Who is Generation Z?

01/10/2018 10:41 am ET

I recently spent four months in the classroom with the first wave of Generation Z students to reach the shores of the university where I teach.

After innocently referring to them at the beginning of the semester as “Millenials,” they quickly corrected me: “We’re Generation Z!” my students declared, loudly and definitively. Fifty college freshmen—born at the turn of the century—then spent the next 15 weeks schooling this Gen-Xer about what the dawn of a new universe looks like.

Here are the basics: Generation Z was raised by my fellow Gen-Xers on a steady diet of smartphones, video games, Bush 43, SpongeBob, Obama, hashtags, and emoticons in a post-September 11th era. The late 20th Century—Reagan, “Like a Virgin,” rotary phones, The Breakfast Club, Gulf War, Grunge, Princess Diana, Columbine, and the first iteration of the Clintons, et al—is ancient history to them. And their coming of age and adulthood will forever be demarcated as before and after Trump v. Hillary.

But what I would learn about Gen-Z goes so much deeper, more to the heart of this generation than anything that can be explained by the latest polls, studies, surveys, and stereotypes that are attempting to entrap these young people in a defined square. Newsflash: For starters, Gen-Z refuses to be boxed in like a bunch of lab rats, come hell or high water, literally. They very mindfully live outside the box, partly by choice and partly because many have been tossed out there to fend for themselves.

As a curious professor faced with this new generation of students, I made a radical decision: I decided to meet these students where they are, and to help them to rise from there. Instead of the tired route taken by many of my colleagues across the educational landscape—more traditional educators mired in the way it’s always been done—and other adults, who choose to reach down from lofty perches to young people and drag them upward, screaming and kicking. That old system of rearing the future no longer suffices, if it ever did, now headed the way of the dinosaurs.

The clear and present warning to those of us in front of the classroom today: This is a new generation, so new rules and no turning back. Either get with the program or else you’ll be tumbled out of the way in a ball of frustration, alienated by your own biased mind, and choked by your own stubborn ego. Your choice.

My ground rules for this contemporary meeting of the minds between myself and Gen-Z students were simple: In my classroom, you have the freedom to express whatever you want, honestly and respectfully, right, left, middle, whatever. Mistakes are okay, just be sure to learn from them. And, above all, make your voices heard, starting right here, right now!

Exactly where is the home turf upon which I chose to meet Generation Z?

Admittedly, I’m continuing to digest what I witnessed during those four months, but I can report: I met Gen-Z in a hopeful, albeit gritty and sometimes murky, place, and ultimately, I discovered, it’s a launching pad fueled by talent and bravado. Two of the students are determined to be U.S. Senators one day; others have already started developing their own video games; another is a self-taught artist despite her parents forcing her into a more “practical” major; a few want to write books; one young woman aims to champion Civil Rights; another is already a firefighter; others are pre-med and pre-law and environmental warriors and budding CSI’s; a few are gloriously undecided and content with that . . . You get my point. They dream it AND they know it’s possible—this knowing sets them apart.

Gen-Z’s home turf is also a place that simultaneously broke my heart and lifted my spirit toward the brightest percolations of the days to come.

Throughout the course of the semester, I assigned reflection papers and presentations, as channels of introspection and expression. Then I sat back and held my breath, waiting.

When their words—written and spoken—were finally shared, I knew instantly I had tapped into the heart of Generation Z. Into something extraordinary and spectacular. Into first-seen harbors, as my favorite poet Cavafy chimes in “Ithaca.”

My 50 students wrote and spoke eloquently and frankly about suicide attempts; eating disorders; discrimination and harassment and bullying; deadbeat parents who have kicked them out; the jobs they have taken on to be the breadwinners for their families; abuse—physical, sexual, and emotional; mental conditions—depression, anxiety, ADHD; tragic losses of beloved parents and grandparents, and best friends, in the most horrendous ways—head-on collisions, suicide, abandonment.

Note the plurality of each challenge above. These, and more, each became themes shared by multiple students. One student best summarized the lot: For a long time, I thought life hated me.

These snapshots of their lives took my breath away.

My students spoke in raw terms of being dragged through the fires of hell. BUT—and this is a big, powerful transition point that makes all the difference when it comes to Gen-Z—they also wrote and spoke about how they have traversed through the darkness and hellfire, how they have come out on the other side battered and torn and scarred, but victoriously intact, stronger, and enlightened. They, at age 18, embody a level of transformation, self-awareness, and maturity that has taken me more than four decades to achieve.

Reading essay after essay and hearing speech after speech, a stunning portrait of Generation Z emerged: Determined, tough, sentimental, optimistic, and compassionate survivors. I grinned ear to ear, my heart lit up in a million different directions.

I quickly became Generation Z’s #1 fan. Home turf for Gen-Z is now a place woven into my soul and inked upon my mind.

Sure, it’s also a place where I decided early on to not bat an eye at the students fidgeting with their cell phones and laptops during class, showing up a few minutes late, or taking an unexcused personal day every now and then—these things are simply a case of adapting and choosing your battles wisely. New generation, new rules for us educators: evolve or be left behind in the dust. Do we want to inspire or crack knuckles with wooden rulers? For me, the choice is a no-brainer.

My job as a professor became clear then: To thank these young people for their honesty. To let them know just how momentous and impactful that honesty is when they reveal their stories and then share their hearts on their sleeves, sending out ripples of light into the world. And, right up until our final moments together at semester’s end, I pleaded with them to please—please—continue sharing their voices, be it through their spoken words, pens, or actions.

I think of how the beginning of the universe has been described: Big Bang culled from the expansion of scorching temperatures and extreme density, a cosmic tension between darkness and light, all resulting in a new and miraculous creation, at once explainable but still laden with an air of mystery.

I nod and smile, knowingly.

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