‘Generation Z’ is entrepreneurial, wants to chart its own future

A new national survey from Northeastern University reveals that members of “Generation Z”—those born in the mid ’90s or later—are highly self-directed, demonstrated by a strong desire to work for themselves, study entrepreneurship, and design their own programs of study in college.

According to the new survey, 63 percent of the respondents—all between the ages of 16 and 19—said they want to learn about entrepreneurship in college, including how to start a business. Nearly three out of four (72 percent) said that colleges should allow students to design their own course of study or major. In addition, 42 percent said they expect to work for themselves at some point, nearly four times higher than the actual percentage of self-employed Americans. This finding was even more pronounced among African-Americans (60 percent) and Hispanics (59 percent).

“A new generation of Americans is on the rise: highly entrepreneurial, pluralistic, and determined to take charge of their own futures,” said Northeastern President Joseph E. Aoun. “Those of us in higher education must listen to this next generation and enable them to chart their own paths, gain valuable experience, and become the leaders of tomorrow.”

Infographic of survey results

Infographic of survey results

The individualism of Generation Z does not appear to be at odds with achieving their goals through a traditional higher education framework. Eighty-one percent said obtaining a college degree is important to having the career they want—compared to 74 percent from a 2012 Northeastern survey of the general public. Among Generation Z respondents, 65 percent say the benefits of a college degree outweigh the costs.

Despite these findings, respondents have trepidation about the cost of college, with 67 percent saying they are concerned about being able to afford college. Generation Z appears to be particularly averse to student loan debt; 25 percent say they don’t think any debt is manageable and 44 percent saying they could only handle debt payments of $100 a month. Financial worries for Generation Z extend beyond college, with 64 percent saying they are concerned about being able to get a job and 60 percent expressing concern about having enough money.

This financial anxiety—perhaps incubated in the Great Recession—is coupled with a strong desire to become more financially educated and to obtain real-world experience. Eighty-five percent said they want to be taught practical skills in college such as financial planning and saving for the future. Seventy-nine percent believe their college education should include some form of professional experience such as internships.

Contrary to the prevailing narrative about today’s teenagers, the survey revealed somewhat modest enthusiasm for technology, particularly its use within higher education. For example, only 52 percent said an online degree will be recognized and accepted the same as a traditional college degree in the near future, compared to 67 percent of young professionals already in the workforce, who were surveyed by Northeastern in 2012.

Similarly, in their personal lives, technology hasn’t supplanted in-person interaction. Only 15 percent of Generation Z respondents say they prefer to interact with friends via social media than in person. Only 38 percent said they make most of their purchases online.

On a range of social issues, Generation Z exhibits strong support for equality. Seventy-three percent agreed that everyone should have the right to marry regardless of sexual orientation, and 74 percent said transgender people should have equal rights. Fifty-five percent said everyone should have the right to become a U.S. citizen, regardless of where they were born and how they came to the country.

Other noteworthy findings:
•    61 percent said they know someone who has been cyberbullied or stalked online
•    55 percent plan to live or study abroad in the future
•    69 percent said their parents are their top role models
•    29 percent indicated their main source for information about major events is online news sources such as CNN.com or NYTimes.com, compared with just 12 percent who said they get news from what their friends post online
•    61 percent said the gap between rich and poor is harmful to their generation
•    64 percent said they are concerned about the U.S. going to war
•    64 percent said healthcare should be free for everyone

The national survey is the fourth in Northeastern’s “Innovation Imperative” thought-leadership series on the future of higher education and its relationship to the global economy. This newest poll, conducted by FTI Consulting, included telephone and online surveys with more than 1,000 teenagers (16- to 19-year-olds) from Oct. 8 – 23, 2014. The margin of error is +/- 3.08.

The release of the findings will take place Tuesday morning at an event at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., organized by Northeastern in partnership with Marketplace from American Public Media. The summit, titled “Innovation Imperative: Meet Generation Z,” will include a panel discussion featuring Northeastern President Joseph E. Aoun; Amy Scott, education correspondent for Marketplace; Bridget Terry Long, the Saris Professor of Education and Economics at the Harvard Graduate School of Education; and Keyaun Heydarian, a 17-year-old high school senior and founder of CollegeRoleModel.com.

Marketplace host Kai Ryssdal will moderate the discussion. Watch a livestream of the summit beginning at 8:30 am on Tuesday morning.

More information is available at northeastern.edu/innovationsurvey.