This may be the riskiest article I’ve ever penned, as I undertake the fool’s errand of trying to predict the future.
Mark Twain said it best when he once wrote, “Prophesy is a good line of business, but it is full of risks.”
Right now, we are nearly two months into a pandemic that’s shut down over 90% of the world.
Our globe is at a crossroads right now. Perhaps we might even say this is our Babel moment, when we’ve been thrust into confusion, chaos, and change overnight.
We’re making sense of the ways our lives have changed, and how the future will be shaped by this pandemic. But to those who will work with Gen Z for many years—educators, parents and grandparents, pastors, employers, and coaches—it’s crucial that we consider the ways this pandemic might affect a generation, and what we can do to continue to work with and reach them right now.
Though we can’t accurately forecast what a future generation might look like, it’s worth speculating about what we might see emerge, so we can understand where we can help them, and where we can provide encouragement, support, and challenge—both now and in the future.
While this list is by no means exhaustive—social scientists will spend their careers analyzing this very subject, after all—it’s what is most pertinent, as we seek to understand our youngest generation.
I gleaned insights from dozens of teens, as well as educators and experts across North America who work with Gen Z on a regular basis. Their wisdom is invaluable.
Let’s address what we know about Gen Z already, how this pandemic is changing them even as we speak, and how we can leverage that knowledge to best connect with them.
Tiring of Tech
Gen Z has grown up with digital devices in their hands, and they’re technology wizards compared to adults.
In my first Zoom meetings, my students quickly outpaced me to figure out how to utilize the platform, even though I’d used it for a year and they were encountering it for the first time.
This generation is used to FaceTiming with friends and exchanging photos and messages at all hours of the day. They’ve grown up with cameras in their faces. It’s little wonder that we see them as vain and narcissistic, when we consider the thousands of photos of them we’ve uploaded onto our own social media accounts as they’ve grown up.
My middle schoolers, high schoolers, and college students like to compare how many hours a day they’ve spent on TikTok and SnapChat, when we gather for online meetings. Most are spending upwards of five hours a day on these sites. A middle schooler told me just this week that she’s viewed over 21 million TikTok videos in less than a year.
Now that this pandemic has forced students online for classes and for the majority of their day, however, we’re seeing a shift.
“I’m used to being on a screen when I want to, not when I have to,” middle schooler Sophia told me. “I never thought I’d say this, but I’m so sick of being online now.” Echoing the same frustrations I’m hearing across the board from nearly all my teen students, high schooler Julia complains, “I’m getting headaches from spending hours online.”
“I know it’s awful to stare at a screen, which makes me feel bad about my actions in quarantine because everything is online and I have no control over it,” high schooler Emma confided. “I worry that my attention span, posture, and differentiation between leisure and work will be affected greatly.”
It’s not just teens faced with this challenge, either.
“Now you’re using the same platform for your education, your work, and your social outlet,” shares Rebecca Duport, Assistant Professor and Director of the Director of Christian Education Program of Christ College, Concordia University Irvine. “Every time you log on, you’re hit with a feeling of what you’ve missed and what’s been taken away from us. Even adults are struggling.”
Julianna Shults, Program Manager for LCMS Youth Ministry and co-author of Relationships Count: Engaging and Retaining Millennials, wonders about the implications for how relationships will manage, forced online. “Teens already have the great ability to use tech to build relationships, but is this increase in screen time going to increase feelings of negativity, isolation, and shallowness, or will they be able to manage deep relationships?”
Suddenly, their escape has been made mandatory and has lost its attraction. It’s much like when adults start shopping in the same stores that teenagers shop in: it instantly drives the teens away.
While I doubt Gen Z will ever completely walk away from technology, perhaps the attraction—and their obsession with it—is wearing off.
This is our chance to help replace social media infatuation with practices of personal and spiritual discipline. But be warned, my friends, it’ll mean you putting down your phone, too, in order to model that.
Anxious and Eager, At the Same Time
The generation consumed with worry and reporting some of the highest levels of anxiety we’ve ever seen is adding a brand new concern to their extensive list of fears, now that they’re living through a pandemic.
Already, they were growing up concerned about school shootings, wars, and biological weapons, and now they realize that their entire world can change overnight.
“Speaking in generalities, Gen Z was already shaping up to be a pretty individualistic and determined generation,” says Reverend Mark Kiessling, Director of LCMS Youth Ministry. “Already, they were showing signs of feeling the need of having to ‘make it’ on their own and take things into their own hands. This is probably one of the reasons for the major mental health concerns for this generation. COVID, and the aftershocks, may very well intensify this feeling as they look at an economic system that was further shaken and the return to normalcy is uncertain.”
Interestingly, though, for a generation that’s been more self-focused and emotionally fragile than past generations, Gen Z is showing deep concern for others in the midst of COVID-19. They’re eager to do what they can to help.
Nearly all of my students have expressed concern about spreading germs to grandparents or older folks, many of them choosing to stay home despite their parents’ insistence that they’ll be fine.
Perhaps this is the first time the playing field has been leveled, and they’ve been thrust into equality with the adults around them?
Yes, compared to past generations, they’ve generally had far less responsibility. Yet this situation has put adult responsibility on their shoulders, too. And they’re highly aware of it.
We can help them navigate, offering a sounding board for them to vent but also a reminder about the importance of respecting authority and focusing on heroes, rather than those who are divisive. We can encourage them to pay attention to role models, even in the midst of this global crisis, and model their own actions off of these people.
As Mr. Rogers famously said, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”
It’s crucial, too, for adults to help students work through their emotions during this pandemic. Depression, anxiety, panic, fear, loneliness, withdrawal, and listlessness are all common reactions for many right now.
Anne Gonzalez, Manager of Short-Term Training and Engagement at LCMS International Mission, lived through the SARS outbreak in Taiwan in 2003. She knows just how difficult it was to deal with the mental challenges of surviving a pandemic, and how experiencing it firsthand affected her for many years.
As she considers a new generation, wrestling with this outbreak, she advises, “They are going to need people to tell them that it’s okay to not be okay, for some time to come. [People need adults to] provide resources to help with the anxiety.”
No doubt this period will affect a fledgling generation’s idea of security, too.
“I am curious how this generation will understand ‘security’ or ‘safety,’” Rev. Kiessling admits. “So many of the things that they thought were secure have been taken away during this time period. At the same time they may have found or re-discovered security in another place. Strength may have come from a happy home, or relationships with parents, grandparents, peers, teacher, and church workers.”
But, on the bright side, Kiessling points out that the church has a greater opportunity than ever to impact the lives of Gen Z.
“A new understanding of the role of faith and church may have become known. I hope that young people were in healthy families, healthy churches and healthy relationships that provided the necessary support to meet this challenge and into the future. These connections will help support their resiliency into the future.”
Distrustful of Media & Other Authorities
Many of the students and educators I’ve spoken with have speculated that we’re witnessing a fundamental change in the attitude of this younger generation towards authority.
As Shults explains, “They already don’t trust anybody or anything, and this will increase. No institution and no person is trustworthy, nothing is secure. This will be one more reason why nothing is safe or secure to them, unless they make it so.”
Across the board, I’ve seen a commonality between my middle school, high school, and college students: they’re disgusted with the political vitriol around them, yet they desperately want to do something to help.
They want to act, but they also don’t always want to listen to the advice of those older than them.
“Our generation is learning not to trust any of the news,” high schooler Isaiah admits. “I just don’t trust any of it. I come up with my own truth, intentionally following multiple spectrums of political scope, so I can see what the focus is on, what the consistency and common ground is. But right now, every teen I know is frustrated and questioning the older generation. It’s like we can’t trust anything that’s coming out of anyone’s mouth.”
Adults who want to make a positive impact during this time can be listeners, give sage advice when consulted, and help brainstorm creative ways for students to engage in the world around them.
Take the time to notice passions and talents in the young people around you, and encourage them to try out those fledgling muscles to bless someone else during this time. By giving them an even-keeled adult to trust, you can help shift their sense of distrust by your consistent presence.
Many of the students I consulted have expressed a reprehension for touching things, as a result of our coronavirus scare.
“I will be a lot more conscious of what I’m touching in stores and restaurants,” high schooler Marenda told me. She confesses that even when hugging or shaking hands, in the future, she’ll have health at the back of her mind.
“My kids aren’t playing tackle football anymore, but they’re doing touchless activities like building forts and skateboarding and playing hide-and-seek,” Duport shares. “The street has come alive, with people biking and walking. It’s forced us into some old-fashioned ways of fun.”
The implications of a generation that may shy away from touch are vast. I expect we’ll see an increase in online and contactless shopping, but the very games and social events we do together may be affected.
Will Gen Z eschew the traditional passing of the peace in church? Will they refrain from playing games that require one to hold hands in gym class or youth group? Possibly.
And as adults, we better pay attention to the things we ask them to do, in the future, and understand why we may meet resistance to those activities that seem ordinary to us. What may seem like a no-brainer to us may become a significant hurdle to them.
Changing Home Habits
Many of our students are sitting at home with their families for the first time in their lives. More teens than I would have guessed have confessed that they’ve never sat together, as a family, and watched a movie or played a board game. Yet now, they are. And what’s more—they’re enjoying it.
One of my middle schoolers, a regular in our online youth group, skipped a meeting recently. When I texted her later to check in, she replied, “Oh, sorry. Hanging out with my dad and playing a game was more important.”
Far from being offended, I was thrilled. This student was self-evaluating what she deemed important in her life, and pursuing it. That’s a valuable skill for adulthood.
Though I hesitate to say Gen Z is less busy, in the midst of this pandemic, they’re busy in different ways.
No longer are they shuttling back-and-forth between practices, games, and clubs, cramming Chick-fil-A into their bellies while they work on their homework in the car. They’re spending time in their own homes, with their families, and finding new things to occupy their time.
It’s important for us to remember, too, that deeply ingrained habits take time to change. We’ve raised Gen Z on a steady diet of relentless busy, and they’re suffering from withdrawals over it right now.
“It’s always been pushed on us to constantly be doing something,” high school student and member of the LYF Executive Team Isaiah Duport shares. “There’s not one minute I can waste. And now? I’m losing my mind. I literally have nothing I can be doing. I’ve lost that motivation to do my homework or clean my room now, without time constraints. I have so much free time, I don’t even know now what to do with that time. So I just end up wasting it even more. I’ve been so busy my entire life, I don’t know anything else.”
Perhaps this is an important wake-up call for Gen Z, their families, and those of us who work with them. Maybe we’ll all consider why our schedules are so frantically full, and start to pull away from the packed calendars we’ve imposed on ourselves.
A little free time might benefit all of us.
Lonelier Than Ever
As self-isolation lockdowns began all over the country, I polled a random group of fifty diverse adults online, and found that the majority of them are struggling most with worry and apprehension about the future right now.
They’re rightfully concerned about the loss of loved ones, the economic ramifications of this pandemic, and the day-to-day challenges that come along with closed schools, businesses, and churches.
But interestingly enough, the second-most popular emotion people are feeling?
Wistfulness, a sense of melancholy over how things have changed.
What’s fascinating is how my students answered that question of how they’re feeling, compared to the random sampling of adults. By far, the most common emotion that young people expressed?
Of course, many students expressed anxiety and fear, too. But even the worries they shared indicated a deep-seated loneliness: they fear the death of grandparents or parents. They’re stressed over the loss of saying goodbye, before they all scatter to different high schools and colleges. They worry about their relationships as they are separated from each other.
“This is a generation that already deals with high levels of isolation and loneliness,” points out Shults. “Will we have an uptick in suicide in the future, as a result of this?” She echoes the same fear that many in the youth ministry world have already expressed about this generation, wondering how this will affect the mental health of a generation that already shows proclivity towards self-harm, anxiety, and depression.
It will be interesting to watch, too, to see if this period of separation will renew an interest in real-life contact with this younger generation.
As Shults speculates, “I wonder if a moment of separation can really remind them that they need physical, face-to-face people in their lives? Reenergize a desire for physical community that perhaps had become less important for them?”
Unanimously, my students are vocal about missing people right now. This is a valuable lesson for all of us, to be reminded that our friends and family are important in our lives, and we can treasure and support each other even as we’re physically distant.
Unconcerned With Adults’ Opinions
One of my biggest realizations has been how little Gen Z cares about the opinions of others.
And frankly, I find that refreshing.
Watching the world around me bicker viciously the last few months has been disheartening. Whereas I’ve sought to thoughtfully navigate through it, I’ve seen a universal response from the younger generation: they just tune it out.
It’s going to be a bitter pill for many adults to swallow, recognizing that an entire generation doesn’t care about their hot takes. But I promise you, they don’t. This generation is rightfully appalled by the vitriol they see in the world around them, when it comes to this pandemic.
Before you judge them for unplugging from debate and instead hopping on TikTok, perhaps you should consider why they’re flocking to a mind-numbing app. Could it be because we haven’t given them a seat at the table?
We sometimes unfairly label younger generations as a bunch of arrogant, snotty kids who don’t care about learning from their elders. But remind yourself that this is a hallmark of every generation of young people.
As Aristotle said in the 4th century BC, “[Young people] are high-minded because they have not yet been humbled by life, nor have they experienced the force of circumstances…they think they know everything, and are always quite sure about it.”
A recent trend featured adults posting their own high school graduation pictures online in order to “celebrate” this year’s seniors, who don’t get to have a graduation ceremony. I can scarcely think of a more tone-deaf action adults could take, as this only rubs salt in the wounds of kids who know they’re missing out.
We’re faced now with our chance to listen before we spout off our own opinions, to engage the emerging generation thoughtfully in the issues facing all of us, and to invite them to consider their own futures.
We can seek to listen to them, before we share our own opinions. Guiding, thoughtfully and lovingly, will always make a bigger impact that lecturing and criticizing.
“I understand that there’s comfortability in conversation sometimes, but that’s good,” Isaiah, a high school junior, reflects. “It shows there’s more than one way to do things. We have to have those conversations, even if we disagree.”
More than ever, our world needs inventive, passionate people to continually sharpen culture.
History is full of examples of humanity struggling through a difficult time and emerging on the other side, refreshed and refocused for the building of new, beautiful things.
And Gen Z is already a foundational architect in the building of these new creations.