Babies and Gen Z

Last week, a very important study was released from the Centers for Disease Control, with implications for our Jewish community going forward. The number of babies born in the United States last year fell to a 32-year low, deepening a fertility slump that is dramatically reshaping America.
There were approximately 3.79 million babies born in the United States in 2018 (if Jews are 2% of the population that would mean 76,000 Jewish babies), a 2% decline from the previous year and marked the fourth straight year the number of births fell. The total fertility rate has remained steady at 2.1 children, yet last year it decreased to 1.7, a record low. With the latest decline, births in the United States have fallen in 10 of the last 11 years, since peaking in 2007, just before the recession. Oregon’s birth rate also continues to decline.
The impact on our Jewish community may be even greater. Multiple demographic studies show that outside the Orthodox community, birth rates among Jews are lower than the national average. Plus, Jewish mothers tend to have children at an older age (in 1968 the average age of a non-Jewish mother having her first child was 21.4 – last year it was 26.8 years of age), which may further contribute to having fewer children.
The decline has important implications for our Jewish community. With fewer children (less than 375 Jewish babies born per year in Greater Portland), there will be declining enrollment in Jewish pre-schools, Jewish day and supplementary schools, Jewish summer camps, etc. And this does not take into account the number of potential volunteers and donors decades from now. This is something for us to think about.
Many studies and books have been written about the different “generations”: Baby Boomers, Gen X, Gen Y, Millennials, and the latest, Gen Z. A very important study was recently released by our colleagues at Moishe House (A place where young adults come together and create vibrant Jewish communities. There are more than 100 Moishe Houses in over 25 countries around the world -- we have a thriving Moishe House here in Portland. Each Moishe House community is uniquely shaped by a group of residents who live together and host programs for their peers.) about Generation Z .
Generation Z is described as “the self-secure, action-oriented, digitally native generation born after 1996.” In the report, there are distinct differences between Gen Z and Millennials (born 1981-1996). Millennials grew up in a secure world until that was shattered by 9/11 and the economic crash of 2008, while Gen Zers were born into the instability of the war on terror and the Great Recession. Millennials were raised by confident, lenient Boomers (born 1946-1964), while safety-conscious Gen Xers (born 1965-1980) sheltered their Gen Z children much more than prior generations. Millennials were new to social media and posted without limits, while Gen Zers are digital natives who are protective of their personal data and hyper-aware of their “personal brands.” Millennials are idealistic and now-focused, while Gen Zers are pragmatic and future-focused.
Gen Zers also tend to be resilient, entrepreneurial, and socially conscious, but, due in part to today’s “always on” technology, they struggle with stress, loneliness, and viewpoints that differ from their own.
Through research, there seem to be four core themes to engage Gen Z in communal life:
  • Authenticity – Before spending their time or money, they want to know what an organization stands for, who the humans are behind it, and what the exact “return on investment” of spending their resources will be. In addition, Gen Zers challenge themselves and those around them to innovate and push boundaries. They also want to communicate directly with organizational leaders so they can ask questions, as well as build mutual trust. They expect organizational transparency and that their values will align with the organizations’ words and actions.
  • Affiliation – Gen Z finds traditional membership models out of their comfort zone. They want to align themselves with a variety of experiences that reaffirm their developing (and constantly evolving) identities – not one specific synagogue or organization. This generation continues to shift away from paid dues and dedicated membership and, yet, will give time and money if they know where their resources are going and the cause matters to them. Organizations must be prepared to articulate what it means to belong to or be affiliated with.
  • Gathering – This generation seeks experiences that facilitate meaningful, deep relationship building and offer a retreat from their “always on” technology-dependent life. Gen Zers want in-person gatherings they attend to be “Instagram-worthy” and to incorporate experience-enhancing technology. They also want to be empowered to create peer-led and peer-driven experiences. And, these young people are interested in attending gatherings only if their trusted friends and influencers provide their “seal of approval.”
  • Wellbeing – Gen Zers need care. They want help managing anxiety or depression, coping with academic pressure, responding to self-esteem issues, and processing setbacks and disappointments. They rely on social media to provide a feeling of support, yet it also makes them feel judged and isolated. This group embraces a holistic approach to physical and mental wellbeing and require “safe spaces” that welcome all identities free of judgment and risk of physical or emotional harm.
So, what does this all mean for our Jewish communal efforts? We have to respond and engage each generation differently. We must understand each successive generation’s motivations and needs. And we need to encourage each generation to make its impact in its own way. Most of all, we have to better articulate the values and meaning of Jewish communal life and Jewish organizations/synagogues in a manner that is meaningful to each group. This is much easier said than done. Your thoughts?
Shabbat shalom, I hope you enjoyed the Lag b’Omer holiday, and have a safe and enjoyable Memorial Day weekend as we remember and honor those who died while serving in the United States Armed Forces.


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