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Recently I ran a small poll among friends and family around my age, asking about their emotional response to the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. Results were along the lines of what I expected.
Millennials followed the story casually or researched the issue as it popped up more. We find the crisis somewhat concerning, but it’s just not at the top of our priority list. For people who grew up after the Cold War ended, this issue does not affect us like it does our parents' generation.
Gen Z respondents said they had no clue what was going on, and either didn’t watch the news or only skimmed briefly over the headlines.
These two generations are often lumped together. We’re the “digital youth,” we must be the same, right? Not quite. Extremely different internal motivations guide us.
Gen Z doesn’t obsess over “changing the world,” and “making a difference” like Millennials do. That’s exhausting. This doesn’t mean they’re lazy or don’t care, they just seek after slightly different answers. They’re less concerned about questions like, “how do I interact with the world,” and “what’s right and wrong?” Gen Z asks questions like “who am I,” and “how can I connect with others?” If Millennials die on the hill of social justice, Gen Z fixates on personal identity, often wrapped up in race and gender.
Take the Olympics as an example. Simone Biles went viral among younger people for how she related her career to her identity. She asked, “how does my mind and fame shape who I am?” and the world took notice.
But Gen Z didn’t care about the rest of the games, national pride, international cooperation, or anything along those lines. During the current Beijing games, some Millennials are riled up about boycotting China because of their unjust treatment of the Uighurs. We're also angry about the unfairness of a doped Russian athlete being allowed to compete, but again, we don’t resonate with the rest of the games or their original purpose. We clamor for a change, and when there are no problems to point out, we lose interest.
Many have questioned the benefit of generational fixations, the fruitfulness of different types of interactions, and the problems and misunderstandings that can arise. Rather than asking which internal motivation is “better,” I pose a more purposeful question: how can we relate to and lead people, knowing what drives them?
How can the political candidate connect with young constituents who seem to hide from the world and bottle up all their anxieties inside? How do they relate to the ones who are too easily angered?
How does a boss train workers who take every comment on their work as a reflection of their identity?
How do church leaders minister to congregants who seek answers to much different metaphysical questions than their own?
A friend of mine, who ministers to college students at the University of Alabama-Huntsville, has corroborated my personal observations about younger generations. She has been able to track the changes of each class entering college, from before the pandemic to today.
For a generation driven by a need to understand the self and regain a sense of stability by connecting with others, the pandemic has been devastating. Freshmen who spent their first year away from home in isolation have been deeply shaken and now lock up all their worries in a box, rather than confront them. This Christian leader’s ability to identify the students’ driving question, “who am I,” has greatly aided her attempt to reach their hearts. She shared a hugely encouraging observation: while younger generations may seem more distant in the political arena, they are deeply eager to connect with Christ and rebuild a strong personal foundation.
Yet there are those who predicted this change. The Strauss-Howe Generational Theory describes a cycle of cultural events which shape each generation in a recurring pattern. First, a golden age emerges after a crisis (Baby Boomers). Second follows a reactionary period often filled with the awakening of new ideas (Gen X). Third comes an unraveling, with discontentment and distrust in institutions (Millennials). Fourth, a crisis strikes and people must band together to overcome and rebuild (Gen Z). Then the cycle repeats.
It is uncanny how accurately this pattern describes much of human history, though we would do well not to overgeneralize. Thousands of factors shape each individual, and other variations exist in each generation, including how we even express the driving forces at our core.
For instance, I have difficulty even communicating with my little sister, who’s only 10 years younger than me, so I imagine the larger the age gap, the greater the chance for awkwardness. My friend, the campus ministry leader, joked that I should send my sister memes! That’s how the students at her school communicate in their group chat: scores of memes a day.
We laughed over this a bit, but she says in her attempt to minister to students, she’s thought a lot about why they use this medium. Have they not been trained how to express their emotions and thoughts with words? So instead, they pass along a pre-made item that conveys a feeling, hoping to produce the same response in their friend. Perhaps the greater use of visual communication has made writing or speaking less natural for those who’ve grown up learning through imagery.
There is no simple way to “crack the nut” of varied generations, but asking such questions is a delight and part of what makes us human. Finding patterns and identifying motivations can cultivate hope for the future. Russia may not be on the youth’s radar, and our need to reconnect with each other may make us too sympathetic to socialism. But while my generation and that of my younger siblings have experienced disillusionment and crises, we have a new time of growth to look forward to.
“There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens: a time to tear down and a time to build, a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to be silent and a time to speak, a time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace. Whatever is has already been, and what will be has been before; and God will call the past to account” (Ecclesiastes 3:1, 3-4, 7-8, 15, NIV).
Caylah Coffeen is a Millennial in Huntsville, AL who knows how to think and speaks up for the sake of truth and a future as bright as the stars. Her column appears every Friday in 1819 News. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of 1819 News. To comment, please send an email with your name and contact information to Commentary@1819News.com.