As the first true digital natives, Generation Z has grown up more “connected” than any other previous group. Gen Z has never known a world without a smartphone. This familiarity with technology has had many effects. Constant connectivity, increased screen time and social media savvy have honed this generation’s ability to make connections online and filter through the barrage of messaging.

Beyond the enabling of more distanced personal relationships, connectivity has furthered global awareness in ways different from previous generations. Well before the COVID-19 pandemic pushed all generations to find social connection online, Gen Z had been using social media platforms to connect with other like-minded individuals, particularly around social issues. Social media has served as the tool of choice for increasing awareness, organizing, and compelling action around a wide range of collective concerns and injustices.

Protests never really went out of style, but today they are not always happening in the streets. This is a generation that has seen how regular people with a cause can drive change using nothing more than a smartphone. From the March for Our Lives Movement, spurred by the 2018 shooting at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, to the #MeToo social media discussions around sexual violence, Gen Z is not afraid to use technology to amplify the call for change.

The push for change accelerates

The challenges of 2020 have created an even more socially-conscious generation and affirmed the critical need to be able to engage online. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, it placed a great responsibility on young peoples’ shoulders to distance themselves from friends and family. The generation’s reliance on social media and the Internet for daily communications—and ability to form authentic relationships by digital means—has only accelerated under the unique constraints of social distancing.

In 2020, this online connection also drove Generation Z’s global awareness into overdrive. The pandemic shook the world, but its aftershocks ranged far and wide. For starters, COVID-19 mortality rates have magnified health inequities among ethnic and racial minority groups. The emerging K-shaped recovery to the pandemic has highlighted tremendous economic disparity and financial insecurity among members of this generation.

This disparity has been further amplified by protests against racial injustice. After Gen Z took the helm in protesting the death of George Floyd while in police custody, a Business Insider survey found that 78% of the “Action Generation” has used social media to express support for equality for Black Americans and 90% support Black Lives Matter. These protests helped motivate a generation eager to speak up at the polls as the older Gen Z members voted for the first time during a highly contentious presidential election.

New needs for campus housing

The way online connection and messaging has shaped Gen Z will also shape their expectations of the college experience. In some ways, these expectations are matter- of-fact. Strictly from the standpoint of facilities services, it is clear that if Wi-Fi was important before the pandemic, it has become more crucial now. Whereas previously the Internet was largely used by Gen Z to support online social interaction, it is now a greater part of accessing educational content. Strong and reliable bandwidth will be critical differentiators for student housing.

Given their social and global awareness, Gen Z will also look closely at how institutions position their messaging. After a summer of protests, with every brand jumping to make a statement of corporate social responsibility, young people have become more skeptical and jaded of corporate messaging. Gen Z has a good radar for what is lip-service versus what is genuine. They want authenticity—and can tell when they are not getting it.

This does not mean that housing officers should avoid engaging on relevant topics. Whether a college, university, or off-campus community, Gen Z wants to associate with organizations that share their values. Brands and institutions must become more intentional about the topics they speak up about and identify causes that best align with their mission and purpose. Housing officers may be particularly adept at identifying these movements as they are often the individuals closest to residents and attuned to cultural shifts.

While institutional policies and positions often evolve with changing societal values, it is important to acknowledge these changes. Technology makes it easier than ever to uncover a company’s track record, and Gen Z is ready and eager to dig deep to ensure past messaging aligns with today’s core values. Brands must be clear about where they stood on issues in the past, why they have changed, and what that change looks like today. It is also important to respond to concerns raised about past statements or positions.

When students ask questions, consider it an opportunity to engage more deeply with your target clientele. Do not shy away from engaging students in problem-solving. Try to develop authentic and meaningful solutions. This is an opportunity to build greater respect for the institutional brand while better serving students.

For more, download our full research on Welcoming Back Gen Z Residents in a Post-Pandemic World or register for our upcoming webinar.

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