A Gen Xer's Take on the Enigma of Gen Z

Updated: Apr 1

How would you feel or act if you thought the world was about to end?

Photo credit: Wix stock images


e·nig·ma - (ĭ-nĭg′mə) n. One that is puzzling, ambiguous, or inexplicable. grĭt n. Unyielding courage in the face of hardship or danger; firmness of mind or spirit


 

Generation X

This world-ending “what would you do” scenario played out dozens of times over the years for those of us identifying as Generation X (born between 1965 to 1981). We enjoyed board games like Save the World! or even Wasteland on the Commodore 64—both games of an apocalyptic nature. We watched films like War Games, Mad Max, and Red Dawn, which handed us the world’s worst-case scenarios delivered straight to our bedrooms on a silver platter called cable TV.


We listened to countless hours of politically-charged music on the radio. Who besides me remembers “People Are People” by Depeche Mode or “Shout” by Tears for Fears? We couldn’t get enough of MTV including the disturbing video, “Land of Confusion” by Genesis about power-hungry world leaders and nuclear weapons looming in the background… and in our thoughts.


World-ending visions for me mostly occur in the form of bad dreams—no doubt a result of my childhood experiences. My living in tornado alley and premature exposure to scary films (that were known for literally taking place in neighborhoods close by) probably didn’t help. Who else watched A Nightmare on Elm Street and couldn't sleep or be alone for a week?


I mean, simply going to church on Sundays learning the book of Revelation with Hellfire and brimstone scared me half to death most of my life. So yes, I had fears and yes, I still run up the stairs as fast as I can thinking someone or something is chasing me. But, make no mistake… thick skin, broad shoulders, and a “suck-it-up-buttercup” attitude is all over this body.

Throughout it all, I know my biggest worries growing up rarely had anything to do with actually dying, and each day I would wake up with new hopes of what was to come—even if I was up all night long in a massive middle-of-the-night thunderstorm watching for dark shadows to appear in the lightning and sideways rain.


Loss of Innocence

Reflecting on this time in my life I have concluded that we Gen Xers probably lost our innocence a bit early. Besides the horror movies that defined our generation, we also witnessed the very first Teacher-in-Space Christa McAuliffe, suddenly perish as the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded. For some, this was our first live classroom broadcast on a TV that was no doubt rolled into the room on a clunky cart. We were proud and full of hope, and then just like that… everything turned tragic.

Although we Gen Xers lived our teenage years seeing the nuclear arms race unfold during the latter part of the Cold War, we never dreamed we would need to give it a second thought in our lifetime. But here we are with the situation in Ukraine bringing back the “what ifs” all over again for some of us. However, through observing this conflict on social media, I also believe Ukrainians have reminded most of us how we used to be. I for one feel hope in watching these amazing acts of perseverance and bravery by it’s citizens and their President.


Yes, I am Gen X… among the often underestimated, ignored, and neglected generation, always trying to make the world a better place, stealthily living to prove something, all while possessing a hard outer surface to cover the vulnerable, squishy insides, who mind you… went from analog to digital without skipping a beat, just saying. In other words we go with the flow, overcome adversity, and figure stuff out on our own. And all of this, with maybe just a tiny bit of ego but an agreeable smile on our faces. Enough about Gen X awesomeness.


If you are among the regular readers of this blog, then you know that in this space deep thinking is a definite thing, being conscientious is a recommended thing, but doing what is right is the main thing, which is just SO Gen X, am I right?


Well Gen Xers, prepare yourself as I deliver an unpopular and humbling opinion about the generational debate. I will surely receive fallout from this one. Please pardon that pun, actually. Let’s get started…


Generation X + Baby Boomers + Generation Z = A Full House?

Indeed, we are the parents of Generation Z (or “Gen Z,” "Zoomers," “iGen,” or “Centennials”) who were born between 1997 and 2012. Some of us embrace building bigger homes to accommodate our growing kids and even their families, in addition to housing and caring for our "Baby Boomer" parents, all thanks to the exponential rise in the cost of living with unequal raises to assist combined with outrageous healthcare and long-term living costs, among other reasons. With this comes sacrifice, but also family disagreements on how Gen Z is “supposed to be,” and even how we Gen Xers are “supposed to act.” The judgement can be strong. Raise your glass if you know exactly what I’m talking about here.

A vast number of late Gen Zers are currently in their teens, and most would agree that these young people have had anything but a “normal” teenage experience living through the past couple of years. However, much criticism awaits these "totally-different-than-when-I-was-a-kid" beings when displaying (what some would argue) typical adolescent behavior (mood, attitude, etc.) and are labeled “lazy” or “self-absorbed“ in their "overuse" of technology. If we could all just take a step back to look at what has been thrown their way in such a short period of time, perhaps we would reconsider these labels.


Like several Gen Xers, I had a job at age fifteen. I moved into my first apartment on my own at eighteen. I rode my bicycle until dark and I managed life without a cellphone. So, believe me when I say that this Gen Xer (AKA “America’s Middle Child”) feels a bit uncomfortable just typing out the following words, about those glued to their phones in a bedroom they refuse to leave, but here we go…


Gen Z Grit > Gen X Grit?

Gen Z may actually prove overall, to be… grittier than Gen X. (I’ll pause now for the gasps.) What is this I say? I know, I know, but please hear me out.


In addition to reading articles and books about raising these Gen Zers, I recently observed some semi-serious conversations among a few teens and twenty-somethings. I carefully observed the emotions and listened to the lists of stressors and overwhelming thoughts. I suddenly realized the magnitude of the anxiety-inducing circumstances this generation tolerates pretty much on a daily basis to no fault of their own.

Many seem to be struggling but there are some rebels in the mix that are as strong as nails… some protesting every injustice, some who pretend to have no stress or a care in the world, and of course some who still feel completely invincible. What pandemic? I mean, they are our kids…


It may appear they do nothing but lay around playing games on their handheld devices or post about the latest influencer they follow on social media. The truth of the matter is that these mundane acts on their phones could be one way to decompress, disconnect and unfortunately masque their worry or distaste with what is happening all around them… or so I’ve heard.


Baby Boomers & Millennials

Could Gen Z be the grittier generation of our future? This generational debate isn’t new and in my honest opinion, debating over who is best or who had it worse, seems quite silly because each generation over the past three hundred years has had to endure and prove their perseverance through a number of life-altering situations. “Back in my day” discussions span the generations in a never-ending cycle of trying to always “one-up” the generation that follows.

I tend to roll my eyes when I hear those over the age of sixty lump everyone (under the age of forty) into that “Millennial” bracket. That is super frustrating because we don’t all fit that mold obviously, but we do look younger than we should, so I guess a thanks is in order for the compliment.

To be fair, I also give off an irritated sigh for the Millennials who classify anyone over the age 40 as a “Boomer.” Many of us are somewhere in the middle right now so hey… it‘a a bit touchy. Don’t age us before we are due!

In all honesty, it is pretty ageist to do any of that labeling, and I happen to love Boomers and Millennials. Both groups often get the short end of the stick in my opinion. To digress a bit further, who really knows who had it worse, and who really cares? I personally would just rather take ownership of my life experiences to use as teaching moments for future generations because the comparison and mere labeling of the generations seems to aid in covering up decades of inequalities. If you’re unsure how this happens, just read this article: Millennials, Gen X, Gen Z, baby boomers: how generation labels cloud issues of inequality (theconversation.com)


Back to the teenagers of today…


Removing the Blinders

I know my thought process might not match yours right now, and I realize we may not all observe the world from a concerned or caring point of view these days. But if sympathy, caring, or even empathy surrounds the Gen Z kiddo, then that kiddo most likely developed those traits... even if they are not showing that side of themselves. According to the experts we should realize that hidden sadness or anger can drive certain behaviors, and we as parents should consider this before making assumptions as to why teens act out or shut themselves in.


Unfortunately, some parents are so caught up in their own feelings about the world to notice and often miss an opportunity to connect on a new level of similarity with these interesting and often misunderstood young persons. Sure, we all have a right to be upset about Covid, the environment, weird laws, mean people, and now the war in Ukraine. Add to that list a giant parachuting spider invasion? Are the killer giant wasps from 2020 also still a thing?

“Big feelers“ or empaths all over the world are either pulling their hair out at this very moment trying to understand just how all of this could be happening at once, or they are quietly suffering in overwhelming silence to process and move past it somehow. Or both, depending on mood. Trust me on this. If you fit this mold, there's a chance your kid does too.


Regardless of your politics, if you even resemble a caring or conscientious human being, then you simply cannot ignore all of the wrongs happening in America and across the globe right now. Still, many are among the self-absorbed, uncaring, out-of-touch, and blind to the suffering of others. What's even worse are those upset with their child for simply having a difference of opinion when it comes to issues like war, human rights, banning books, or climate change. The list of disagreements can be long and unless open communication happens, this could lead to a belief that the teen's opinions and perspectives aren’t relevant or don't matter. Just a quick formula from one parent to another that shouldn’t be rocket science:


Ignoring + Belittling = An Unhealthy Child + Resentment

Shouldn’t we as parents welcome a difference of opinion? Aren’t we in “the land of the free” (thinkers) and are we not trying to produce children to “think outside of the box?” Shouldn’t teens be encouraged to think for themselves? I’d like to note the following reminder: Just because you have a strong opinion about a certain topic, does not make you right about the issue at hand. Educate. Learn something. Be open-minded.


If you haven’t bothered to educate yourself or learn from others who are different than you, then you’re most likely unqualified to judge (or offer any guidance whatsoever) when your teen thinks and feels something unpopular in opinion or unmatched with your thoughts. Once again, read something. Listen. Learn. Broaden your thinking. Maybe after you learn something new, your soon-to-be-young adult will see you as an ally instead of someone who never listens and is always close-minded.


Generation Z

Before I digress even further into this never-ending void of frustration over parents who fit the blinders or demeaning mold, let me just get to the point: Like Gen X, these Gen Zers most likely lost their innocence a bit early no matter how hard we tried to shelter them. Most of us would love to blame technology and the internet for this one, though we all admit we are all also addicted to it ourselves and see the many benefits of the internet on hand-held devices. Let’s praise those who created a way for us to not have to suffer through long phone cords and dial-up.


So, if you have a Gen Z in your life and if behaviors haven’t been the usual "teen" behaviors lately, open your mind to consider the following list, which by the way, is a layperson's observation of five areas of concern. It is also not comprehensive by any means, but it is a lot to digest. You may not realize that at this very moment the brain of your Gen Z kiddo could be processing:


1. The Fears List

An underlying fear of dying from:


-a school shooting

-a deadly virus

-a declining environment

-a hate crime especially if your child is of a targeted race and/or LGBTQIA+

-a child kidnapping or trafficking incident

-a volcanic explosion of Yellowstone, yes this a topic west of Missouri

-an overdue, large-scale earthquake if you live in California

-a nuclear holocaust (the most recent addition)

-killer insects?


2. The Losses List

The losses of important people in their lives during the pandemic:


loss of teachers due to personal Covid infection, resignation in order to prioritize themselves or a vulnerable family member, school closures, relocations, loss of wages, and/or lay-offs who may have modeled a sense of free and independent thinking


loss of parents, grandparents, friends who succumbed to the virus or distanced themselves due to differences in opinion over politics or the virus


loss of coaches and/or mentors

due to resignations or budget cuts who allowed for the student athletic experience and took time to build bonds giving students confidence and security


loss of advocates

who advocated on their behalf and embraced their differences from the perceived "norm”—whether in identity or ability—and taught what was important for healthy development versus someone's political agenda


loss of resources

less stability and increased disparities across demographics with food, academic resources, counselor

access, health education/screenings that only school provided routinely


loss of joy

in the the basic things they used to find enjoyable


3. The Injustice Witnessing List

The witnessing of perceived injustices in real time, versus in a book or a movie:


-racism and hate crimes that never seem to end


-discrimination and inequities that are socioeconomically/racially/culturally-based


-violence where demonstrated peace should reside


-silencing of facts by those wishing to ignore historical truths or scientific evidence


-separation of church and state issues through laws and restrictions driven by unmatched religious beliefs


-sexism, ageism, and reduction of human rights especially if they identify as a female


-climate change denial or indifference with their future at stake


4. The Lack of Preparedness List

The loss of normal social and learning development due to:


-less exposure to nonverbal forms of communication that only in-person learning/socialization can provide


-less educational opportunity or access (teacher shortages/turnover) causing potential learning gaps


-a potential loss of future opportunity and feelings of being “behind” or “failure” (due to the gaps)


-lack of knowledge on navigation of independent life (especially for college-age students or recent graduates struggling to manage their first part-time job, internship, or volunteer experience)


5. The Isolation List

The feelings of isolation due to:


All of the above... and the belief no one understands exactly how they feel


Gen X + Gen Z = An Untapped Connection

These unique situations above are all in addition to the "normal" teenage stressful experiences we have ALL been through. I believe that now is a critical time to connect to our Gen Z kids. Most of us Gen Xers are equipped for this. Sharing how our experiences growing up changed our feelings about the world could ease their minds. If we draw parallels between what they are currently going through with what we experienced in the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s, then we can develop an understanding of their inner-struggles and potentially create an unexpected and lasting bond.

Perhaps through this process, we will find that Gen Z isn’t such an enigma after all, but a reflection of us. Don’t pretend like you’re not a deep-thinker because the 80’s made us all that way. Could it be that Gen Z is enduring a lot of negativity in a noticeably brief period of time, different or worse than what we experienced? If so, let’s give credit where credit is due and give them a break from the "heavy." Let's take on some of their burden, or at least let's consider connecting them to a professional to talk to. We have the means to offer a service readily available today that wasn't necessarily an "okay" thing to seek when we were younger. De-stigmatize mental health necessity and treatment and promote proper stress and anger management. With better tools to cope, they will surely learn a better way to be “gritty.”


Again, what would you say or do if you thought the world was about to end? We’ve been there, so pull out your old games, movies and songs you amazing Gen Xer you, and simply start a conversation. Develop a new bond of trust or at least have fun going back in time remembering a world you once knew in the hopes we will all continue to persevere... just as we always have.


For more information on youth and teen mental health, please visit:


https://www.adolescenthealth.org/Resources/Clinical-Care-Resources/Mental-Health/Mental-Health-Resources-For-Adolesc.aspx


https://www.cdc.gov/healthyyouth/mental-health/index.htm


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#genZ

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#youthmentalhealth

#worldpeace

#generations

#destigmatizementalhealth




















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