Recently lecturer in history Dr Rachel Moss was invited to speak at Times Higher Education’s LIVE event, a major conference celebrating UK Higher Education and addressing the problems it faces. This is the text of her talk (with a few modifications for online clarity), given in a session titled Educating Generation Z. Part of this text is based on an article published in THE.
After many years of haranguing millennials like me for being self-indulgent consumerist snowflakes, it seems that media outlets suddenly realised that many millennials are actually in their mid-to-late thirties, many of us reaching mid-career stage as we start families and acquire mortgages, and that we have the expanding waistlines and thinning hairlines to show for it. It was easy for them to transfer their bilious op eds to Generation Z, and so I have a lot of sympathy for my students – we were criticised for exactly the same reasons that they receive public condemnation. We’re apparently all over-sensitive slackers who buy too many coffees and avocado toast.
According to research, however, Generation Z are even worse off than their millennial counterparts. A study in International Journal of Epidemiology earlier this year reported that depressive symptoms are two-thirds higher in zeds than in millennials, and the former are also more likely to self-harm. Zeds are also more likely to be critical of themselves and others, scoring higher on perfectionism tests than previous generations, as found through a study by the University of Bath and University of York St John.
Why are Generation Z so miserable? The media has zoomed in on the impact of social media and its encouragement of negative body image and relentless self-scrutiny, but many of their concerns are less inwardly reflective and more practical than such op eds would suggest. My generation was the first in the UK to pay tuition fees, but in the two decades since fees were introduced, the cost has risen to a breathtaking £9,250 a year. I am still paying back my undergraduate maintenance loan a decade post-PhD, but, with the cost of student accommodation having risen by 23 per cent in the past six years, it is likely to take my students much longer still to repay their mounting debts. Especially since, while official unemployment statistics show a record low, a rise in zero-hour contracts and gig work, as well as the increased cost of living, mean that 4 million working Britons live in poverty.
How do we teach students who are, as The Economist recently put it in a rather unsympathetic headline, “stressed, depressed and exam-obsessed”? Perhaps part of the solution lies in hiring more millennial academics, who may be up to two decades older than their students but who share many of the same anxieties.
Like many other millennial academics, I have experienced the sharp end of these bleak statistics, having been among the 53 per cent of academics in the UK on fixed-term contracts. It was only this year, a decade after my viva, that I got a permanent post. I was luckier than many, having had long-term postdocs for part of that time; many other academics are working on short-term or even hourly contracts. Many of us have been in the strange situation of guiding students towards graduation and life beyond university while feverishly job-searching ourselves. While the media regularly publish pieces lambasting students for poor attendance or sneering at them for requesting trigger warnings, I understand where zeds are coming from. When your daily life is increasingly stressful, through anxieties about money, work and your long-term prospects, it’s very easy for daily life and academic studies to feel overwhelming. This isn’t because zeds are less resilient – it’s that many of them are not only under increased pressures, but also feel that they have less reason to be hopeful about their future prosperity.
One way of dealing with this is to think about how to help students harness their academic skills in the job market. It’s very easy for academic staff at Russell Group universities to be dismissive of History courses that provide employability training; for those of us teaching at institutions where the demographics offer more diverse representation, our students don’t have the luxury of not worrying about how to pay their bills – during their course as well as after it. It can help keep them engaged in their studies more generally if they can also see how their degree will help them find a job – hopefully a job they enjoy and that uses their talents.
A good example is the research and employability skills module that I am currently teaching, which has as a major component a work-based learning placement. Students go into local heritage providers, as you might expect, but also work with media and government offices, on projects that we develop alongside the provider so both students and providers benefit from their collaboration. The module aims to equip history students to leverage their skills – writing essays, giving presentations, teamwork – to both prepare for their dissertations and think about the job market. Of course, universities have careers services that provide a lot of this type of training, but integrating it into the degree programme helps students see why the academic work they are doing is directly relevant to their future careers.
Another key element in helping Generation Z stay engaged with their studies is ensuring that students feel seen: they must be represented in the history curriculum, and they must also feel like their teachers understand their struggles. I try to make my classroom and my office hours safe spaces. A lot of people have scoffed at the idea of “safe spaces”, and every year there’s a renewed spate of articles criticising “trigger warnings”, followed by the expected slew of articles rebutting said criticism. In my experience, students are not necessarily having different problems than in the past, but they are perhaps more willing to discuss them. I see this as a positive – being willing to share their anxieties can mean retaining students who at another time might have dropped out. As journalist Jeet Heer wrote in The New Republic, use of therapeutic models in social and political discourse can allow ‘marginalized groups a new way to organize and give voice to their complaints and their needs’. Trigger warnings, then, can be better understood not as a means of stifling debate, but rather as a small part of a larger toolbox used to make students from marginalised groups feel part of the university community. Government policy and university outreach alike make it clear that at least on paper university is meant to be for everybody – and this latest generation is more diverse than the ones that preceded it. So far many universities are not living up to that paper-promise.
I have been listening to debates about decolonisation vs diversification over the past few years, and want very much for my teaching to fully represent the diverse range of students I encounter. So when I launched Northampton’s first medieval history module this year, I have attempted to harness recent trends in global history to provide a course that rolls back elision of “Middle Ages” with western white Christianity and instead offers more diverse content in geographical, ethnic, religious and gendered terms. It’s vital that history curricula model content that emphasise the historical importance of minorities – women, LGBT people, BME communities, the working class – to demonstrate to marginalised undergraduates not only that history was made by people like them, but also that they can make history, too – both as students and in their lives after university. That surely is vital for work across all our disciplines, in all our institutions, in terms of both the content we teach and in how we teach it.
As this week’s strike action makes clear, however, there is only so much individual lecturers can do, however. If universities on the institutional level treat students as consumers and education as a mere commodity, it will of course encourage students to treat their university education like an Amazon transaction. If universities want their staff to create welcoming, intellectually challenging and inclusive classrooms, they must treat them with dignity, ensuring contractual security, fair wages and opportunities for professional development and advancement. Investing in staff is investing in the future of the university.