Every generation imagines itself to be more intelligent than the one that went before it, and wiser than the one that comes after it. — George Orwell
As we navigate these unprecedented times through the COVID pandemic, economic uncertainty, and global instability, a new generation has entered the ranks of medical education—Generation Z (i.e., iGen, Gen Z) born between 1995-2012 are maturing in a vastly different world from previous generations.1 Though generational characteristics are shaped by history, economics, and politics, no individual can be fully explained or understood in isolation of their unique lived experience and personal narrative through this broad lens alone. However, a few general tendencies and preferences do appear to typify this generation.
Having been raised in the shadows of September 11th, school shooter drills, the Great Recession, and a shift towards child-centered parenting styles, Gen Z tend to be “cautious and pragmatic” with lower rates of tolerance for risk and life experience typical of previous generations.1, 2 Consequently, Gen Z may be less prepared for the rigors of independent living. As digital natives, they are more likely to spend time on social media in isolation than in face-to-face interactions. The lack of authentic connection with others can lead to worsening of mental health.1 In a survey of medical students, 82% reported feelings of psychological distress.3 However, Gen Z are more likely to seek mental health services and prioritize health and wellbeing compared to prior generations. Though volunteer and work experiences are more limited, Gen Z can utilize technology in creative ways to advance and address important issues such as social justice.4
Meeting the needs of Gen Z learners will require medical education not only to be intentional and thoughtful and but also to challenge the status quo. Curricula will need to be reimagined with a mix of face-to-face interactive education (TBL, PBL, flipped classrooms) and online supplementation with short, chunking of information in highly engaging ways.1, 2 This will perhaps signal the long-awaited final death nil to the traditional lecture format. Incorporating student feedback on course content, design, and implementation will ensure an iterative process of co-creation. Educators will need to develop curricula around life skills, time management, and literary and communication skills to prepare learners for the professional world.2 As the mental health support infrastructure for physicians and students has long been underdeveloped, medical schools will need to embrace far-reaching culture change and create robust programming, which is accessible, available, and convenient.4 Furthermore, as Gen Z is the most diverse generation on the planet, educators will need to develop and nurture the skills needed to create brave spaces for rumbling with difficult and contentious issues in medicine, healthcare, and society.2
When each successive generation that enters medical school, educators will need to continue to evolve, stay humble and grow. Perhaps we should even thank them for nudging us towards courage and discomfort.