How to Talk With Your Gen-Zer or Young Millennial
I’ll start off right away with saying that I am not an expert on Generation Z, or young Millennials, nor am I even an expert on how to talk with teenagers and young adults. If you are part of Gen Z or Millennials and you don’t agree with how I’ve described you, I’m sorry. Please get in touch and I’d love to hear from you. This article isn’t really for you though – it's for your parents and grandparents.
Who is Generation Z? It’s your babies who were born in the early/mid-2000s to now. Gen Zers are roughly age 12-18.
Who are Young Millennials? I’m referring to them as our current 18-25-year-olds, those born in the late 90s/early 2000s.
Our world saw a huge shift in culture in the 1960s. So, if you were growing up either pre-1960s, or weren’t yet an adult in the 60s and 70s, it’s going to take some work to shift your thinking about young people. We are living in a vastly different world. (Check out Charles Taylor, or Andrew Root, for more insight into the “hinge moment” of the 1960s as the beginning of widespread ‘expressive’ individualism.) We simply cannot equate the experience of an 18-year-old today to that of one in the 1960s or 70s.
More than that, Gordon Neufeld, Vancouver-based psychologist and author of Hold on To Your Kids, explains how in generations past, parents were the ones teaching their children everything they knew. But now, with technology changing so quickly, children are often teaching their parents and learning from their peers.
Our young people are HUGELY influenced by their peers, by what they see on social media, and by culture at large. Okay, you already knew that. Our young people are far less interested in organized religion and a traditional view of God and much more interested in social harmony, world peace, and standing up for what’s right. They care deeply for their friends who identify themselves as homosexual or a part of the LGBTQ+ community, or are Black/POC, or have a disability. They either care deeply for the environment and stand for issues surrounding climate change, or they simply fear the “end of the world” as a result of climate change, or possibly a bit of both. Regardless of what the Bible might say, what’s most important is that they love their friends and take care of the planet. (Oh wait, maybe the Bible says something like that...)
Gen Zers often see Christianity as very “anti-”. They notice what the Church is against, rather than for. Some will point out how Christianity is anti-this and anti-that regardless of whether it’s true of all churches or not. Since they have not seen the Church make a lot of difference in the world (according to them) then why bother with the Church at all? There are other ways to achieve world peace and social harmony. For many of them this is a more hopeful path than depending on a religious institution and a God they cannot see. For others though, it is becoming a hopeless path. As rioting increases, and sea levels rise, and no one seems to be listening to them...will they even have a future here on earth?
Listen & Validate
So, how do you begin to talk with your Gen-Zers or Young Millennials? My advice is to start with genuine, active listening. Like, truly listen, and only listen. Ask questions. Show them you care. Help them know that you don’t really understand, but that what they are expressing is beginning to make sense to you.
As parents and supposedly more mature adults, we often want to continue educating and teaching our young people, even well after their 18th birthday. But the reality is, they aren’t all that interested in listening to us anymore. There are so many voices in their life, and yours is just one, and it is (unfortunately?) not as important as others.
Especially for our passionate and more emotional young people, it is important that we validate how they are feeling, regardless of their words and actions, which you may not agree with. Some of our young people are feeling a lot of deep things right now, as they see their vulnerable peers and friends being hurt by the injustice in the world. Some of our young people are being more directly hurt and impacted by the injustice in the world because they themselves are LGBTQ+, or POC (People of Colour), or are passionate animal rights activists.
What would happen if you started a conversation with a Gen-Zer or millennial without any intention of teaching or explaining anything to them? What would happen if you started a conversation hoping to learn more about your young person and the world they are living in rather than expecting to teach them something? What would happen if you trusted that everything you taught them in the first 18 years of their life will have an impact either now, or later? What would happen if you made a change in your life because of something your young person taught you?
And a note for white/straight/abled parents & grandparents of Black/gay/lesbian/disabled young people: acknowledge that you cannot understand their situation. You are not in their shoes. You never have been and you never will be. In some cases it may be appropriate to specifically say it so your young person hears it, but in many cases it is mostly just important for you to coat everything you say with that acknowledgement rather than stating it explicitly. Just keep reminding yourself that you will never know what it’s like to experience racism, homophobia, transphobia, or ableism. In these cases, you do have a lot more to learn than teach.
Don’t Worry, They Still Love You
Don’t get me wrong, your Gen Z child respects you and loves you. That’s why they are still willing and able to live with you and put up with you. Many of them are grateful to have a roof over their heads and not to have to pay rent yet. Many of them still do listen to you, even if they disagree. Many of them will still come to church with you so as not to ruffle feathers, even if they stopped believing in God a long time ago.
“Young adults often find non-confrontational ways to exit the church: even when they reject their parents’ faith, they often find ambiguous ways to express their disagreement, so that parents can plausibly figure their children still share their beliefs.” (Renegotiating Faith, 11).
Keep the Pressure Off
Our young people today are experiencing immense pressure. They are living in a world of FOMO (Fear of Missing Out), FNBA (Fear of Not Being Amazing), and FOPM (Fear of Passionless Monotony). Parents and older adults have an opportunity to help young people through this season of pressure to be successful, be involved in different things, and find a fulfilling life. In whatever way it can look like for your situation, take the pressure off. Let your young people know that you’ll love and support them regardless of whether they get a Bachelors, a Masters, or a successful career. Let them know they can take their time figuring out their life. Let them know that a gap year is a perfectly acceptable way to transition out of high school. (Current high schoolers have an exceptional added pressure of making plans for next year due to COVID-19. We ought to give them a lot of grace and support.) Be okay with the creative path your young person might want to try. There are far more options for young people today than there were 20 or 40 years ago. Yes, education is good, but many of them can and will go to school later, after trying out other options first. Be aware of subtle pressure your child might feel to follow in your own footsteps or pursue a path they thought was a good one in Grade 10 but have since discovered they have other gifts or interests. They might need you to nudge them in a new direction or might simply need to hear you say “you don’t need that law degree just because I got one...” As I said before, young people have a lot of love and respect for their parents but it may get in the way of them pursuing their own path in life.
Let’s Get Going
With a solid foundation of genuine, active listening to our young people today, as well as whole lotta prayer, I believe we can have healthy, loving homes & churches where young people feel wholly accepted for who they are and are embraced for their passions and gifts. I welcome your comments, questions, and feedback. We’re all in this together.