Last week for class, my college freshmen, who have one foot planted in Generation Y (Millennial) and the other in Z (iGen), read about their generations as well as overviews of the Greatest Generation, Silent Generation, Baby Boomers, Generation X, and Generation Alpha (the newest humans off nature’s mold). The readings, videos, and ensuing discussion proved just as interesting for me as it did for them.
I’m a Gen Xer. Gen X has evidently gone from being thought of as slackers to the “middle child” between two larger generations, Boomers and Millennials (“Generations: Past, Present, and Future,” youtube), and according to Alex Williams of The New York Times, “a relatively small, jaded generation….former latchkey kids, who…have tried to give their children the safe, secure childhood that they never had…” I can see this. We were raised in the wake of the Vietnam war, Civil Rights and Women’s movements, and assassinations. We felt vaguely as though we had missed something; at the same time, we had considerable time and freedom but not much direction to focus our passion and energy. This spelled t-r-o-u-b-l-e for many of us during early adulthood. The world changed as mothers increasingly entered the workforce, we learned about AIDS, “date rape” became a term, and we lived through Columbine and later, 9/11, mass shootings and global terrorism becoming a stitch, forming a seam, in our cultural fabric. It only makes sense that our anxiety would be manifested in wanting to protect our progeny. (I wouldn’t argue against the backlash toward “helicopter parenting,” though – children need to gain a sense of independence and confidence in their ability to make decisions on their own as they grow older.)
But who are these kids, today’s 18 and 19 year olds? They appear to be more Z than Y. They were in diapers or not yet born when 9/11 occurred. It’s as much a part of history to them as MLK Jr’s assassination and the moon landing are to me. On one hand, they grew up with a black president and LGBT identification and rights increasing. They also grew up with the most diversity of any generation; it is even said that they only notice diversity when it is lacking. (My 12-year-old daughter is half-white/non-Hispanic, half-white/Hispanic, with many friends who are half one race or ethnicity, half another. We consciously assess and discuss diversity ratios when away from home.) They are also the most global in their mindsets and have more in common with kids their age in other countries than older people in their own (“8 Keys Differences between Gen Z and Millennials” by George Beall). On the other hand, sadly, they were raised with mass shootings, global terrorism, and climate change as a part of their world. Unlike older Millennials, who are reported to have had their innocence taken away by 9/11 and the Great Recession, Generation Z was born with “eyes open” (Williams). And we all hear about how tech savvy they are, having been born as social media natives, most of whom don’t recall a time before the existence of the smart phone. (“Addicted” and “dependent” have also been used in relation to iGen technology habits.) We know that these global changes and this early connection to the world has allowed the majority of the generation to grow up fast psychosocially. It could also be argued that we privilege the use of nonfiction, of current events, in the classroom more so than previously and live in higher pressure world caused by effects of the Great Recession and expectations of excellent grades as well as earlier exposure to college admission decisions (beginning as early as elementary school) and internship opportunities (now available to high schoolers) – and even the concept of branding! According to Dan Gould, a New York advertising firm trend consultant, Gen Z is aware of privacy in relation to personal brand, unlike Gen Y, who, upon entering the social media frontier, posted “too openly” (Williams). It is important that we consider these factors in relation to our thinking and treatment of Gen Z.
It has been pointed out that the iGen is growing up slower than previous generations. According to Jeanne Twenge of CNN, “This generation of teens…is delaying the responsibilities and pleasures of adulthood.” They drive, drink, and have sex later. I think of how quinceañeras, sweet sixteen parties, and bar mitzvahs have become less connected to the idea of “coming of age” as women and men. We have less children now, generally speaking, and pay more attention to their individual development (Twenge). My grandma Ruby was one of something like eleven or thirteen children; she was married at age fifteen and had her fourth and final child at age 24; long gone are those days (thank goodness!). I cannot help but wonder if part of the delay serves as a pressure valve. Aren’t we, after all, putting tremendous pressure on these youth? In “Introducing Generation Z,” it was suggested that they may take social issues for granted. However, I disagree – they’re growing up in the Trump era, with social issues in everyone’s face to an extent unknown and with the country politically divided unlike any time other than likely the 1960’s. They’re growing up with dystopia leaving fiction and looming over their heads in the form of predicted consequences of climate severely affecting or possibly ending their adult lives prematurely. It’s as though we’ve been grooming Gen Z to solve the problems of the world – “Here, we and the generations before us have made a real mess. Sorry! But we’re raising you so that you’ll be smart and capable enough to fix the problems we’ve stuck you with! Good luck!” According to Twenge, younger adults are “taking longer to settle into careers, marry and have children.” She continues that “iGen evinces a stronger work ethics than millennials…” While she also states that because of their slower pace to adulthood, they will likely need more help with the transition, it seems that we’re raising a generation that is more aware and responsible than those previous. So, what does that mean for older Millennials, Xers, Boomers, and older folks?
Innovation consultant Lucie Green states that Gen Z is “conscientious, hard-working, somewhat anxious and mindful of the future” (Williams). I intend to devote the remainder of my life, in part, to helping iGen on their way. As the step-mom as a younger Millennial and the mom of an iGen about to enter her teens, I want the generation to find a healthy balance between the digital world and “real” world, so that they have all of the advantages of technology without missing out on the opportunities and beauty afforded by life outside of it. I also want to do as much as possibly to lessen the issues that they are inheriting. In addition, I worry that Gen Z is going to have a collective nervous breakdown by age 30. In unprecedented numbers (and I’ve been teaching college for longer than they’ve been walking upon the earth) my students, especially females, report being on medication to fight depression and more frequently, anxiety. It is alarming. I want to help our future adults to balance the positive with the negative, to learn coping skills, and to use writing as a means to dive beneath the chaos and static to have an opportunity to reflect and make meaning for themselves. I always thought that the “slacker” label was slapped on Xers too soon; I was named a slacker before I even had my first full-time position as a college graduate. Gens Y and Z have been called everything from “self-involved” and “less focused” to “boring” and “less prepared.” In his TED Talk, “What Do We Know About the Generation After Millennials,” Jason Dorsey encourages viewers to, instead of fixating upon generational differences, generation gaps, see what each generation brings to the table and play to all of our strengths. Generations Y and perhaps even more so, Z, have learned from being raised in a more progressive environment, from adversity and early exposure, and from parenting that focused more on individual development. I hope that we will all work to lessen the load of these young people, guide them as needed, and invite them to pull a chair up to the generational roundtable and stay, bringing their passion, ideas, energy, dreams, good work ethic, and willingness to act with them.
If we do, who knows what future will be possible for and with Generation Alpha!