Why Do So Many Gen Zers Seem to Lack That Old-Fashioned 'Critical Thinking?'

Why are today's young people (those of Gen Z, born 1990-1999,) not better at "thinking on their feet" -- learning, problem solving, and decision making in their own heads without a device?

What managers tell us regularly in our interviews is summed up well by one senior level nurse manager with more than three decades of experience managing young nurses: "They just don't think on their feet the way they used to. They know a lot. But if they are not sure of something, they go right to their device. If there is not an obvious online resource to answer their question immediately, then they turn right to another person -- whoever is available -- another nurse, a doctor, or anyone they run into next. What they never seem to do is just stop and think. They can often find the 'right' answer, but often they don't fully understand the answer they've found. It's not just a lack of experience. It's a different way of thinking - shallow and wide, instead of digging deep. They don't puzzle through the problem and they don't stop and reflect on why the right solution is the right solution."

As they become adult players in the real world of work, why don't they stop and think on their feet, puzzle through problems, and reflect more on the best solutions?

Of course, there is one big reason:

They have never had the need. Today's information environment offers infinite answers to every question under the sun and they've always had powerful easy to use information-technology at their fingertips all the time.

On this subject, I often remind older more experienced people, "Do you remember when we used to have conversations with very smart people about meaningful things that sometimes ended with a giant chorus of 'I don't know,' 'I don't know,' 'I don't know,' and 'Neither do I'? Or maybe you remember having those 'I wonder if ____' conversations with yourself." Are you old enough to remember those conversations? Well, Gen Zers are not! They have never had that conversation -- with themselves or anyone else. As long as they can remember, when they reach that point in a conversation --- 'I wonder if ____' --- they (or someone else) would go immediately to a hand-held device to get answers or a short related video or a giant detour that distracts them from the original inquiry altogether. Or they would ask the ultimate authority on everything -- their parents.

With computers, content providers, and grown-ups to do so much of their thinking for them, Gen Zers have hardly any experience digging deep, puzzling, and reflecting. They have a built-in expectation that learning curves are instant. They think of learning in small increments -- filling skill and knowledge gaps as they run across them. The long learning curve is a rarity and a bit of a mystery to Gen Z.

When it comes to the learning habits of Gen Zers, many experts blame changes in the emphasis of the education system at all levels: Teaching to the test has become too common. It is all too rare that schools are teaching students to assemble and evaluate evidence, construct multiple competing arguments and understand multiple sides in a debate, untangle seeming inconsistencies, and wrestle with complexity. In college, university, and graduate school, those learning technical skills are likely to continue throughout their education on that "learning for the test" pedagogical trajectory. Those being schooled in the liberal arts often err all the way on the other end of the spectrum: Young liberal arts graduates may become so convinced that "all styles are equally valid," they have difficulty vetting information for legitimacy, use-value, and broader implications in the real world.

This takes me to another disturbing factor in today's information environment: The proliferation of half-baked experts spewing content on just about everything. Nowadays you can find an expert to support nearly any proposition: "My expert says that two plus two equals five." What is one supposed to do with information like that? Yet information like that is everywhere. The impact of this factor goes way beyond the common internet search misfire in which Gen Zers find the answer, but the answer is "two plus two equals five." Far more damaging, the organic pluralism of the internet has led to a false sense of intellectual pluralism, a world in which people think, "Maybe two plus two does equal five." This has led to profound distortions in the public discourse -- in all media -- in which pure fiction, gut feelings, and opinions are given the same weight as well-researched facts, rigorous analysis and strongly-constructed arguments. This phenomenon dovetails with the swing of the zeitgeist pendulum toward cultural relativism more generally and the weakening of institutional credibility. After all, what authority figure in what institution has the staying power to say, definitively, that "two plus two must equal four"?

Maybe we shouldn't be so shocked when they sometimes tell us, "It appears that two plus two may actually equal five." After all, in virtual reality, this equation probably has very few negative consequences. It's only now that they are entering the real world of the workplace where -- all of a sudden -- their lack of skill and experience in the basics of critical thinking can have very real consequences.