecast, “Gen Z 2025” and “Meet Generation Z.”

Cathy Lynn Grossman, “Americans Fret about Islam, Immigrants, The Future – and Each Other,” Religion News Service, November 17, 2015, read online.

“Innovation Imperative: Meet Generation Z,” Northeastern University, read online.

Alexandra Levit, “Make Way for Generation Z,” The New York Times, March 28, 2015, read online.

David Sims, “All Hail ‘The Founders,’” The Atlantic, December 2, 2015, read online.

About the Author

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.

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