Embracing a New Dynamic: ‘Generation Z’

generation-zBy Maayan Jaffe

Just as we think we are beginning to understand the Millennials, enter Generation Z. Defined as those individuals born after 1994, these teens and young adults are bringing a new dynamic into the workforce, the Jewish community and the world.

Buzz. Click. Bing. Ding. This new generation has beamed onto the scene with its technological savvy, global worldview and entrepreneurial spirit, leaving our communal professionals grappling with how to engage and empower them – while still embracing the past.

“One reason Judaism has survived so long is that every new generation is called upon to turn the Torah for itself,” says Deborah S. Meyer, executive director of Moving Traditions in Jenkintown, Pa. “If we invite them to build with us, they will come.”

To engage Gen Z, it will be increasingly important to meet these teens where they are, Meyer continues. She says appreciating their teen energy and vision is key to building this partnership. eJewish Philanthropy asked several Jewish communal leaders (and one dynamic teen) this question: Who is Gen Z?

Digital natives, says Meyer. They were born with iPads, iPhones and Nooks in their hands.

According to a 2012 Forester Research study, Generation Z is the second largest demographic owning an iPhone (24 percent), with Millennials ranking highest at 29 percent.

“They are used to access. They want access to information. They have a sense that it should happen fast,” says Meyer. “This generation has the tools and they are used to using them with confidence.”

courtesy Silver Spoons
courtesy Serving Spoons

And for good causes. Ninth grader Sofia Gardenswartz, a student at Frances Park School in San Diego, Calif., tells eJewish Philanthropy that many adults assume that teens “will take technology for granted” and forget that only a decade before they were born many of today’s technologies did not exist. Yet, she feels that with these new tools comes new responsibility and new opportunities. She says the technology revolution has given young people the opportunity to better effect social change.

“These tools are empowering. They really enable us to make the world a better place, to do tikkun olam,” says Gardenswartz, explaining how she uses social media to recruit teen volunteers for meal delivery program, Serving Spoons. Gardenswartz serves as president.

Technology has also played a role in turning teens into global citizens. Gen Z is more attuned to what is going on in their town, state, world than any previous generation.

According to Stephanie Zelkind, head of the Jewish TEEN Funders Network, Gen Z is very socially aware. They have a global orientation and very much consider themselves citizens of the world.

Diller Teen Fellows
Diller Teen Fellows

“The global world concept has affected Jewish teens in a way we need to be aware of,” notes Liat Cohen-Raviv, senior director International at Diller Teen Fellows. She explains that for teens with technology the world is flat and they want to be a part of many circles, tribes, etc.

“If we are looking for Gen Z to feel more Jewish than anything else, that is unlikely. The have all of these other things they identify with. … It is just complicated,” Cohen-Raviv says.

“My Judaism is both personal and about the group,” says Gardenswartz. While she looks to traditions such as Friday night dinner with her family as part of her Jewish worldview and support, she says she hopes to forge her own Jewish path.

The 15-month Diller Teen Fellows program, supports teen in their exploration of Jewish identity, leadership and service, building connections between teen leaders across North America and in Israel.

“We don’t tell them how, but rather encourage them to ask ‘why,’” explains Cohen-Raviv.

Diller staff purposefully places teens in diverse groups for dialogue about important religious and Jewish themes. Before providing them with a meaningful Jewish experience, they provide background and context. Then, when the experience is complete, they process – together.

This is true, too, when they discuss Israel, which can be complicated for Gen Z. Rather than espousing a love of Israel, the teens “feel it and fall in love with it through their Israeli peers, who are going the same thing,” Cohen-Raviv explains.

Gen Z is sophisticated enough to handle this dialogue – and to handle much more responsibility than teens a decade or two ago, according to Zelkind. She describes Gen Z as “hungry for responsibility” and says, when given, “They do it well.”

For Jewish organizations looking to engage the next generation, Zelkind says it is not enough to program for them. The teens need to be engaged in the planning, to sit around the table. She suggests synagogues, for example, recruit teens to sit on their boards. Teen philanthropy groups can offer teens a window into how “adult” philanthropy works by empowering them to go through the grant request for proposal, evaluation and making process. The results of engaging teens is often powerful, she notes, sometimes more effective than when Gen Z is not involved. This could be, she suggests, because of Gen Z’s incredible entrepreneurial mindset and spirit.

A global study of Gen Z produced by Millennial Branding and Randstad found a generation that is “more mature, self-directed, resourceful and dedicated to making a difference in the world” than generations prior. The study says Gen Z has an “entrepreneurial spirit” and wants to be hand-on with projects.

“They have a sense of self and being able to problem solve and get stuff done. For teens who come from more affluent background, I see they have a sense of possibility, combined with money and the interconnectedness of media/Internet – they think, ‘I can do that,’” says Meyer.

“There are always ways to improve the world,” says Gardenswartz. “If I can have my part in that – that is so empowering for me.”