Understanding generational characteristics is key to successful messaging. Enrollment marketers are focusing attention on Gen Z now, but Generation Alpha is coming sooner than you think.

In this blog and with clients, we often talk about creating personas. This is a handy tactic to guide content focus, word choice and tone.

The generational profiles (audiences) we consider in higher ed marketing today include:

  • Baby Boomers (b. 1946-1964) – alumni, community leaders
  • Generation X (b. 1965-1979) – alumni, parents
  • Generation Y “Millennials” (b. 1980-1994) – graduate/nontraditional students, parents
  • Generation Z (b. 1995-2009) – traditional students

Time flies when you’re having fun in education marketing. As a result, the oldest among Gen Z are already turning 26 years old. Hard to believe, I know.

There’s still plenty of time for colleges and private high schools to market to Gen Z, the youngest of which is just 12 now. But these middle- and high-schoolers are growing up fast.

What comes next?

They’re called Generation Alpha (b. 2010-2024), and a new persona for them is beginning to emerge.

Like Gen Z Did, Generation Alpha Is Entering a New World

The social analysts at McCrindle coined the term Generation Alpha in response to societal shifts that tend to occur about every 15 years or so.

Mark McCrindle, Principal at McCrindle and co-author with social researcher Ashley Fell of Generation Alpha: Understanding Our Children and Helping them Thrive, explains the choice of name this way:

“In keeping with this scientific nomenclature of using the Greek alphabet in lieu of the Latin, and having worked our way through Generations X, Y and Z, I settled on the next cohort being Generation Alpha – not a return to the old, but the start of something new.”

McCrindle foresees a fundamental shift that signals more than the next chapter in human history. It’s the beginning of an entirely new era.

Sounds like we should pay attention.

World-Changing Events

As the theory goes, there are world-changing events that have the power to define an entire generation. These events become bellwethers of shifts in society that profoundly affect consumer values and behavior.

According to McCrindle, for Baby Boomers, that event was the moon landing; for Gen X, the stock market crash of 1987; for Millennials, September 11; and for Gen Z, the Global Financial Crisis (Great Recession).

Technology and Consumer Products

These generational cycles are also defined by other markers, such as the use of technology. 

Think of the shift between Millennials growing up downloading music to put on their iPods to Gen Z simply pulling it out of the air with ubiquitous mobile internet, for example.

Social Markers for Generation Alpha

For Gen Alpha, the members of which haven’t all been born yet, the global pandemic has become a strong contender of the generation-defining “event.” That will become clearer in time.

What is becoming clear about Gen Alpha, according to McCrindle, is that they are the most technologically savvy generation ever, with more access to information and global influences, and that they will be the largest generation in history, exceeding 2.2 billion by 2025.

And the oldest among them are entering middle school this fall.

Let’s explore how.

6 Tips for Marketing to Generation Alpha

We’ll know more about Gen Alpha – the effects of the global pandemic, shifts in global politics, climate change, technological developments, etc. – in the coming years. We may need to refine these strategies. But we already know enough to get the ball rolling.

1. Connect learning with financial security.

Gen Z marked a shift from Millennial skepticism about career prospects in the midst of the Great Recession to a renewed spirit of entrepreneurship and independence. 

But Generation Alpha is likely to take a more conservative approach than Gen Z.

During my interview with Mark McCrindle in the Higher Ed Marketer podcast in June 2021, he explained the impact of a global pandemic that has rocked the world economy once again.

“They’ve also seen the financial consequences of [the COVID-19 pandemic] as have a lot of families, particularly those in casual employment in hospitality. Retail travel has been so impacted. Those in the more precarious working economy and the like have been challenged, and so it has shown this generation that having savings and having a secure job and being prepared for the rainy day is an important thing … they, like those older generations, now are valuing security and financial conservatism and savings, and again the secure job.”

This is part of why McCrindle predicts adolescence will extend later for Gen Alpha. They will stay at home later, stay in education longer and start their earning years later.

It will be important to provide these young people with a narrative that clearly connects the dots from adolescence into successful adulthood, with innovative higher ed as a bridge to financial security.

The focus may be less on the traditional experience we once assumed to be the norm: leaving home, spending four years on campus, etc. Gen Alpha may not be ready for all that quite as early. 

They may be more interested in learning online from home, or commuting from home, than Gen Z. We will have to tell new stories about students working at their own pace, entering the workforce when they’re ready. 

Generation Alpha stories may resemble what we consider to be adult/nontraditional stories today. We may need to focus less on campus experience and more on online learning, flexible options and prospects for a lucrative career.

2. Showcase support for individualized wellbeing.

By the time Generation Alpha is applying to colleges, their expectations for support services to help them succeed will likely be high.

Students and their Millennial parents will be looking for schools with more than strong academics. They will put a high value on attentiveness to overall wellbeing as well.

“The trend of wellbeing has been steadily increasing over the last few years, particularly in schools and in the workplace. In the last five years, almost half of parents (48 percent) have increased their expectations of their child’s school to support wellbeing.”

One of the interesting characteristics of Gen Z is a focus on self-care. They tend to be more cognizant of the importance of taking care of their mental and physical health than previous generations. They avoid unhealthy choices (e.g. fast food) and seek out mental health services.

In contrast, Generation Alpha is less likely to accept that their wellbeing is entirely on their shoulders. They will expect more institutional care to be provided and personalized to each student’s unique needs.

They are growing up in a world of personalized experience. It will be essential to demonstrate your ability to provide student support that is truly one-on-one, meeting them wherever they are. 

3. Show your (authentic) diversity.

Diversity is likely to be a core value for Gen Alpha. Any perception that your institution is selective or discriminatory in any way will be a big red flag.

As digital marketing strategist Neil Patel explains:

“Gen Alpha’s patience for inequality will almost surely continue to decrease as they grow up … Brands championing diversity and social issues while embracing widespread change will flourish. Brands that don’t evolve will be left behind.”

This means that you will have to give careful consideration to how you communicate your institution’s brand over the next decade.

Showing and celebrating the diversity of your campus community will be a strong asset. However, you never want to push this messaging beyond the bounds of authenticity.

Making your school look more diverse than it really is can backfire on you.

York College’s Cautionary Tale

Learn the lesson of York College of Pennsylvania, whose marketing team photoshopped an Asian student and an apparently Muslim student (pictured with a hair covering) in the place of two white students. What looked great at first only caused controversy.

They’re not the only ones to have done something like this. As marketers, we understand why this sort of thing happens. The stories we tell often walk the line between observational and aspirational.

But when it comes to touting diversity of gender, race, ethnicity, differently-abled students, neurodiversity, etc., be careful. Gen Alpha is going to value this more than any generation before them – and will be able to distinguish between fact and fiction better, too.

4. Leverage your global reach.

Generation Alpha will be far more connected to the world than previous generations. They will also be more likely to value learning opportunities that deepen their understanding.

As Mark McCrindle told me:

“We call them the world’s first global generation because never before have we had the technology that connects the social media platforms that engage the news feed … search and playlist[s] are coming in from global platforms from Netflix to Spotify, shared right around the world.”

Just as they will be likely to value diversity of race, ethnicity and other demographics that make up their national and regional context, Gen Alpha will value cultural diversity as well.

We will want to dial up our focus on global connectedness in the coming years. Whether that’s study abroad opportunities, service trips, virtual explorations of culture, international business academies, etc., the extent of your school’s global reach will help set you apart.

5. Sell families on universal skill development.

Millennial parents are taking very little about their Gen Alpha’s futures for granted. They have experienced a lot of societal change, and are making sure they are well-informed about what may be on the horizon for their kids.

Generation Alpha will likely be hyper-aware of facts like the one Mark shared with me:

“The World Economic Forum said that 65 percent of children entering primary school today – that’s these Gen Alphas – will ultimately end up working at job types that don’t yet exist. So here we are educating them for a working future that has not yet been formed … [but] we can give them life skills, people skills, character formation and the ability to learn how to learn so that they can adjust and adapt that learning.”

Skills like resilience, adaptability and creative thinking are what parents want for their kids. These are the skills Gen Alpha will come to demand for themselves.

The higher ed institutions that will be most successful are the ones that present themselves as forward-thinking. Messaging will need to be about adapting to a changing world, not just succeeding in the world as it is today.

Schools will need to highlight the opportunities they provide to build their students’ capacities for understanding diverse perspectives and adapting their thinking as needed.

These are some of the universal skills that will help Gen Alpha succeed in whatever the mid-21st century brings.

6. Get creative with native content.

This last tip has less to do with what we say to Gen Alpha than with our methods of reaching them.

McCrindle calls Gen Alpha “screenagers,” who – unlike Gen Z, whose earliest experiences with technology were on desktop PCs or laptops – are born living their lives on portable screens.

“Those aged 8-12 years in the United States (tweens) consume on average 4 hours and 44 minutes of screen time per day for entertainment purposes. This increases to an average of 7 hours 22 minutes for those aged 13 to 18. Such is their multi-screening behaviour that this is expected to increase for Generation Alpha who have been born into a world of iPhones, YouTube and Instagram.”

Reaching Gen Alpha is going to be all about getting into their world by getting onto those screens.

Some forward-thinking higher ed institutions have already had some good ideas in this department.

  • Oral Roberts University recreated their Global Learning Center in Minecraft. Bringing the university world into one of Gen Alpha’s favorite playgrounds could open the door to more interaction. (Though it would be better to do this on mobile versions of Minecraft).
  • Students at Princeton created a virtual campus in another popular online space for Gen Alpha, Roblox. More than just a space to tour, they made it into a game featuring objectives and an in-game economy. Adding gamification may be highly effective.
  • McCrindle acknowledges the prevalence of YouTube in Gen Alpha’s world, and college YouTubers are captivating them with “day in the life” content. Consider producing your own video content focused on entertainment rather than promotion.

It’s not too soon to start talking about Generation Alpha.

Maybe you’re not quite ready to think about this. After all, many of my clients tell me they’re still trying to get used to the shift from Millennial marketing to Gen Z. I get it!

I’m not asking you to stop focusing on Gen Z anytime soon.

I’m only challenging you to keep Gen Alpha on your radar, because they’re coming. The next generation of college students is always right around the corner.

Let’s talk about it. I’m eager to help you be as successful in your enrollment marketing efforts today and tomorrow.


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Featured image by Alex Tihonov via Adobe Stock

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