Two students sit opposite me, curled up on a sofa, both with headphones on while reading books. A friend joins, excited by her night out and keen to share stories. She squeezes between the two and one of them starts to chat with her. The other occasionally removes her headphones to say something, then puts them back on, returning to her book. After a substantial period of animated discussion, during which Snapchats are scrutinized, the new arrival wanders off to take a phone call, then returns to work, and the three sit in silence. This interaction has become symbolic for me of how Generation Z uses the university library: as a place of study, but also as a place of socializing and relaxation—a blended space.
How does Gen Z study? I approached Lancaster University in the United Kingdom to ask if I could do some research at its recently refurbished library, a popular place for students to work and spend their time. Three main themes emerged from my observations there.
First, students appeared to be "nesting." They populated their workspace with personal items, like cuddly toys and blankets. Library staff told of discovering workspaces turned into "dens." I also noticed several students in the same workspace time and again, seemingly seeking out a familiar spot.
The second theme was "blending." Students rarely did just one activity, such as reading a book. They moved between multiple activities—such as eating, drinking, being on their phone or laptop, flicking between tabs on their screen, and talking to friends. And activities changed rapidly. The library was a space not just for work, but also for leisure, relaxation, procrastination, and socializing.
The third theme was a confused picture of whether students prefer to work alone or in a group. Fifty-one percent of my survey respondents said they found it easiest to "study alone but in a public place." Thirty-two percent preferred to "study alone in a private place." Still, my observations showed that many students were not working alone but with friends. Many academic library re-designs and refurbishments reflect a generational change toward collaborative work. Still, the group working practices I observed suggested less collaborative work (i.e. joint projects) and more simply working alongside each other.
The dynamics of students working alongside one another were highly varied and could involve all the group working, all chatting, or some chatting and some working. Group workrooms were used as much for working alongside as they were for collaborative work.
As I conducted my observations, clipboard in hand, I noticed that sometimes students looked guilty if they were not working when I was there. Sometimes they even switched tasks once they noticed my presence. So there also seemed to be a distinction between how students were using the library and their sense of how the library should be used.
Cultural understandings of libraries have changed from a silent space to community hub hosting all kinds of activities. So it may be that my observations don't just represent a generational phenomenon but a broader shift. But the creation of a cozy, enclosed space does resonate with the importance for this generation of emotional safety, and the constant switching between activities seems a likely result of growing up with the Internet and social media. Several library staff also observed that both "nesting" and "blending" seemed to mark significant changes in library use among students over time.
The fuzzy boundaries between leisure and work observed in the library also raises questions as Gen Z enters the workplace. The strict demarcation between work and leisure may be shifting, and Gen Z's work practices may look rather like "not working" to those unaccustomed to watching young people multitask and shift activities so rapidly. Workplaces should create spaces and cultures that take these developments into account—and some of the workplaces most successful at attracting younger people are already doing this.
But Gen Z'ers may also need to be encouraged to reconsider their working practices, and in particular to think about what "taking a break" may look like. As activities become increasingly blurred, taking a break from the laptop may happen less and less frequently—a concern for several of the library staff I spoke to. Libraries, and universities more generally, may need to consider how they can encourage students to take such breaks, not just in the interests of effective work practices but also for students' mental health and well-being.
Understanding Gen Z, a collaboration between Pacific Standard and Stanford's Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, investigates the historical context and social science research that helps explain the next generation. Join our newsletter to see new stories, and let us know your thoughts on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.
Understanding Gen Z was made possible by Stanford University's Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (CASBS) and its director, Margaret Levi, who hosted the iGen Project. Further support came from the Knight Foundation.
See more in this series:
How Gen Z Presents a Challenge to Traditional Arts Organizations
Social institutions that nourish the arts need to offer young people aesthetic experiences that reflect their lived experiences. Read more
How We Can Teach Gen Z a Better Kind of Media Literacy
Young people's ability to navigate the Internet can be summed up in one word: bleak. Read more
Are Elite Institutions Teaching Students the Wrong Values?
There's a clear need to rethink what "impact" means, given the concept's distorting effect on students' priorities and ethics. Read more
How to Make College More Relevant for Gen Z
With a nimbler approach to the curriculum, we can help this generation develop their ideals into real-world solutions. Read more