An Unstoppable Force

By Jennifer L.W. Fink

March 2024

Determined or lazy? Unafraid to prioritize their mental health or just entitled? Tech-savvy or dependent on screens and uncomfortable with in-person communication?

Each of these descriptors has been applied to Generation Z, the demographic cohort born between approximately 1997 and 2012. The oldest members of Gen Z just passed their mid-20s and are entering the counseling workforce, while the youngest members are still in middle school. Each year, the proportion of Gen Z counselors increases.

“Everyone else in counseling — the millennials, the Silent Generation, the Boomers, Gen X — we’re all getting smaller in numbers as Gen Z gets bigger,” says Taylor Sweet-Cosce, PhD, LMHC, a late millennial who wrote a dissertation about Gen Z counselors-in-training. She is assistant director for student personal and professional development at the University of South Florida.

Understanding Gen Z’s motivations, preferences and challenges can help educators and employers nurture and support the generation that will move counseling forward and shape mental health treatment for years to come.

Gen Z Characteristics

Most of Gen Z doesn’t remember the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks; the oldest Gen Zers were just four years old when the Twin Towers fell, and most weren’t yet born. The U.S. was at war in Iraq and Afghanistan most of their lives. Their childhood and adolescence have been marked by mass shootings, marriage equality victories, climate change, a widening wealth gap, and the Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements — all of which they’ve experienced in real time via digital connections.

“Gen Z is the first generation that are true digital natives,” says Daniel Hall, PhD, LPC, a millennial who is an associate professor and program director of the counselor education program at the University of Lynchburg in Virginia. “Technology has been ubiquitous throughout their lives.”

The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted and reshaped their education; no other generation has entered the workforce without in-person counseling experience. And because the pandemic and its resulting shutdowns occurred during Gen Z’s youth and adolescence, many lacked in-person interactions with peers and non-family members at critical points during their development.

These events and circumstances have heavily influenced Gen Z. And while Gen Z is comprised of a vast array of individuals, the cohort shares a few common characteristics. Let’s take a look.

Comfort with Technology

“Gen Z has such a knack and competency around technology,” Sweet-Cosce says. They may not be as familiar as their older co-workers and supervisors with desktop computers, email, Microsoft Office and printer/scanners, but “the learning curve is a lot shorter for Gen Z in terms of picking up new technologies,” Hall says.

As a result, Hall says, Gen Z is more likely to adapt and experiment with new technologies in their counseling work. Gen Z counselors and counselors-in-training may be more likely to recommend that clients use digital applications to track their moods or artificial intelligence chatbots to provide empathetic, in-the-moment support. They may use video games in therapy and likely use digital platforms to support their own professional interests.

“Look at TikTok and Instagram — they’re filled with mental health counselors, psychiatrists, doctors and other health care professionals,” Sweet-Cosce says. “These platforms create more visibility for counselors and also help them create their own identity as a counselor.”

Broadly speaking, Gen Z counselors gravitate toward virtual counseling, likely because many routinely used videoconferencing tools during the pandemic and because the pandemic loosened regulations that previously limited virtual care.

“I’ve seen more people within my generation remain online and have a preference for virtual counseling,” says Jasmine Trotter, LPC, a Gen Z counselor who uses the pronouns she/they and works with Wild Cactus Therapy at its Fort Worth, Texas, location. She’s noticed a strong demand for virtual therapy as well, particularly among fellow Gen Zers.

Gen Z is not opposed to in-person interactions, however. “Gen Z still values in-person communication and interaction,” Hall says. “They just don’t want to be forced into it.”

Educators and supervisors should carefully consider which activities require in-person connection and which can be effectively delivered via email, text messaging or videoconferencing. “If it’s simple communication of information, send it out and let people engage with it on their own time,” Hall suggests. “Bring folks together for activities and purposes that necessitate interpersonal interaction.”

Emphasis on Mental Health

Anxiety, depression and suicide are not taboo subjects for Generation Z. “Mental health is a normal part of conversations for this generation,” Hall says. In fact, he says, “they have a better understanding of their own mental health and of the impact of mental health on all areas of their lives.”

Regular discussion or acknowledgment of mental health, though, does not mean that Gen Z is mentally healthier than previous generations. According to a recent survey by Gallup and the Walton Family Foundation, just 15% of Gen Z members ages 18 to 26 described their mental health as “excellent.” Compare that to millennials a decade ago when they were the same age: 52% of them said their mental health was “excellent” at the time.

Technology plays a role in this generation’s experience — and management — of mental health. “I want to curate my work environment so it’s something that’s going to be healthy and helpful for me right now,” say Trotter, the Gen Z counselor, “instead of just buckling down, grinding my teeth and sitting it out, which is often what I’ve heard older therapists tell me. That’s not great for my mental health.”

Trotter chose to work virtually for a practice where she has “complete control” over her schedule, can set her own rate and decide how many clients to see. “If I want to have a three-day weekend, I can,” she says, “and no one can tell me otherwise.”

Social Justice Orientation

Traditionally, the counseling field has treated multiculturalism and social justice approaches as “secondary,” Sweet-Cosce says, instead focusing on therapeutic modalities that center issues of the individual. In contrast, social justice counseling — a concept embraced by many Gen Z counselors — recognizes “issues of power, privilege and oppression as being central to client conceptualization,” according to Sweet-Cosce.

Gen Z is acutely interested in social justice, diversity and inclusion, and Gen Z counselors and counselors-in-training tend to bring this interest to their work. “They really want to be big advocates for themselves, for their clients, for the world and for society as whole,” says Kayleigh Underwood, LPC-A, a millennial and crisis coordinator at the Southeastern Louisiana University Counseling Center. “That can be really wonderful on one hand but also cause some issues.”

Some members of Gen Z distrust “the system,” she says, because they think that government and social systems have failed to protect individuals, families and marginalized groups. So, they may need support as they grapple with the cognitive dissonance of becoming part of a system they previously resisted or criticized. Underwood works with counselors-in-training and asks them to think about how they can reconcile their disappointment with larger systems with their role as mental health professionals.

“For some, it’s ‘let me join the system so I can take it down from within,’” she says. “For others, doing what they can to help clients so they get what they need is enough.”

Gen Z also embraces diversity. They aren’t simply “tolerant,” “accepting” or “LGBTQ-friendly.” Instead, they celebrate diverseidentities and create inclusive, welcoming spaces.

“I use inclusive language and gender-neutral terms,” Trotter says. “I don’t necessarily need to have a rainbow flag in the background to make my client feel welcomed in this space because I do that with language.”

Prioritization of Boundaries and Balance

Gen Z cares deeply about their work, but their careers are not the centerpiece of their lives. “It’s definitely more of a ‘work to live’ mentality instead of a ‘live to work’ mentality,” Sweet-Cosce says.

But having this mindset doesn’t mean that Gen Z doesn’t want to work. In fact, Sweet-Cosce says she finds Gen Z counselors to be “incredibly determined, tenacious and very invested in getting what they need.”

Compared to older generations, however, they’re less likely to tolerate working conditions they deem unfair or exploitative. They set and enforce firm work-life boundaries and actively pursue jobs that allow flexibility in terms of work hours and geographic location.

“Gen Z is not afraid to want what we want right now,” Trotter says. “It’s not ‘I’ll wait five to 10 years and maybe ask later when I have more seniority.’ It’s ‘I want the schedule that works for me right now. I want the benefits that work for me now.’ Same thing with pay.”

Counseling centers and health care systems that insist on rigid schedules and don’t offer counselors freedom and flexibility are already having trouble retaining young counselors. “They get the folks who need to get hours toward licensure, but as soon as those folks get their hours, they’re gone,” Hall says. “Gen Z is almost universally choosing jobs that have tremendous amounts of flexibility where they can set their own working hours and work at a location of their choosing.”

Commitment to Authenticity

Gen Z doesn’t want to tuck parts of their identity away during the workday. “They want work that aligns with and makes sense for who they are as people,” Sweet-Cosce says.

That’s a bit of a shift for the counseling field. “In school, I was told to make sure you don’t share too much with the client,” Trotter says. “There’s a lot of wisdom in that advice, but I was often told to sort of remove myself from the room and that’s not what clients want — at least not what my clients want.”

Trotter says she shows her “human” side with her clients. “I’llsay things like, ‘yeah, that sounds pretty messed up’ or ‘that’s really hard and we’re going to work through it,’ instead of just saying, ‘well, how does that make you feel?’ I want to connect and talk and be real.” She takes a genuine interest in her clients’ interests and isn’t afraid to share relevant experiences.

“We are no longer in a space where we can be blank slates as counselors,” Sweet-Cosce says. Although maintaining professional boundaries can be a challenge, particularly when working with similarly aged clients, Gen Z counselors are committed to linking arms with clients in ways that feel “safe, practical and appropriate,” she says.

Gen Z expects and appreciates authenticity, transparency and honesty from co-workers and colleagues as well. However, supervisors and colleagues should consider delivering feedback in language they can easily understand. When Underwood used the phrase “it’s giving some boundary issues” to critique her intern’s counseling session, the intern understood the message as intended — as feedback to maintain professional boundaries during therapy sessions and asked how to improve.

Embracing Gen Z’s energy, enthusiasm and knowledge can strengthen the counseling field.

“We have to be willing to change,” Underwood says. “This field can’t stay stuck in the ’80s or 2000s. It has to move into 2024 because that’s where our clients are.”

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