Gen-Z is front and center, what with their middle pocket graduating high school in these next weeks. Gen-Z is often defined as those born between 1997 and 2012. I’m a parent on the far end of that group, and I work in a university surrounded every single day with the plum middle of it. In every good way, this is the group of not-having-it. These last two weeks have amplified their song.
For them, there’s a trust fracture. There’s a percolating feeling under the surface that the oldsters in leadership will probably f — — things up. There’s fatigue that is beyond weariness. If they don’t appear to be listening maybe it’s because they are over, so over, whatever is being said. They don’t want to connect, unless it’s genuine and relevant. (Oh please try some icebreaker activities with this group — welcome to my world. They are not going to share a ‘fun fact about themselves’ all that willingly, because the prevailing feeling is it’s not your business, or not your business YET until they know you better.) Okay, that sounds harsh — they are also driven, want outcomes to be measurable, want purpose and value associated with effort, believe in rights and equality and science and expression of self and in everyone using the bathroom, and dismiss those who do not align that way.
You know what’s cool for them? Proving it. They came of age seeing news of peers gunned down in schools, followed by complete inaction by elected leaders. They want to be valued, and promises to matter. They see the planet warming and natural resources squandered with a flippant attitude that the next generation will deal with it. That ‘next generation’ is actually THEM and they are not having this dismissiveness. They’d like to drink the water and swim the ocean and adopt alternate fuel sources and set the world afire without setting the actual world on fire. They want responsibility and equity and empathy and consideration of other living things including the tree canopy and honeybees. They’d like to go to school or church, concerts and grocery stores, without fear. Given a chance, they will point out ineptitude and greed, without a shred of apology. They are not wrong.
They are connected, though. To information, to rights, to action. Ban books, and bless them, they will start a banned book club at the library. They will register friends to vote and drive people to polling places or health clinics. They will wait to commit — to schools or jobs or events — until they feel good and ready and willing, and even then, they may reserve the right to reverse. They’ve isolated and returned, watched job markets and school communities and social circles shrink and return and shrink again. They’ve masked up, and are impatient with those who malign a tiny effort that impacts public health. They want their social media presence to be without a footprint, their messaging on disappear-mode, their videos set to fade: see them on their timetable, not for all perpetuity. Their ideas and opinions and creative flow is for consumption as they mete it out, not on-demand. They will wait you out, cautious is their middle name.
They are heartsick, but not surprised, by this week’s mass shooting (note: we have to say “this week’s mass shooting” so you don’t confuse it with last week’s mass shooting, or next week’s mass shooting — do we even hear ourselves on this? Gen-Z does.) happening in a state where the governor was super-excited to pass legislation that anyone can carry a gun there with no license or training necessary. He tweeted that, in exactly those words. In a state with a U.S. Senator who has lead the list in NRA monies accepted, and who headlines their convention in just a few days (in Texas). But wait…over 80% of Americans want these things: universal background checks, and permits for concealed-carry. Including people in Texas. Who doesn’t want all that? The NRA and the politicians they buy and pay for. Please ask the ones on the near end of Gen-Z who in leadership is a fraud, and they will tell you.
Here are some things they know: for instance, what is harder to get than a gun? Well, some cold medicines need an ID scanned and checked against past purchases, so start there. If your Insta gets hacked, the app will take you offline for at least a week while the process is sorted out and you prove you are you. Speaking of proving you are you, my Gen-Z daughter managed to drop and shatter a brandy-new cell phone. In order to jump-start the full-replacement-value insurance policy we took against it, she had to submit a sheaf of paperwork, including notarized statements and two forms of ID proving she was herself and had not filed claims in the past, then wait TEN DAYS for processing her request before a replacement phone could be shipped. She could have bought a gun every damn day in that time period.
Sidebar background-check story: driving from Canada into New York, years ago, I was stopped at the border, and then detained because my driver’s license did not match the titling of the car (it was my dad’s car). I was held in detention (sitting in the car, but detention nonetheless) for three hours while a full background-check was performed. I was told I would be arrested if there were outstanding warrants for me, and have to pay any unpaid child support or back-taxes unearthed in the check (there were none of any of those things). Three hours of just-sit-tight, because those are the actual rules and laws. Oh, and, fun fact: my dad was in the car with me. Other fun fact: no one was anything other than minorly inconvenienced. I’ve wasted three hours many times since just scrolling my phone or watching cooking videos. Turns out legal wait-periods for background checks are not more painful or wasteful than other hours.
Gen-Z knows active-shooter drills. Even I, as an educator, had training after Virginia Tech (after Virginia Tech, you guys, in 2007) on barricading doors and knowing exits — spoiler alert, there is one exit from nearly every classroom in America. Gen-Z had school rules about clear plastic backpacks, and metal detectors on the way back from lunch or recess. That deadbolt locks and camera systems were solutions before background checks and licensing and training is (again) a failure to protect anything other than lawmakers on the take from the gun lobby.
If right now you are (like me) all ‘what can I DO?’, here’s where to start: give blood. In a mass-shooting, it’s a bloodbath, and hospital ERs are an extension of the bloodscape. Supplies deplete in a hurry. Your blood donation today might not help people injured in the last attack, but you will help replenish the national supply. Call out every elected official, by name, taking NRA money and vote them out. Throw your effort and support to candidates who listen to, and hear, the public (see stats above on the 80+% of Americans who want reform). Shut down the excuses surrounding mental health as an impetus — the issue is access to guns, not access to care. Look to groups like Everytown and support them however you can. Talk to your friends with school-age kids, even if that is not your immediate circle: they need a net that is wide and strong. And if your circle crosses to Gen-Z, ask them what they think and help them amplify.
Gen-Z are aged 10–25. You know who else would be in Gen-Z? Sandy Hook victims — right there in the middle of the mix. Who else? Parkland victims — on the leading edge of this generation. Today, the Uvalde kids join the embrace of this generation. What a jacked-up way to be included. Who knows this best? Gen-Z. They are not having the thoughts-and-prayers, the inaction from leaders, the straight-up trafficking by elected officials who take NRA money and therefore trade lives of others for their own power every single day. Gen-Z is done barricading the door, hands-over-ears crouched in a ball, hoping for the best, and we should be, too.