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What does student accommodation look like for Gen Z?

Gen Z makes up the majority of the current student population. Adapted from a presentation given at the 2022 ASRA Conference this week by Pin Yiong and Victoria Simmons, intrapreneur Ericka Yabut outlines some of the key characteristics of Gen Z, how this drives what they want from student accommodation, and what we’re doing to accommodate this.

 

Who are Gen Z?

Generation Z is the name given to the generation born between 1996 and 2010. They are the first generation of ‘digital natives’ – those that have always had access to the internet – and have benefited from the march of globalisation, advances in technology, and improved access to further and higher education.

They have grown up in a world with huge amounts of information both instantly and freely available to them, as well as access to voices, perspectives and media from all over the world. Through all the digital platforms at their disposal, they have the opportunity to learn any skill for free whenever they choose, voice their opinions to the world, or make a career out of their passions.

However, the quantity of information at their disposal means that it can be a challenge to catch their attention. In 2015, design and innovation firm Altitude undertook research on Generation Z, and found that on average, members of this age demographic had an attention span of 8 seconds.

 

Identity is everything

Gen Z is seen as being more tolerant and engaged with social justice than previous generations. According to Pew Research, they are far more likely to know someone who uses gender-neutral pronouns than any other generation (35%, compared to 25% of Millennials), while they are also more likely to list climate change as their top personal concern and have taken action to address climate change in the last year: they are the generation that took part in school climate strikes, led by Greta Thunberg – arguably the most prominent Gen Z figurehead.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the huge range of products and companies that they can choose from, they are also regularly characterised as the most individualistic generation. By some estimates, 97% use social media, where only those with a strong, personalised brand tend to stand out and accumulate followers.

This high premium on individual identity is reflected in what they expect from brands and companies: they want and expect an experience tailored to them. And that doesn’t stop at the particular product or service being offered. With their futures under threat from climate change, and pressure on them to drive change in a short space of time, Generation Z typically prefers to support brands whose values align with their own. According to 2021 findings by Forrester Research, 51% of 18 to 23-year-olds “always” research a company to ensure it is socially responsible before they make a purchase, while 54% said they had stopped using a brand because of its ethics.

However, they don’t just want brands to appear socially progressive: they want these sentiments to be authentic, with brands practising what they preach. A 2020 study by WP Engine found that 72% of Gen Z users were more likely to buy from a company that actively contributes to social causes. And if young people from this generation perceive that a brand is, for example, ‘greenwashing’ (deceptively claiming to be sustainable), they won’t hesitate to call them out on social media.

 

 

A challenge for student accommodation

Long gone are the days when student accommodation just meant a room with a bed to sleep in – given the majority of current students are a part of Gen Z, it’s perhaps unsurprising that they want more than ever from where they live.

While aesthetically-pleasing, ‘Instagrammable’ spaces and views are desirable, above all else they want an experience which is tailored to them: from opportunities to socialise, to discounts and perks, to brand values that match their own. And it’s clear from the data that they will go elsewhere if they feel that a product or experience isn’t living up to these expectations.

So, student accommodation providers now face the challenge of adapting to the needs of individual students, while also catering to the entire student population. And, as the UK’s largest provider of student accommodation, we know what a tightrope this can be to walk.

For us, though, data is key. Last summer, we undertook a survey of students who were due to be living with us in 2021/22, in order to understand their needs, wants, worries, priorities and interests. By having this data and looking at it across national, city and property levels, we could think about how to develop anoffer that reflected the broad student population, with opportunities to specialise and provide a more bespoke experience for individuals in their city or building.

 

How we’re meeting the needs of Gen Z students

We’ve previously shared details of how we used the survey findings to inform our events programme and ensure that it’s genuinely relevant to that building’s student population, with the help of our resident ambassadors – who themselves are mostly part of Gen Z – who lead on the events to make sure they’re truly authentic and engaging for their peers.

However, we’ve also used it in other ways, such as choosing which brands to partner with. Through the survey findings, we discovered that ‘managing finances’ and ‘finding part-time work’ were two of this cohort’s biggest priorities for the year ahead, and so to meet this need, we partnered with Shepper. Through Shepper, users (or ‘Shepherds’) are paid for taking on small, local jobs checking in on buildings, and can choose to do this as often or as infrequently as they want. This offered students a flexible way to top up their finances as and when it worked for them, without compromising on their social or learning experience at university.

By understanding our student population at a city level, we’ve also been able to consider how our properties could better meet the needs of different groups of students – for example, through our postgraduate building trial, in which we designated specific properties as ‘perfect for postgrads’ in cities with high numbers of postgraduates, and then offered a specialised service that better meets the needs of postgrad students. We’ve also looked at what more we can do to support international students.

We’ve also ensured that our values are front and centre of our organisational priorities for the coming years. We’ve invested in an equality, diversity, inclusion and wellbeing team, who are putting together a strategy that will better reflect these values throughout the organisation. We’ve also committed to working towards a sustainable future, laying out our path to being a net-zero organisation by 2030.

As a strategy team, we’ll continue to consult with students and look into the data to make sure we’re meeting Gen Z’s needs. They’re the leaders of the future – so if we help them to succeed in their time at university, we’ll all benefit.

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