A little over two years ago, a multi-disciplinary group of four colleagues shared anecdotes about their students while having dinner together at Stanford. The linguist spoke of students who described families as friends and friends as family. The anthropologist told of students who avoided classes where they had to work alone rather than with a group. The cultural historian related similarly intriguing stories from her class on the subject of empathy. The fourth colleague, a sociologist from Lancaster, on an extended visit to Stanford, noted unprecedented commonalities between her students in England and those in the dorm where she was staying. As the dinner concluded, the group realized that research needed to be done to better understand the behaviors and outlooks of these young people, and thus was born the CASBS-based “Understanding the iGeneration” project.
CASBS has played a central role in the iGen project, starting with Margaret Levi’s introduction to the Knight Foundation, which has provided generous funding for the research over the last two years. The project is led by the original dinner group, all of whom are closely connected to CASBS: 2016-19 CASBS senior research scholar Roberta Katz, 2018-19 CASBS fellow Linda Woodhead, and 2018-19 CASBS research affiliates Sarah Ogilvie (also a 2017-18 fellow) and Jane Shaw. The social science questions and issues the four are exploring leverage their multi-disciplinary expertise in anthropology, sociology, linguistics and cultural history, respectively, and their connections to CASBS have provided them with opportunities to branch out from there.
“The more we learn about these young people, the more we find ourselves turning to our colleagues in other fields, like social psychology and communication, to take advantage of their expertise as well,” notes Woodhead. “Being at CASBS this year has been invaluable, given the range of talent among the CASBS fellows and the chance to focus without distraction.” CASBS also has provided an opportunity for the team to bring outside scholars and analysts to the project for two iGen workshops.
One of the striking characteristics of the iGen – also called "Gen Z," "post-millennials," and "digital natives" – is that its members have grown up during the years that the Internet and the World Wide Web were becoming deeply embedded.
In other words, acculturated after 1995, when the browser made the Internet more accessible, members of this generation for the most part have never known a world without it. They’ve been digitally connected from the get-go; it’s the way they socialize, work, and play. How has that connectivity, combined with the changes they, their families, and the broader culture have experienced over the past 25 years, influenced their behaviors and worldviews? Such questions require reflection and, more importantly, research.
The CASBS-based iGen team and their research assistants are engaged in a cross-national study, employing in-person interview and online survey formats to ask college-age iGen’ers questions about themselves. They also have assembled a language corpus of millions of words to provide added insight into iGen behavior, values, and outlook. This combination of methodologies draws on the expertise of the project leaders and gives the project a somewhat unique foundation, as the team is able to compare the in-person data with that obtained through the surveys and language usage.
“The surveys and corpus offer a useful framing and complement for what we are learning through the ethnographic methods. The interviews and focus groups feature more open-ended questions about activities, values, relationships, personal histories, and social institutions. They supply depth, texture, perspective, and human richness to the study,” said Katz. “First and foremost, we wanted the kids to speak for themselves.”
Having multiple evaluation and listening tools provides the team a compelling guide for understanding the outlooks and behaviors of iGen’ers, as Katz described in a 2018 Public Books article that provided the world its first glimpse of the project.
“We want to learn more about the cultural values these iGen’ers were learning from an early age,” wrote Katz. ‘[O]ur combination of approaches will allow us to better understand today’s young adult culture and to pinpoint more carefully how the actions and worldviews of a college-age subset of iGen’ers reflect meaningful change from the past.”
While data collection and research remain ongoing, the iGen project now enters an exciting new chapter with a publishing partnership with Pacific Standard that launched on April 2. The team commissioned nearly 40 short articles from a range of scholars who bring to bear expertise in areas essential for better understanding the iGeneration. Notable contributors include Judy Estrin, Mimi Ito, John Mitchell, Pepper Schwartz, and 2014-15 CASBS fellow Maryanne Wolf. Other current and former CASBS fellows writing essays include Cara Wong, Noelle Stout, and Phil Hammack. Linda Woodhead and Sarah Ogilvie’s discuss the iGeneration’s remaking of religion and language, respectively. CASBS program director Betsy Rajala contributes a piece on gaming. Roberta Katz writes the introductory essay to the series.
Articles will be released in batches over six weeks and oriented around six broad themes – education, politics, parents, mental health, community and religion, and economics. Readers will have the ability to share reactions and comments.
“We are thrilled to see this series of articles published, and so grateful to Pacific Standard for its interest in the project. The editors have been enthusiastic from the start, making it all the more meaningful for those of us who are contributors to the series,” notes Woodhead.
Up next: an iGen project book. Katz, Woodhead, Shaw, and Ogilvie are hard at work, collaborating on a volume they expect to complete in 2020. They already have pored over enough data to discern the outlines of a clear portrait. What does it reveal?
We’ll have to wait for the book for details. But the team feels its findings will help explain how at least one subset of the iGen operates and sees the world, and will set the stage for further studies of other subsets of the generation.
“What we see represents something far more significant than a mere shift between generations. The age group we describe is a focusing lens; it crystallizes changes and tensions that have been swirling in society for some time. The iGeneration is fascinating because they reflect back values and norms previous generations instilled, and at the same time struggle with contradictions and failures left by previous generations. The book will suggest how some iGen’ers are putting the pieces back together in novel and inspiring ways,” explains Woodhead.
Written by Mike Gaetani