Innovation Imperative: Meet Generation Z

Taking the pulse of America's emerging generation

“Policymakers, take note. A new generation of Americans is on the rise: highly entrepreneurial, pluralistic, and determined to take charge of their own futures.”
Joseph E. Aoun, President, Northeastern University

Joseph E. Aoun
Who is Generation Z?

Who is Generation Z?

Over the past several years, the world has watched the Millennial generation come of age. Usually defined as those born between 1980 and the mid-1990s, this demographic has attracted an abundance of study and commentary, garnering a reputation as networked, technologically adept, racially and sexually tolerant, and entitled.

But what about the Millennials’ younger siblings? America has yet to fix its opinions on the next generation to graduate into adulthood: Generation Z.

This fall, Northeastern University undertook a national survey of young people, aged 16-19, with the intent of presenting a portrait of this new generation. By asking tomorrow’s graduating class their views on subjects as diverse as paying for college and the existence of God, we hoped to better understand these future students, employees, and leaders. Their perspectives reflect a generation shaped by the Great Recession: self-reliant but troubled about the future, imbued with an entrepreneurial spirit, and less fixated on technology than might be presumed. They hope for a shot at the American Dream through a college education that is traditional in some ways, but different in others. And they believe, strongly, that everyone deserves equal treatment.

The Respondents

Half of our study sample was under 18, with, 54 percent currently enrolled in high school. The racial makeup was 67 percent Caucasian, 20 percent Hispanic or Latino, 17 percent Black, and 4 percent Asian-American or Asian. Geographically, the largest contingent was from California (at 12 percent), with Floridians and New Yorkers accounting for eight percent each, and Texans at seven percent.

Politically, 35 percent identified as independent, 27 percent as Democrats, and 19 percent as Republicans. A full 31 percent described themselves as liberal, with professed moderates making up 27 percent and conservatives accounting for 24 percent.

Most of our sample lived with their parents—only 41 percent lived independently. Economically, 30 percent viewed themselves as lower or lower-middle class, 46 percent considered themselves middle class, and 25 percent saw their families as upper-middle or upper class. Estimates for annual household income put 37 percent at less than $50,000, 30 percent between $50,000 and $99,999, and 15 percent at $100,000 or above.

In short, these teenagers reflect the American public as a whole.

Summary of Key Findings

Summary of Key Findings

Economy and Work

Our respondents harbor a strong streak of entrepreneurialism and self-confidence, but they’re anxious about the world and about our nation’s economic future. A notable 42 percent of Generation Z respondents expect to work for themselves during their careers—far more than the 11 percent of Americans who actually are self-employed. Moreover, 63 percent believe that it’s important for colleges to teach entrepreneurship to students. This self-sufficient attitude leads them to be confident about their economic futures: 65 percent of respondents think they’ll be financially more successful than their parents at a corresponding age.

Self-confidence, however, does not translate to optimism about the economy. Fully 61 percent believe that the gap between rich and poor “is harmful to my generation,” showing widespread fear about America’s growing economic inequality. An even greater number (64 percent) believe that big corporations and banks control too much in U.S. society. On the personal level, 64 percent are worried about being able to find a job, while six out of 10 respondents are concerned that they or their families won’t have enough money.

Overall, more Generation Z respondents think that the country is on the wrong track (47 percent) than on the right one (45 percent). While this is a rosier viewpoint than that of Americans as a whole (63 percent of whom think we’ve gone astray), it’s not a vote of confidence.

Perhaps this pervasive disgruntlement plays into their opinion of the political establishment—only three percent consider politicians to be their foremost role models (parents score highest, at 69 percent).

Society and Culture

Generation Z believes that different groups of people should be treated equally. The question of same-sex marriage is decisively settled for them, with 73 percent in favor. Notably, they also support equal rights for transgender people in high numbers (74 percent). Consistent with this view of equal treatment across groups, Generation Zers believe strongly in the importance of a racially and linguistically diverse America (73 percent), while simultaneously expressing weak support for college affirmative-action policies (only 32 percent).

This evenhanded view also extends to Generation Z’s views about access to healthcare, education, and citizenship. Almost two-thirds (64 percent) believe that healthcare should be free for everyone, and 53 percent believe that college should be free for all. More than half (55 percent) say that illegal immigrants should have the right to become U.S. citizens.

Generation Zers also feel troubled about international conflicts, with 64 percent believing that the U.S. gets involved in too many military engagements. The same percentage fears global terrorism. This doesn’t, however, inhibit them from globetrotting aspirations: 55 percent plan on living abroad in the future.

Contrary to general assumptions about young Americans’ environmental views, only 45 percent of Generation Z say they’re worried about climate change, even though 55 percent “take steps beyond recycling” to limit their impact on the environment. To this effect, they practice a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle in significantly greater numbers than do their elders, at 11 percent compared to five percent for the national average.

Most of Generation Z believes in the existence of God (78 percent), although a minority attends weekly services (41 percent), and few respondents consider religious leaders to be their foremost role models (eight percent).


As we accelerate into the digital age and our devices play an ever greater role in our lives, many observers assume that young people are the group most immersed in technology. This isn’t entirely borne out by Generation Z’s responses. Only 15 percent prefer to interact with their friends via social media rather than face-to-face. Few would prefer to ask someone out on a date online (19 percent) or have broken off a relationship online (22 percent). Nor are they devout cybershoppers—only 38 percent make most of their purchases via mouse click or touchscreen.

On the other hand, Generation Z does indulge in a significant amount of daily screen time. More than half of the respondents (52 percent) play video games for at least one hour per day. Disturbingly, a large majority (61 percent) claim to know a victim of online stalking or cyberbullying.

The popular conception of Buzzfeed or Reddit as the main link that teenagers have to the outside world appears to be groundless. While 29 percent of respondents get most of their news from original online news sites like or, 21 percent still get it from television, while a significant 27 percent receive their information primarily through word of mouth.

Higher Education

Over the past several years, there has been much discussion about the potential of technology and new learning methods to disrupt the traditional college model, as well as increased questioning of the value of a college degree. Overall, Generation Zers continue to see strong value in going to college. More than eight in 10 (81 percent) believe a college degree is extremely or very important to having a desirable career (compared to 74 percent of the general public in 2012). And nearly two-thirds (65 percent) feel the benefits of college outweigh its costs.

Yet, despite the public discourse on disruption in higher education, Generation Zers see the subject differently. Less than half (46 percent) say that colleges should significantly change how they offer education because the current approach no longer works. And, at 57 percent, Generation Zers are much less likely than the general public (72 percent in 2012) to believe that providing more online classes is an important goal.

Instead, Generation Zers largely prefer a traditional undergraduate experience augmented by innovations that offer hands-on experiences and practical skills. Nearly eight in 10 (79 percent) favor integrating education programs with employer internships, while 72 percent say colleges should allow students to design their own course of study or major. They also believe that practical skills like financial literacy (85 percent) and entrepreneurship (63 percent) are extremely or very important to obtain in college.

But while Generation Zers continue to find strong value in a college education, there is reason to be concerned about their financial literacy and their understanding of how to pay for it. Nearly three in 10 (29 percent) say their parents have never talked to them about saving for college and three-quarters (75 percent) indicate they do not have a college savings (529) plan.

Moreover, more than one-third (36 percent) expect to pay for college primarily through an academic scholarship or grant (even though just 0.3 percent of all U.S. undergraduate students receive a full ride to college). Finally, one-quarter of Generation Zers believe no amount of student loan debt is manageable and 44 percent say $100 per month is manageable (significantly below the national average monthly payment of $242).

Higher Education Policy Recommendations

Higher Education Policy Recommendations


It’s no surprise that Generation Z’s entrepreneurial and independent attitude extends to views of higher education. For example, 72 percent say they want a more customized college experience in which colleges allow students to design their own course of study or major. Nearly two-thirds say it’s extremely or very important that colleges teach students about entrepreneurship, including how to start their own businesses. Moreover, nearly eight in 10 prefer that education programs be integrated with practical experience, such as internships with employers.

As a result, policymakers should:

  • Promote Innovation—Make innovation the centerpiece of the next Higher Education Act by providing seed funding and capacity for developing new delivery models, content, and degree programs across many more institutions.
  • Encourage Entrepreneurship—Help institutions develop innovation ecosystems that provide students with the entrepreneurial skills to succeed in today’s global marketplace.
  • Expand Experiential Learning—Inject flexibility into Federal Work Study and other programs to promote meaningful, career-aligned experiential learning opportunities.

Higher Education Outcomes

For the most part, Generation Z aspires to a traditional college experience enhanced with innovations like an emphasis on practical skills and workplace experience. Like all Americans, they’re focused on the value of college and return on their higher education investment. Seven in 10 feel graduates’ job placement rates and/or average salaries are extremely or very important to consider in choosing a college. Moreover, 82 percent would use a government website that rated colleges according to outcomes such as graduation rates and post-graduate employment data.

As Congress and the Obama Administration consider a new federal college ratings system, policymakers should:

  • Develop Better Outcomes Measures—Encourage colleges to provide students with a more accurate reflection of an institution’s student outcomes and value.
  • Think Jobs and Beyond—Focus on post-graduate employment, but also on the job colleges do in helping their students persist and complete their degrees, access experiential learning opportunities, and achieve career satisfaction and success.

Financial Literacy

Generation Z may be less focused on material gain than prior generations, but it also has much less appetite for taking on debt. For example, a full quarter (25 percent) consider no amount of student loan debt manageable. At the same time, Generation Zers’ understanding of personal finance is cause for concern. Three quarters (75 percent) indicate they do not have a college savings (529) plan and nearly three in 10 (29 percent) say their parents have never talked to them about saving for college. Perhaps it’s no surprise then that 85 percent believe it’s extremely or very important for colleges to teach students practical skills like financial planning and saving for the future.

Policymakers should take steps to:

  • Expand Financial Literacy—Nurture emerging public-private partnerships among universities and other stakeholders so that undergraduates gain the confidence with financial competencies necessary to achieve their career and personal goals.
  • Improve Early Counseling and Outreach—Ensure students understand the resources available to help them save and pay for college.
  • Strengthen Repayment Counseling—Enhance programs to help students understand their options for managing their student loans, including expanded income-based repayment and other programs.

College Opportunity and Affordability

Two-thirds (67 percent) of Generation Zers indicate their top concern is being able to afford college. More than half (53 percent) believe government needs to do more to help students pay for college if they can’t afford it, even it if means raising taxes for other people. More than seven in 10 (72 percent) want the flexibility to create their own educational experience.

To promote affordability and improve persistence and completion, policymakers should:

  • Maintain the Federal Student Aid Investment—Sustain investment in all forms of federal student financial aid (including Pell Grants, campus-based aid programs, and low-interest student loans).
  • Restore “Year-Round” Pell—Help students reduce time to degree, complete studies at their own pace, and promote a flexible path to a degree.
  • Boost the Maximum Pell Grant—Index the maximum Pell Grant award to keep up with inflation and increase opportunity.

About Northeastern University

Founded in 1898, Northeastern is a top-ranked national university with a focus on innovation in higher education. Our tradition of partnership and engagement creates a distinctive approach to education and research built on the values of experiential learning and entrepreneurship.

Northeastern is the world’s recognized leader in cooperative education—the integration of classroom study with professional experience—and has dramatically expanded its global reach. Students have opportunities to work, study, and conduct research in 128 countries. The same spirit of real-world engagement guides a use-inspired research enterprise that is strategically aligned with three global imperatives: health, security, and sustainability.

Northeastern offers a comprehensive range of undergraduate and graduate programs leading to degrees through the doctorate in nine colleges and schools, and select advanced degrees at graduate campuses in Charlotte, North Carolina, and Seattle.



FTI Consulting partnered with Social Sciences Research Solutions to field the poll on behalf of Northeastern University. The survey was conducted October 8–23, 2014 among Americans ages 16–19. The study was fielded using a split sample of telephone (landline and telephone) and Internet. A total of 1,015 participated in the study (with 506 completed by live phone interviewer and 509 completed online). The margin of error for a sample of 1,015 is +/- 3% at the 95% confidence level.

The Innovation Imperative Series

This is the fourth in Northeastern University’s series on the future of higher education and its relationship to the global economy. Find our previous Innovation Imperative surveys and Innovation Summit highlights at

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News@Northeastern is Northeastern University’s primary source of news and information. Whether it happens in the classroom, in a laboratory, or on another continent, we bring you timely stories about every aspect of life, learning and discovery at Northeastern. Contact the news team

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