I recently read the book, Gen Z @ Work: How the Next Generation is Transforming the Workplace. The co-authors are a father and son team, David and Jonah Stillman. David is a Millennial and his son, Jonah, a Gen Zer. Together they have formed a leadership training and consulting firm. Jonah was recently hired by the Minnesota Vikings to advise them on how to market the NFL and, more specifically, the Vikings to his generation. The Vikings are trying to figure out how to attract and fill U.S. Bank Stadium with younger fans.
Although Gen Z @ Work is written for a corporate leadership audience, it is filled with insights for anyone, including those of us in the church who desire to understand, work with, or reach this generation. By the way, Gen Zers are individuals born between 1995 and 2012 (6- to 23-year-olds), and this generation is 72.8 million strong within the U.S. population. While most of us are lamenting the failure of our congregations to reach the Millennial generation (larger than the Baby Boomer Generation), the Gen Zers have emerged on the scene. Go figure; the Millennials decided to have children—lots of children!
The students massacred at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida on Ash Wednesday were all Gen Zers. All the students forever impacted by that senseless and, as we now know, likely preventable tragedy are Gen Zers. The students bearing witness in Tallahassee, Florida and Washington, D.C. and Minneapolis/St. Paul and in schools and cities all across this nation are Gen Zers.
David and Jonah Stillman identify seven key traits of Gen Zers. Three of these traits, in particular, have helped me understand the students’ grief and response to their experience. The Gen Zers are REALISTIC. They grew up during the aftermath of 9/11, with terrorism part of everyday life, and they lived through a severe recession. They have “a very pragmatic mindset when it comes to planning and preparing for the future . . . As Gen Z sees it, if you’re going to survive or even thrive, you’d better get real about what it is going to take” (pages 10-11). While politicians, commentators, and even their parents get tied into pretzels over the complexities of protecting the Second Amendment and also protecting their children (and others) from mass shootings, the Gen Zers are all about “getting real” and pragmatic.
Gen Z is also the DO-IT-YOURSELF (DIY) generation. They are “fiercely independent and will collide head-on with so many of the collaborative cultures that millennials have fought for . . . Seventy-one percent of Gen Z said they believe the phrase, ‘If you want it done right, then do it yourself ‘” (page 12). I have been struck by the straight-shooting, “let’s get it done, or we will do this without you” posture of the Parkland students who have confronted political leaders, NRA spokespersons, law enforcement officials, and even President Trump.
Gen Z suffers from an intense FEAR OF MISSING OUT (FOMO) on anything. “The good news is they will stay on top of all trends and competition. The bad news is that Gen Z will always worry that they aren’t moving ahead fast enough and in the right direction” (page 11). Gen Zers will not miss out on their moment. They are tenacious. Have you not seen this in their response to the shooting and their campaign to curb gun violence? This generation is not likely to let go or fade in their determination, even if the news cycle and our political leaders move on.
Friends, it is time to listen to the children. We only need to look at our depleted Sunday schools and youth groups and our congregations that are “aging out” to see the consequence of ignoring the children or not having “ears to hear.” When they say gun violence is out of control in our communities and country, we need to listen. When they say they are afraid to go to school, we need to listen. When they say “don’t arm our teachers—let them teach,” we need to listen. When they say they feel their lives are worth less than the political contributions of gun lobbyists, we need to listen. When they say “never again,” we need to listen.
I am so encouraged by what I have witnessed of Gen Z following Parkland. Their grief is authentic, yet mobilizing. Their resolve is inspiring, yet realistic. Their witness is articulate, yet without guile.
It is time to listen to the children. It is not about agreeing or arguing with their position about gun violence or gun control. It is about grappling with the reality that in this moment, and in the midst of their grief, they may be God’s voice calling us to remember and live our Wesleyan rule of life: do no harm, do all the good you can, and strive in every way to ground your lives, your decisions, your witness in the love and will of God.
Bishop Bruce R. Ough is resident bishop of the Dakotas-Minnesota Area of The United Methodist Church.