When I taught college full-time, I noticed a shift in student behavior in 2015. Most traditional-aged college students spent much more time with their faces in their phones than they did making eye contact, interacting with their peers, or paying attention to me. The entire classroom dynamic changed. I spent more time than I desired redirecting students, reminding them to put down their phones or close their laptops (unless they were using them for academic purposes).
It’s no coincidence things shifted in 2015. A few years prior, smartphones became more affordable, and mobile access was widespread. In addition, Gen Z is typically defined as digital natives born between 1995-2015. In 2013, most digital natives graduated from high school and entered the realm of higher education. Thus, by 2015, college campuses worldwide were saturated with digital natives.
What does this have to do with soft skills?
I already mentioned the shift I noticed in classroom behavior in 2015. If we thought it might have been a problem then, it’s at pandemic proportions now. When we–anyone, not just Gen Z–chooses a digital/electronic device as a means for communication, conflict resolution, collaboration, and learning, we stop practicing many soft skills regularly. If we’re texting or messaging or chatting rather than talking over the phone (or better yet, face-to-face), our communication skills atrophy. Relying on channel lean communication versus channel rich communication also spells potential disaster, opening us up to miscommunication, which typically leads to conflict.
Communication skills aren’t the only soft skills that suffer when we rely more heavily on electronic devices, digital communications, social media platforms, and online resources. We also hesitate to reach out to others for help. We tend to collaborate less and rely on ourselves more (after Googling things, of course). We often experience increased anxiety about social settings and lose our ability to introduce ourselves clearly and confidently, to attend a meeting and participate in dialogue in a healthy manner, or to enjoy time around our peers, even time that isn’t structured or work-related.
This is the tip of the iceberg. I hope you’re beginning to understand why a soft skills gap exists for Gen Z, and I would propose, for many others who rely heavily on digital communications.
What can we do about it?
Here are some options.
- Choose to put down your phones and interact more often using channel rich communication (face-to-face, preferably). This applies to EVERYONE. Remember, students and newer employees often mimic what they see us do. Do them a favor and engage–for real.
- If you’re a faculty member or administrator on a college campus, stop assuming all students want to participate in everything online. Research proves that Gen Z members score highest on the loneliness index and crave real interaction with others. Because they may be accustomed to spending 8+ hours daily online, though, they may be hesitant to convert to a more real-time, real-world environment… whether for learning or socializing. So be creative. Entice them. Invite them. Structure courses in a way which really requires face-to-face interaction, small group discussion, and presentations. Get them out of their shells.
- Consider soft skills training for your students. I’ve designed a perfect, easy, affordable means to train your entire student body or a small sub-group you identify as needing help. You can use this training program as a standalone means to improve soft skills with your students or recent grads, or you can use it to supplement your existing career services, career readiness, or soft skills training program.
No matter what you do, please do something to close the soft skills gap.