In high school I was part of a performance of the musical number “Kids” from Bye Bye Birdie. At the time it was an amusing look at the curmudgeonly cycle of referring to the current generation as “disobedient, disrespectful oafs / Noisy, crazy, sloppy, lazy, loafers.” As a teenager tired of hearing adults disparage my peers and me, I found it amusing to see that this was not a new rhetoric. Amusing and frustrating. Because as much as I wanted to laugh at the ridiculousness of this cycle of irritation with the next generation, it frustrated me to know that my parents and their peers had been treated the same way when they were my age, and yet older people saw us as sloppy (cue longish hair and baggy clothes), lazy, loud, and crass.
Yes, when I think back to my teen years, those angry 90s when we listened to Nirvana asking to be entertained and Alanis Morissette’s angry girl laments and Meredith Brooks pointing out the paradox that is most women, I’m reminded just how cynical we really were. But there was more to the bridge generation known as the Oregon Trail Generation than met the eye. We were more than a mix of grunge, hip hop, and mosh pits. As Anna Garvey stated in her blog post “The Oregon Trail Generation: Life Before and After Mainstream Tech,” we had “both a healthy portion of Gen X cynicism, and a dash of the unbridled optimism of Millennials.”
When I started teaching in the fall of 2002, only five years older than my oldest high school seniors, kids who were the same age as one of my younger sisters, I came face-to-face with the generational shift to the Millennials. I didn’t get my first cell phone until I was 24. Most of my students already had one. I didn’t get my own email address until my senior year of high school. They had been using the Internet since middle school. By my third or fourth year teaching, note passing began to disappear as texting increased. Before smart phones became a new way to do homework, I would take away cell phones from students with a flourish, proud of my ability to catch students in their latest cell phone infraction all while lamenting the fact that I couldn’t catch them all. The more distanced I became from my students, the more prone I was to the “kids these days” thinking.
But as someone who spends every day with the tale end of the Millennial generation and the start of the post-Millennial generation, I find critique of “kids these days” sad and seriously misguided. This critique often comes from people who don’t regularly spend their days with young people under the age of 25. They see these young people on the news or in stores or out on the street and their automatic social media reaction is:
Memes like this oversimplify issues and avoid facts. They are meant to demean instead of generate honest and open discussion. Based on my experiences, I choose to believe that Generation Z, the “kids these days,” are the hope of the future. So why am I so optimistic about this generation of young people?
- Because they are incredibly driven. No really, they are. Do you remember what your senior year of high school was like? Better yet, do you remember what your junior year (which is typically considered the hardest year of high school for today’s students) of high school was like? Do you remember the number of activities you were involved in and the classes you were taking and the homework load that you had and maybe, just maybe, that part-time job that you had just so that you could afford to put gas into your car? I do, and I can tell you right now that my students are doing way more and working way harder than my peers and I did when we were their age. My students don’t sleep. And no, it’s not just those little glowing screens that they are holding in their hands every waking moment. They go to school, then practice or games (for a variety of activities), then they might get dinner, then by 8:00 pm, they are sitting down to do their 3.5 hours of homework for the night. And that is an average night. They are taking more AP classes, more dual-credit classes, spending more hours on extra-curriculars, and competing for fewer desired college admissions spots than ever before. Twenty years of NCLB and Race to the Top have left these kids exhausted and yet they keep at it because they want to succeed. And our society has made it harder than ever to do so. You want to know why kids are marching asking free college tuition? Because twenty years after I entered my private liberal arts college, students today are paying twice as much in tuition. Because the minimum wage job that I held while a college student probably wouldn’t pay the rent on our senior year apartment. Because American culture has told them the lie that the only way to be successful in this country is if they have a four-year degree, yet only 36 percent of full time students complete college in four years. And it’s not just that they want it for themselves. Earlier this school year I had a discussion with one of my Generation Z cousins (I’m the oldest of 23 grandchildren so we have quite the age spread). His reasoning for arguing for free college wasn’t because of him, it was because of a couple of his good high school friends who he feared were doomed to be stuck in unskilled, minimum wage jobs for the rest of their lives because they couldn’t afford school. While I disagree with him that free college tuition is the solution to that problem, his heart is in the right place. He doesn’t just want success for himself. He wants it for his friends as well.
- Because they are compassionate and desire to be informed. It would be unfair to say that my generation doesn’t care about others. While I have been disappointed by the words (and some actions) of my peers in the last year, I’ve seen plenty that demonstrates my generation cares. In college I saw classmates travel to Haiti and India and Costa Rica. They went off on Habitat builds and worked in struggling communities. They’ve adopted and fostered and cared for kids who needed it. And apparently the next generation was paying attention, because they’ve taken it a step further. My students know more about their world than I ever did at their age. I was in high school when the Rwandan genocide happened and knew nothing about it until Hotel Rwanda came out when I was in my 20s. They read books (yes, they really do), watch documentaries, listen to the news, listen to podcasts, and push themselves to take courses that help to inform as well as teach skills. A lot has been said about campus “safe spaces” and there have been far too many comments referring to younger Millennials and older Generation Z-ers as “snowflakes.” There is a lot of valid debate on both sides concerning these campus issues, but what those discussions ignore is the fact that, thanks to social media, college students are more aware of what their peers are thinking and feeling than ever before. And it isn’t because they care too much about how they are perceived; it’s because they care about how others treat their friends. Where I was raised on an unhealthy pro-life rhetoric of “baby killers” language and exposure to pictures of aborted fetuses, my pro-life students today don’t talk about doctors and clinics. They talk about babies and caring for mothers, even after birth. They give me hope that maybe someday we really will be able to change the conversation. “Kids these days” care about their peers around the world. When they see a Tweet from the other side of the globe they want to know what is happening and how they can help, even if it is just raising further awareness. Yes, there are some who have abused social media, but more and more young people are using social media show compassion and become more informed.
- Because they don’t just say they want to make a difference, they actually go out and do it. At the private school I taught at in Indiana, several students made the January trek to Washington, D.C. to participate in the March for Life, determined to see an end to abortion. In recent years I’ve watched my students show me over and over again what it means to not just follow Jesus, but to BE Jesus to a broken world. I’ve seen more and more students over the years participate in mission trips, getting their hands literally and figuratively dirty. This last year I saw former students and younger cousins dive into their support for various political candidates with the hope that somehow, someway, their candidate would win to make their nation better. I saw some of these same students peacefully march on the weekend of the Inauguration to stand up for a variety of causes. In the last month I’ve seen more of these same young people joining organizations so they can actively make a difference. When a former student sent me a message and asked me what she should do, I told her to pick a cause and go after it. That is exactly what she decided to do. And last month I stepped outside of my own comfort zone and joined a group of my students in a poverty simulation, spending an entire weekend learning what it is to live in poverty and in the trap of homelessness. Watching these kids that I taught last year make discoveries about themselves, their community, their country, their world, and their role as Christ followers was one of the most rewarding teaching experiences of my life.
And if we Gen X and Oregon Trail Gen-ers are willing and careful, we can help to mentor and guide these generations towards their endeavors. Instead of criticizing, we can build them up. My five-year-old son helped me discover this near the beginning of this school year. As we were walking from the Early Childhood playground to the Elementary playground, where my daughter was playfully waiting, he noticed some much older boys making fun of a couple workers who were fixing up the playground. He left my side, walked over to them, and told them to cut it out. When he returned to me he was visibly upset, asking, “Mommy, why were they being mean to those workers? They were just doing their job.” I was shocked and proud in the best of ways. The boys appeared to see two Hispanic workers doing minimum wage labor on a playground they weren’t even going to use. My son saw two men who were serving him and his classmates by fixing up their playground. I never want him to lose that empathy and desire to help humankind. I want better for my children. I want better for my students. But I can’t just expect better of them. I need to make sure that they have ample opportunity to grow and mature and do everything they can to make their world a better place. And I need to be willing to stand by their side as they do so.
Do I still get irritated by my students’ frustrating lack of practical technical knowledge despite the fact that they have technology in their hands at all times? (Seriously people, how hard is it to insert a hyperlink into a PowerPoint?) Am I still appalled by the number of young cashiers who are completely incapable of giving me the correct change when I give them cash? Do I still struggle with two children who clearly demonstrate their privilege by throwing mini-tantrums when they don’t get what they want when they want it? Yes, yes, and yes. But since the beginning of creation there has not been a single flawless generation and I refuse to believe that one generation is worse than the next. Each generation is just a reflection of its time. And just as each generation is a reflection of its time, each generation attempts to improve upon its time.
So why don’t we give them a chance?
On second thought, why don’t we let them lead the way?