Gen Z are Investigators: What Does This Mean for Cultural Institutions?

Summer is here, and with it, a new guest blogger series! Today we are excited to share a new post by our friend Sadiya Akasha of Sitara Systems. Sadiya is a researcher, product designer, and expert on Gen Z (people born between 1995 and 2010).  In this summer series, Sadiya will make the case for how and why engaging Gen Z is critical and share research-based insights that cultural institutions should note if they want to survive and thrive.

Her first post, below, highlights how Gen Z’s tendency to act as “investigators” affects their expectations of museums and cultural institutions.

Thank you, Sadiya, for sharing your expertise!

“Generation Z is the most tech-savvy generation” or “Generation Z spends the most time on social media.” We hear sentiments like these all the time, but what does it mean?  It means that Gen Z, born between 1995 and 2010, has greater access to information and people compared to any prior generation.  Being the most *connected* generation allows them to curate and create communities, build meaningful connections that help them define themselves, and hold perspectives that were not possible for any other generation.

Members of this generation, coming of age during a global pandemic, are currently eyeballing your cultural institution as a place to spend an afternoon engaging in active learning while socializing. How is that different from the way older generations engage with your museum or library? It turns out Gen Z has an entirely different set of expectations shaped by their unique upbringing that affects their decisions.

Growing up in an information-dense world

For starters, this generation has grown up during the Great Recession, a continuous war on terror, a global rise in authoritarianism, ideological polarization, massive racial protests, mass incarceration of children and asylum seekers, and, of course, a global pandemic. Though prior generations have struggled with some of the same (or similar) issues, none since the Silent Generation have grown up in an era with so little to buffer them from the onslaught of current events. The Silent Generation came of age in the shadow of World War II, and it left a lasting impact on their attitudes and worldview. Similarly, Gen Z has grown up in the aftermath of 9/11 and the ensuing War on Terror and that is likely to have a lasting impact. The oldest Gen Z kids would have been 6 years old on September 11, 2001. Throughout their lives, they have been immersed in media, with polarized news coverage competing for attention against the constant marketing of digital distractions. All of these information sources have their own agenda; thus this generation, composed currently of 11 to 26 year-olds, have learned to be particularly critical of any information presented to them and thoroughly scrutinize every source.

Cutting through the noise as a core competency

The unique combination of nearly infinite access to information (and a global reach) coupled with a near-constant evaluation of the motives behind consumable content has caused Gen Z to become both global and critical thinkers in a way quite beyond the norm for previous generations. 

This generation has become avid researchers, blurring the lines between work, play, hobbies, and academic pursuits. They have created online micro-communities to share the fruits of their research, deepen their understanding of particular topics, and be seen and heard by like-minded folks. Values, it turns out, are equally important to this generation as meaningful identity markers in an otherwise fluid and multicultural society. 

Ubiquitous internet access has given them a truly global reach where it would not be odd for a high schooler from Philadelphia to befriend a postal worker from a small town in Scotland if their specialized interests in sea shanties and respect for personal pronouns overlap. Where once we had to make do with AOL chat rooms populated by students in our own schools and neighborhoods, Gen Z is catapulted into depression-busting video dance challenges originating in places like Limpopo, South Africa! 

This kind of access and exposure forces them to be discerning and selectively inclusive. They can, and do, think about the values and agenda that drive online interactions. Consequently, in sharing resources, findings, and experiences with their peers, Gen Z clearly articulates their agenda and values to ease the burden on their viewers and collaborators. Furthermore, they provide sources to back up their statements. Gen Z is used to doing the work to see through marketing and propaganda. Cultural institutions will also have to engage in the work of declaring and living up to their institutional values to be able to meet this generation in good standing.

Authenticity is foundational to building trust

In my work as a Researcher, I’ve seen the value of sharing an institution’s agenda with Gen Z audiences firsthand. In interviews and test sessions I clearly state that the cultural institution I am working with is trying something new, they are doing this specifically to reach people like them, and they are looking for open feedback to better understand them and build a deeper connection. This is a simple thing to do, but it sets the tone of the interaction to one with a clearly understood values-based agenda. Seeking feedback on a new project or approach is a highly authentic opening that invites the audience in to participate. 

Most recently, I worked with a small museum that was experimenting with a new way of engaging with Gen Z audience members in their community. During the interviews, it was like seeing the lightbulb turn on when the participant would suddenly realize their feedback was of real import to the museum. They felt valued, and they said so! It was an immediate connection and the participants were all extremely excited about the project and looking forward to its launch. Of course, after building this authentic connection the next (and most important!) step is to listen deeply and reflect the research findings in your final production, whether that’s a virtual interactive, a change in exhibit layouts, or a newly commissioned work of art.

Cultural Institutions need to do the work to build trust with Gen Z.  Trust can only be earned through a clear statement of agenda, acknowledgment of when that agenda has differed in the past, transparency of the process, and actively lived values. And all this needs to be delivered with authenticity as part of an ongoing conversation with Gen Z in order to deeply engage this generation. 

What’s next?

In the next post in this series, I’ll uncover how being the most racially diverse and multicultural generation in the US affects Gen Z’s views on identity and humanity. The existence of the most multicultural and multiethnic generation to date is going to upend traditional approaches to audience research and redefine demographic collection protocols.

About the Author

A brown woman with shoulder length hair looks into the camera. She is a millennial, not Gen Z.

Sadiya Akasha is the co-founder and Director of Product Development at Sitara Systems, a design and technology laboratory that creates interactive experiences with emerging technologies. Sadiya partners with cultural institutions to help them conceptualize and deliver technology initiatives by leveraging her background in human-centered design, agile thinking, and audience research. In her free time Sadiya enjoys exploring the rugged yet delicate landscapes of the great Southwest. 

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