How Gen Z is Changing Education

Gen Z female starting work right after high school

Two education stories made the rounds recently about Gen Z:

This one, saying “Generation Z are more often turning to trade schools to avoid the skyrocketing student debt crisis and hone skills that translate directly into jobs,.”

And this one, saying “The new cohort is far more likely than boomer-raised millennials to say a college degree is very important for reaching their goals, and they’re on track to be the best educated generation ever, according to Pew Research.”

On the surface, it might look like a case of contradictory generational research. But together, the two stories are a sign of something else: pragmatic Gen Z’s multi-faceted approach to education. And employers should take note. 

Rethinking the Path from High School to Work

Once upon a time, higher-education would have been a given. But collective research shows young Gen Z has their eyes wide open about college. They believe education paves the way to solid futures. But debt scares them. And for good reason. Their older Millennial siblings are buried in education debt, assessing the amount they have, and regretting how they got there. 

“Millennials ages 22 to 28 say that the top piece of advice they’d give their 18-year-old selves would be to work and earn money while enrolled in classes,” wrote CNBC about a recently released Ameritrade study. “Millennials also have regrets about their chosen fields, with 14% of those polled saying they’d tell their younger selves to pick a different major with more job security.” The same study shows Millennials are paying a steep price because of that debt –still living at home and delaying marriage. 

And Gen Z is looking closely. Does that mean they’re rejecting college wholesale for the big leagues, as this story seems to suggest? Hardly. The Ameritrade study says 1-in-5 young people may opt out of college; but guess what that means for the other 4? 

Changing the Definition of Secondary Education

What the stories do suggest is a shift. The high-school-college-work track is no longer a given. “The Hot New Gen-Z Trend” author Allie Conti wrote about in Vice may be about skipping college; but it’s only one path. And it’s not necessarily about skipping school – it’s about different kinds of schools (trade school; boot camps; community college) and debt-averse young people who are upending the old order, calculatedly seeking secure, less expensive options that lead to a dependable future. 

And that should resonate with employers. Because those same young employees will be prioritizing career choices based on those decisions. Just look at some of the other news about education: employees opting for jobs that will give them training; frontlines gravitating to workplaces where they get more than a job, but a pathway toward a career.  

It means to stay current, employers are going to have to shift, too, putting education programs center stage and ensuring they can adjust with the many different demands they’ll have to fill. In the new order, education assistance is the baseline – the price of entry. Young employees are also looking for continual learning, jobs that offer development, and clear paths from skills to careers. And they’ll go where the opportunities are. 

The winners will be the employers that give it to them.

Written by: Alan Robins

August 14, 2019

About the Author

Alan Robins at Bright Horizons

As Director of Product Marketing, Alan drives original research and thought leadership for Bright Horizons education benefits programs, drawing on his extensive experience helping companies optimize education programs to support their Talent and HR objectives. Prior to Bright Horizons, Alan was at Gartner, a global leader in providing advisory services to technology and business executives, where he led new product teams in Europe and the US.