We are back to the lecture halls and seminar rooms of the university. In front of me, there are students from Generation Z. People born between 1997–2012. I’m Generation X. I was born in 1976. Supposedly I should not understand Generation Y, or Generation Z (born between 1996–2010) and Alpha (born between 2010 and now). They are very different. They don’t want to work and only want to party. They rebel and listen to strange music*.
Still, society mandates that I raise and educate these generations (especially Z and Alpha). How would that be possible if they are that much different?
What should I do with the bunch of Gen Zs in front of me?
Do we need to teach them any differently?
Do I need to take a course on how to teach Gen Z? When I was a student, we admired professors who had a captivating personality, were good orators and told us more about the wonders of biology. During my time as an educator, I found out that it is still “enough” to give an engaging and interactive lecture, be able to hold their attention for some hours and tell them more about the wonders of biology.
I was always told that in the good old times when the great professor of the department, Pál Juhász-Nagy, was still alive, there were long afternoons full of lectures, discussions, and cigarette smoke. When I was a student, there were long afternoons organized by my supervisor with lectures, discussions, and tea. Now there are institution and research group meetings, not necessarily in the afternoon, with lectures, discussions, and biscuits and coffee. Not much has changed, except smoking became less fashionable and there was a change in the available types of biscuits.
Frankly, I do not think that the generations are that much different.
I grew up in front of a computer and some might claim that I have become a reasonably decent fellow
I hear it much too often that these youngsters will have serious problems as they grow up in front of a computer (tablet, mobile phone, etc. – insert as appropriate). But there is already a part of my generation that grew up in front of a computer. Granted, those computers were ZX Spectrums and Commodore 64s, and not some Alienwares or ROGs. Still, I have spent countless hours charting dungeons, trying out combinations in adventures, or just massacring enemies in a shooter. And I was sent out by my parents to get some fresh air every now and then. In high school, we discussed in depth what we have achieved within those games the night before. And for that reason we did not want to go to bed too early, which resulted in exactly the same quarrels with my parents that now I have with my kids. Nothing changed, just my role.
Life–work balance was always an issue. When I was a small child, someone had to bring me to and from the kindergarden, my parents had to shop (and opening hours were much more rigid and less friendly to workers wanting to shop than to workers at the shop who wanted to go home to their families), and I was sometimes ill (during the first year of kindergarden that was most of the time) and someone had to care for me. Fast forward a few decades and we had to bring our kids to kindergarden (and to school) and someone had to fetch them. Shopping and other household chores need to be done. And sometimes I had to stay home as one of my children was sick or there was a vacation at school. And while my kids no longer need constant parental supervision (but still accept the services of dad-taxi at 2am), there are other colleagues who have small kids whom they need to take to or fetch from kindergarden or school. Somehow these responsibilities were accommodated, are accommodated and will be accommodated. Academia usually offers more flexible working hours than a factory (or a shop, as was mentioned already). We have lectures and practicals from 8am to 9pm (albeit not so frequently after 6 pm). When my kids were smaller, I could just tell administration to please not put my lectures after 4pm or earlier than 10am. Now I have lectures that last till 6pm.
The younger generation is more open about their needs or problems. Sometimes students tell me that they cannot make the exam now because of some turmoil in their personal life. Fine. They will take the exam when they feel fully prepared for it. The exam would be exactly the same. No slacking because of a broken heart!
Let’s speak about it!
There is one area in which the newer generations are different. I think it is more of a zeitgeist than some evolutionary transition in the human existence. We publicly speak about things that were previously considered not things up for discussion. Before there was a mentality of “shut up and do your work”. Now work still has to be done, but the reason, the timeframe and the compensation needs to be transparent and negotiated up front.
University is about what you need and not about what you like
There is an expectation that, after high school and having loads of subjects that a student did not like, university is all about the interesting stuff – the stuff they always wanted to learn about. And some students are put off that some subjects are not interesting to them. Not all lectures are the same, and some are more interesting than others. And there were some subjects my younger self was sure were irrelevant for me. And we were generally fed up with university after the stressful exam period (I hope they are all relaxed now). Now, I tell my students that while I was sure I would never ever need anatomy, fast-forward a few decades and as an evolutionary biologist I need to understand some papers on new fossil finds. Those papers are full of references to body parts that my professors wanted me to learn. As I was not paying enough attention then, I need to get my textbooks, a few reviews and a series of wiki pages to understand those papers. It is OK not to understand now why something is important; it is also a perfectly valid expectation that we tell the adults (!) in front of us in the lecture hall why we think the subject they will listen to is important. Their curriculum was debated for a long time. We should tell them why it is one way and not the other.
There is also quite a resentment about all the lexical information they need to know. To be honest they don’t really need to know these from the top of their head. It would be perfectly enough if they are aware of a lot of things in biology and know how to loop them up when needed. But when was the last time university students remembered something they were not required to know for an exam? This seems to be universal across generations. If something was not part of the exam, I did not study it. It is one thing to listen to it during a lecture and another to commit it to memory for the exam. But without being aware of the amazing diversity of life (from molecules, through biochemical pathways, organs, to species, communities and biomes) one cannot begin to think about biology.
Why should they ever put up with a boring job?
Supposedly the new generations are so full of themselves that they do not want to work and reject boring work. They very well should! People always resented meaningless jobs. My Mom resented that she had to be at office for eight hours while she was ready in two. Colleagues taught her how to mime working. We all know the real solution would have been a two-hour workday. We also resent meaningless tasks. How delighted were you the last time administration asked for your list of publications? Something that is available from your homepage, from Scopus, Web of Knowledge (and in Hungary, we have a separate database just for our publications). Still, you need to prepare that list, now in Excel, grouped into 3-year batches (because last week it was a 2-year batch just to make it different). There are lot of meaningless tasks and there are meaningless jobs. We – the not so new generations – should also speak out and firmly say no to meaningless tasks!
They know how much life costs, they do not yet know how little some employers want to give them
A few years ago, youngsters were polled on their salary expectations. The numbers were much higher than the median salary at that time. Older people thought that these youngsters were out of touch with reality. No, they were not. They already knew how much life costs. They know how much they need to pay for rent, for a meal and a cup of espresso at the canteen, or a glass of beer to chill with friends on a Friday night. So when we tell them that as PhD student they will get 140,000 HUF a month (365 Euro), which is a stipend and so it can be less than minimal wage (minimal wage for positions requiring at least secondary education is 197,106 HUF (515 Euro) net), they say no. For years now, we have more PhD positions than candidates. These new generations might be clumsy finding basic scientific information that is available from Wikipedia, but they know they need more than that to live. And they also know by now that they can get more with a master degree and fluency in English.
So, are there really no differences between the generations? There are plenty. The Boomers are old, Gen Xs are middle aged, and the rest are infuriatingly young. But were we different when we were 20? Will they be different when they become 40? I do not think so.
* Granted, there is music I do not understand. There was such music, there is such music, and there will be such music.