Because of the rapid cycles of change we’re experiencing these days, I propose that we must rethink how we connect with students every four years. Let me suggest a few. The following observations are about Generation iY (i.e. students born since 1990) that may help you as you attempt to communicate and connect with students today:
Observation #1: They want to Belong before they Believe.
Today’s students are different than those of past generations. They don’t necessarily make decisions based upon logic or statistics. I know professors, salesmen and ministers who will try to convince a young person about something before they build any sense of relationship or community. Students today would rather join and belong to a small affinity group before they embrace the beliefs of that group. Their basis for making decisions is more relational than logical. If you hope to get them to embrace an idea, embrace them first.
Observation #2: They want an Experience before an Explanation.
Author Leonard Sweet describes today’s culture and its young people as “EPIC”: Experiential, Participatory, Image-rich, and Connected. Teachers must remember that a lecture isn’t enough anymore — or, at least, we cannot begin with a lecture. If we want to be heard, we must engage iYers’ interest with an experience that captures their imagination. They want to do or see something. They want action and interaction. Even if it is an old message, they are asking for a new angle on that message.
Don’t just ask yourself, “What do I want to say?” Ask yourself, “How can I say it creatively and experientially?”
Observation #3: They want a Cause before they want a Course.
If you hope to seize the attention of students today, plan to give them a reason for why they need to listen to your words. For instance, if I want to spark a passion for world history or international justice, I must first expose students to a cause that interacts with that issue.
Actress Angelina Jolie has confessed she grew up as a spoiled, rich girl in Hollywood, spending much of her early life pursuing success as an actress and a model. Then she read a script for a movie called Beyond Borders. It was about a self-indulged woman who lived a life of privilege until she discovered the plight of refugees and orphans in developing nations. The script was a catalyst for Angelina. She took the next year and traveled to refugee camps all over Africa and Asia. She now is an international spokesperson for the UN’s Refuge Agency and gives a third of her income to such causes.
Observation #4: They want a Guide on the Side before they want a Sage on the Stage.
Young people today aren’t necessarily looking for experts, especially if they are plastic or untouchable. They would rather have someone authentic to come beside them. In fact, when students were recently asked about their heroes, for the first time in over twenty years, they did not list an athlete at the top of the list. Their number one response was “Mom and Dad.” They hunger more for relationship than for information (even if it’s relevant information). They are accustomed to learning on a need-to-know basis — but their need-to-know will increase if a person they trust and know well is the one sharing the information. They’re looking for mentors — authentic mentors.
Observation #5: They want to Play before they Pay.
I find many characteristics of Generation iY healthy and fascinating. However, this one may cause trouble for them later in life. Almost everything for students today comes instantly. They don’t like waiting for anything. Shows like The Voice are appealing to this generation because one of their peers gets to become famous overnight — and they get to determine the winner in a short amount of time. Usually, they love events but don’t enjoy the process of growth. The “pay now, play later” mentality tends to be foreign to them.
Another way of saying this is that, for iY kids, results have to come quickly or they may lose interest. For those who seek to influence them, this means we must connect quickly. As communicators, we have to grab their attention up front, demonstrating swiftly that our content is relevant.
To learn more on how to connect and equip today’s students, order the book Generation iY—Our Last Chance to Save Their Future. It contains a fresh diagnosis of today’s young person (who are growing up in a world of screens, speed, and self-absorption) as well as a prescription on how to lead them into healthy adulthood.
Dr. Tim Elmore is founder and president of Growing Leaders, an organization dedicated to mentoring today’s young people to become the leaders of tomorrow. He is a best-selling author of more than 25 books, including Generation iY: Our Last Chance to Save Their Future, Artificial Maturity: Helping Kids Meet the Challenges of Becoming Authentic Adults, and the Habitudes® series. Find information on Tim and Growing Leaders at www.growingleaders.com, @growingleaders, and @timelmore