“The time will come when people will travel in stages moved by steam engines from one city to another, almost as fast as birds can fly, 15 or 20 miles an hour…”  – Oliver Evans, 1755-1819.

Remember the first time you experienced an Internet connection that was NOT dial-up? For me, that was my college dorm room. We had a “T1 line.” I didn’t know what that meant, but I knew it was fast. It was like a whole new world. I could download a photo without taking a water break. Even downloading a video was possible with enough time. It seems like since then, faster has been one of our culture’s chief values.

Maybe you’ve noticed that…

  • Music that is viral on Spotify is dated by the time it hits top 40 radio.
  • Clothing stores no longer operate in Fall/Spring seasons, but in up to 52 micro-seasons each year [1], meaning fashion trends change.
  • Internet fads and hashtag trends barely last 24 hours.

Basically, everything is moving faster. So the question is…

How will we keep up?

That’s what I’ve been trying to figure out. And while the list isn’t exhaustive, here are a few ways we’re fighting to keep up with the fast-moving pace of student culture:

1. Follow who they follow. Maybe your students are following hip-hop artists. Maybe they’re following social activists. Maybe they’re into K-pop video stars. My super-smart friend, Kevin Jennings, told me “Deciding who to follow is how you curate your world view.” In other words, a teenager’s beliefs and values will be shaped by who or what they’re listening to. So one of the best ways to understand their culture is to follow who they follow.

2. Pay attention to targeted-advertisements. Maybe you skip all the ads on YouTube. Maybe you pay for ad-free radio. In our culture, it’s becoming harder and harder to keep someone’s attention for a commercial. But with Gen Z representing 40% of the overall purchasing power, ads aren’t going away. Instead, marketing organizations are spending big dollars to understand how to reach this generation. And whether you agree or disagree with their methods, we can learn a lot from them. One example? As attention spans decrease, YouTube announced a new six-second ad format. As the second largest search engine (behind Google), YouTube is setting the standard. So what could that mean for our announcement times?

3. See them in person. A few years ago, I signed up to substitute teach. The pay was bad. The food was worse. But spending eight hours in a high schooler’s environment, hearing their real conversations, and watching their real life interactions? That was priceless. These days, a group of middle schoolers gathers at a coffee shop near my office. For the price of a latte and 30 minutes of my time, I can see, watch, and eavesdrop without being (super) creepy.

4. Get specific. We may live in a global-age, but student culture is still regional. What’s cool on the East Coast isn’t the same in the Mid-West. What’s trending in Canada isn’t on the radar in Southern California. Not only do trends vary by region, but they vary by city, by school and even by friend-group to friend-group. My friend, Mark Oestreicher, says the average high school houses around 150 sub-cultures. That means a one-size-fits-all approach to student culture may not be as effective as it used to be. And, while studying what’s happening with students on a national scale is good, it may not be as helpful as becoming a student of what’s happening locally with the students you and I serve every week. 


[1] https://www.huffingtonpost.com/shannon-whitehead/5-truths-the-fast-fashion_b_5690575.html

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