Why Aren’t Gen Z Students Volunteering?

Why Aren’t Gen Z Students Volunteering?

Dr. Corey Seemiller

Assistant Professor, Organizational Leadership, Wright State University

When Millennials entered higher education, many had already participated in community service experiences. Their desire to continue their volunteerism while in college created a captive audience for the development and expansion of curricular and co-curricular service-learning initiatives.

But, there is a new cadre of students in college that have a different view on community service than their predecessor generation. Generation Z, those born 1995-2010, are marked as loyal, responsible, socially liberal, yet fiscally moderate. They care deeply about many social issues, yet they are much less interested in traditional forms of service than Millennials. Just about half do not intend to volunteer at all in college...but, why?

Higher education’s definition of serving the community is too limiting for Generation Z.

Many of the service opportunities offered on college campuses involve short-term projects in which students go into a community for a temporary period of time and address a symptom of a larger issue. These projects may include fixing up a playground, tutoring youth, cleaning up a highway, or serving food at a shelter. Participation is often easy for students: sign up, show up for set number of hours, and leave. Having volunteers for these types of projects is vitally important to society, but often these are the only types of experiences offered to students both in curricular and co-curricular settings. Tie a little reflection to the experience and you have service-learning. But, Generation Z students have a much more expanded view of serving the community. In our research for Generation Z Goes to College, we found Generation Z believes they can and will serve their communities, whether colleges are involved or not in the following ways:

  • Mobilizing others through social media and virtual platforms. Thanks to technology and a thirst for knowledge, Generation Z students have a greater awareness of social issues than those in previous generations did when they were in college. They share stories of current events and post petitions on social media, mobilizing their vast networks to take action on social issues. And, they do it all with a swipe on their phones.

  • Inventing something that will change the world. Some youth in Generation Z have already developed an invention, and nearly 40% plan to. The news is filled with stories of child inventors and Hackathons that offer a competitive arena in which youth can win monetary awards for inventions. They are creative and driven, and their deep care about society will likely serve us all well when they solve the world’s problems through their inventions.

  • Starting their own businesses. Nearly half of Generation Z students surveyed in their first year of college indicated wanting to work for themselves after college. Couple that entrepreneurial spirit with their passion for making a difference, and we will likely see our next great wave of social entrepreneurs. They may be corporate CEOs, small business owners, or in the age of Uber, freelancers. Regardless of their approach, they will be changing the world through their entrepreneurial endeavors.

Generation Z students are more interested in solving issues than serving needs.

This is a change-oriented generation that knows we cannot continue down the path we are on by only addressing the symptoms of social issues. Not only do they want to focus on the root problems, they will likely need to before some of these issues become too monumental to address. Issues such as gun regulation, healthcare, entitlement benefits, climate change, terrorism, and the rising cost of higher education are all issues that this generation will have to face head on, perhaps more so than other generations have. So, don't expect to see them simply recycling, but instead addressing the issue of environmental conservation. They may focus less attention on raising money for college scholarships, but instead work to create sustainable low-cost approaches to higher education.

For Generation Z, social change is a career path, not an event.

Millennials were a very active volunteer constituency when they were in college and serving their communities is still important to them as evidenced by their continued service post-college. But, the mentality for Millennials has been go to school, go to work, volunteer. These discrete events roll up holistically into the life of a Millennial. Generation Z is different. They don’t see serving their communities as an event outside of their other life experiences. They plan to work in careers that positively impact the world. With their interest in invention and social entrepreneurship as a way to contribute to addressing social issues, serving the community and going to work are likely going to be one in the same.

What does this mean for higher education?

1. Allow students to connect to issues they are passionate about. Service opportunities offered through a class or campus office are often pre-designed with both an issue and community partner for ease of planning, grading, and facilitating. Some students may want to be involved with these projects as they are interested in the issues addressed. But, there may be many other issues present in the community that Generation Z students are more passionate about. We don’t want students to create a need where there isn’t one or duplicate or even counter initiatives that are already being done in the community. However, allowing Generation Z students to select other issues of interest may be beneficial for both student learning and addressing issues in the community not regularly addressed through existing community partnerships.

2. Provide opportunities for students to work on projects that focus on root causes rather than solely symptoms. Consider expanding pre-planned service projects and trips to address more than just serving immediate needs (although this is still valuable). Students should have a deep understanding of the root cause of the issue and have an opportunity even as part of the service experience to work towards creating larger change. And, for those projects not yet designed, consider offering opportunities for students to explore addressing root causes (for example, exploring policy change initiatives).

3. Don’t abandon opportunities for students to engage in direct service opportunities. Instead, expand the notion of service to include viral mobilization, invention, and social entrepreneurship. Projects can include:

  • Viral mobilization. Have students create a social media campaign around a social issue, put together an online petition to lobby for a law or policy, or set up a GoFundMe or other fundraising initiative to raise money for a cause.

  • Invention. Put together a pool of start-up funds for student inventions that address social issues, have a competition like a campus-based Hackathon for best inventions, or have students design or develop a new product or process for a community agency.

  • Social Entrepreneurship. Have students develop a business plan for a local company to integrate socially responsible practices, offer seed money to students to start a campus business that is socially conscious, or hold a case competition in which students present social entrepreneurial ideas to investors.

  • Tie service to career development. In addition to the many developmental benefits of volunteering for students, serving the community can also be an introduction to a career field and an opportunity to network with future employers and colleagues. .Consider providing service experiences for Generation Z students that addresses issues related to their prospective careers. A future doctor may be interested in working on a project on access to healthy food whereas a budding artist may be passionate about creating murals as a way to foster safe communities. Engaging students in these types of opportunities can help them connect with both the career-related content of the service and with individuals in those career fields. In addition, including opportunities for learning and reflection around values congruence with career interests, networking activities, and even a means to showcase skills learned through service to employers (i.e. ePortfolio) can provide intentional opportunities to connect service and career.

Like the shifting tides of any generation, we must remember that new students bring new ways of thinking, believing, and being. And, to widen our definition of service will likely not just benefit Generation Z, but provide an opportunity for students of all generations to be exposed to creative and expansive ways to change the world.

More about the author: Dr. Corey Seemiller has worked as a leadership educator for higher education, K-12, non-profits, military, and in the community for the past 20 years. She currently serves as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Leadership Studies in Education and Organizations at Wright State University teaching undergraduate courses in organizational leadership and graduate courses in leadership development. Prior to her role as a faculty member at Wright State University, Dr. Seemiller served as the Director of Leadership Programs and adjunct faculty/coordinator for the Minor in Leadership Studies and Practice at the University of Arizona and the Director of Leadership, Learning, and Assessment at OrgSync, Inc. Dr. Seemiller publishes and presents nationally and internationally on issues related to leadership. She is the author of The Student Leadership Competencies Guidebook and associated tools to help educators develop intentional curriculum that enhances leadership competency development, and her newly released book, Generation Z Goes to College, aims to prepare college educators to best serve and develop Generation Z students. Dr. Seemiller served as the 2014 and 2015 Co-Chair for the National Leadership Symposium and 2015 Co-Chair of the Leadership Education Academy.

Dr. Corey Seemiller

Assistant Professor, Organizational Leadership, Wright State University