As we all watch the unfolding COVID-19 situation, I am struck by the fact that it will undoubtedly be a significant period effect, especially for Generation Z (b. 1996-2012). Period effects are events or circumstances that significantly influence aging cohorts at a point in time. I have been considering how we, as leaders, mentors, teachers, and parents can seize some of the opportunities that it presents for equipping and encouraging the young people in our lives to thrive even amid difficulty.
While there are very real threats and cause for concern with this global pandemic, I am convinced that there are also opportunities that come with adversity and uncertainty. As we consider what they might look like for those of us who engage Gen Z students and young adults, I think there are several important skills that we can focus on modeling and instilling in the young people around us in the days ahead:
Coping with stress, fear, and anxiety
Often we do not fully experience the stress our kids feel, for example, with cyberbullying or the pressure to score well on tests. The COVID-19 situation, however, is one that we are all facing together. It provides a unique opportunity for us to walk alongside the young people in our lives through an uncertain time and model healthy coping strategies and behaviors. Here are a few ways we can do that:
o Talk about what we are feeling and do some fact-based research together to understand what is happening. Discuss how our faith and values help us navigate situations like these.
o Identify productive projects we can focus on if we have unexpected downtime, for example, learning a new skill (ie. playing an instrument, sewing, drawing, cooking), completing an unfinished project, cleaning, organizing, painting, or writing!
o Find ways to enjoy nature and get exercise. This might be discovering a new workout routine, going on a nature walk, riding a bike, or visiting a state park.
o Invest in important relationships and meaningful interactions. Call grandma, video chat with a sibling, or chat with your neighbor.
Guarding what we listen to, watch, and read
There is increasing research that correlates depression and mental distress with social media use. That was before the world found itself battling a pandemic. Scrolling social media and news feeds right now does provide some helpful information and connection, but it can also contribute to anxiety, fear, and frustration. This does not help our emotional and mental health during a crisis. As a result, it can be helpful to set healthy limits. For example, I am limiting my own checking of social media and news to once or twice a day right now. This allows me to catch up on important updates and messages from friends. I am prioritizing other things to read and listen to...my kids, podcasts, and books that have been on my list for a while. These give me valuable information and are feeding my heart and mind with creative ideas and hope. By modeling this, I can also help my kids create healthy guidelines for what to read, watch, and listen to in their extra downtime.
Caring for others
It is easy amid a crisis to get consumed with our own well-being. I don’t know what my children may face in their lifetime, but I want them to be thoughtful, compassionate, and generous regardless of the circumstances. The COVID-19 situation provides many opportunities for us to model and teach these characteristics through our own responses and behaviors.
With the young people in our lives, we can find ways to consider what others need in this difficult time. For example, making cards and gifts for friends in a senior care facility, doing yard work for neighbor, or taking a meal to a shut in. There are many people working hard right now to serve their communities. Find ways to express appreciation; maybe that is simply smiling at the store associate who is working on their day off to stock shelves.
Amid difficult circumstances, it is usually normal people doing selfless and generous acts that helps everyone navigate the adversity. May we equip the young people around us to make that kind of contribution!
I was recently in a discussion about what to do as a ministry leader when colleagues are not committed to and following through on organizational policies. This led to some observations that respect for authority has changed. There are several reasons why views on authority are changing, especially for those who are younger.
One major factor for decreased respect for leaders is the shrinking (or collapse) of power distance. In the past, experience, education, positions and titles meant an individual had knowledge, expertise, influence and information (ie. power), so they deserved respect. This power distance was physically represented by the distance from the podium to the students, the pulpit to the congregation, the corner office to the cubicles, etc. With changes in culture and technology, power and respect for authority are changing (a great book on this is The End of Power by Moises Naim). A 13-year-old can post on Twitter as easily as the President; students in my college classes can Google more information in 5 minutes than I learned in 6+ years of graduate work; a teenager can get more followers and influence on YouTube in three weeks than established experts sometimes do in a lifetime; and our congregations can listen to podcasts of other pastors all week long.
Power or authority can no longer be gained or leveraged through title, experience, knowledge or position. Influence, respect, and the right to be heard or hold people accountable must be earned through trust, authenticity, humility, service and relationships. We must be sure as we are building our organizational or team culture that we are doing so relationally. This is the best way to win and maintain respect as a leader in today’s context and earn the influence to provide accountability.
We cannot assume respect based on our role or position, we must actively earn and maintain it. Once we have earned this respect, it becomes much easier to have honest conversations with our colleagues and provide accountability.
Gen Z (b. 1996-2012) is being raised and educated in a culture of fear. This is the result of many factors. We live in a post-9/11 world, marked by ongoing wars and terrorism, an economic recession, and 24/7 coverage of global, domestic, and personal tensions, trauma, and anger streaming into our lives via our smartphones. Many adults have succumbed to the perspective that the world is an uncertain, dangerous, and scary place. As a result, we work diligently to protect the young people in our lives. We monitor them via video feed throughout their infancy and track them by GPS when they get older. We feed them organic food, buckle them into every seat they sit on, give them helmets and knee pads, and keep them in safe, enclosed spaces. We discourage them from doing anything dangerous or risky, citing the great harm that could befall them. They listen as we talk to one another in frightened or angry tones about what is happening in the world or with our neighbors. They see what we post on social media. They get the message repeatedly that the world is a scary and unsafe place.
In a world perceived as dangerous and uncertain, safety has become the priority. This has had some positive results. Jean Twenge reports in her book, iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy—And Completely Unprepared for Adulthood, that there are several positive indicators of increased physical safety for kids and teens today. Homicide rates, sexual assault and rape, and alcohol consumption have all been on the decline. However, there are some other troubling statistics emerging. Depression, anxiety, and suicide among young people are on the rise. In fact, some experts believe that Gen Z is on the verge of a mental health crisis.
Twenge explains how we have not only focused on physical safety for young people today, but also on emotional safety. We have taught them to be tolerant and that they should never be made to feel uncomfortable emotionally. As a result, many do not know how to handle criticism, conflict, or even conversation about tough issues in a healthy and constructive manner. Instead, many young people see words and social interactions as potentially dangerous and harmful.
The emphasis on physical and emotional safety is promoting an aversion to any kind of risk or danger. We neglect to teach and model that it is in failing and experiencing pain that we realize how strong and resilient we are. Healthy conflict, disagreement, and dialogue are where we learn new things, gain diverse insights, and deepen our understanding of ourselves, others, and important issues. It is only through getting hurt that we can ever truly learn the beauty and power of forgiveness and healing. So, while safety is important, it can also be dangerous. Too much safety can strip young people (and the rest of us!) of desperately needed confidence, resilience, perspective, and hope.
So, how can we encourage young people in our lives to avoid the inherent risks of too much safety?
We are living in a pivotal chapter of our nation’s story. A tumultuous time in biblical history holds great perspective for us as we navigate significant changes in America today. The story of God’s people in the Old Testament, like the experiences of people throughout history, is riddled with conflict, challenges, and change.
One of the most dramatic seasons of change for Judah was undoubtedly the Babyonian invasion, and resulting exile, that occurred beginning in 607 B.C. The first chapter of the book of Daniel recounts the initial invasion: "In the third year of the reign of Jehoiakim king of Judah, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came to Jerusalem and besieged it. And the Lord delivered Jehoiakim king of Judah into his hand, along with some of the articles from the temple of God. These he carried off to the temple of his god in Babylonia." We can only imagine the anguish and distress these couple of sentences represented for the people of God. It is difficult for us as believers today to understand all that the temple meant to God’s people then.
Verse two of chapter one says: “And the Lord delivered Jehoiakim king of Judah into his hand, along with some of the articles from the temple of God.” The dramatic devastation and change in the lives of His people was not a surprise to God. In fact, the Scripture says that it was the Lord who gave Nebuchadezzar success. Twenty years after this initial invasion, Nebuchadnezzar succeeded in capturing Jerusalem and destroying the temple.
The meaning and traditions tied to the temple, articles from the temple, and the city of Jerusalem are monumental, as ongoing conflicts yet today testify. Nonetheless, God allowed an ungodly leader’s success in capturing, destroying and carrying off key elements of worship and religion in Judah. Why? What can we learn from Judah’s history as we navigate our own season of transition?
America is in significant cultural upheaval. Perspectives are changing. Values that were once held dear are being discarded. Established institutions and methods are being questioned and often rejected. In the midst of the ensuing chaos, the church is being forced to grapple with significant questions. In many cases, it can feel like the temple has been invaded, that the articles of the temple are being carried off into a foreign land by strangers who do not appreciate what they represent. The battering rams are pounding on the gates, and every faith-based institution--from missions agencies, to churches, schools, non-profit organizations, seminaries, publishing houses, and advocacy groups--is facing an identity crisis. I imagine some of the emotions felt by Christian leaders today reflect those of Judah’s leaders when the Babylonian soldiers entered Jerusalem.
Here is what encourages me: God was not shocked by Nebuchadezzar’s actions, and God is definitely not surprised by the changes we are facing today! In fact, Scripture points to the fact that many who went into exile prospered where God had placed them (Jeremiah 29). Of course, it was not what they wanted, but it was what they needed. Decades later, when God opened the door for some of them to return to Judah and rebuild Jerusalem, there was a renewed sense of purpose, focus, and dedication to the Lord.
The book of Daniel continues with the story of Daniel and his three faithful friends. Carried from Judah to Babylon, and forced into service in the king’s palace, these young men represented a transitional generation. They developed as leaders in the midst of upheaval for their people and led in a place and culture foreign to the mentors and leaders of their youth. In this regard, I believe they resemble young leaders today. God is raising up a remnant of young, godly leaders who will succeed as Daniel and his friends did in leading faithfully in the midst of adverse or complex situations. They are a Daniel Generation. Theirs is not an easy path; it will require sacrifice, wisdom, surrender and faith. In some ways, young people today are poorly equipped for the challenges they will face. This is where inter-generational understanding, mentoring, collaboration and leadership are critical. Leaders of all ages must engage to seek timely wisdom, and share perspectives, skills, and truths that will be needed in the days ahead.
It is important to note that if Daniel and his friends had refused to learn the language and literature of their new culture, they would have been ineffective. Instead, they successfully advised and served powerful and ungodly leaders in the land. For young leaders today, the challenge is to walk as Daniel did. He did not succumb to the influences and temptations of the culture around him, yet he did learn to navigate it and allow God to use him within it. We need the wisdom and favor that God gave Daniel to walk with truth, grace, and influence. It is time for a Daniel Generation to live and serve faithfully amid an ungodly culture, in humility glorifying the one true God!
It happened again just last week. A gentleman at a roundtable I was facilitating made the argument that Millennials are just like any other generation. There are indeed life cycle effects—things that are similar for every generation at specific seasons of life. Most of us know better than everyone else when we are 25, right?! However, there are period and cohort effects that give each generation unique perspectives. The recession of 2008 could be considered a period effect…how it influenced a 22-year-old who had $50,000 in student loans and no job prospects was different than how it affected a 60-year-old who lost their job of 30 years and half of their retirement savings. One result for that 22-year-old is that he or she is unlikely to have the same confidence as older generations to commit 30 years to one job or rely on the stability of investing in a home or retirement funds. Unfortunately, this will often be criticized as irresponsibility or a lack of commitment, rather than a survival instinct!
While period effects, how events influence us at specific points in our life, are significant to the development of any generational cohort, I believe it is the cohort effects that truly make Millennials one of the most unique generations in American history. Cohort effects are how trends influence us during critical developmental stages of life. When we look at Millennials, we see the confluence of several incredibly significant changes occurring in our culture and society as they were in formative seasons of life. This has resulted in not just a generation gap between them and older generations, but also a cultural gap. The resulting worldview emerging in younger generations today is fundamentally different from that of previous generations.
So, what are the cohort effects most influential in the development of Millennials (and following generations)? Of course things like technology and globalization have been significant. Research is now showing that the brains of young people who have been exposed to technology since young ages, for extended periods of time, are actually wired differently. We know that the way communication occurs now is different. In many ways there is nothing new under the sun, but the way old issues manifest has changed. For example, there is still marital infidelity. Whereas an affair was more likely to occur for a working parent at the office while putting in long hours, it is now just as likely for an emotional affair to involve a stay-at-home parent who reconnects with an old friend on social media. While Millennials were introduced to many forms of technology much later in their lives than Generation Z, they represent the first generation of digital natives.
Philosophies of parenting and education also underwent significant changes as Millennials were born. Many of these trends are continuing with Generation Z. Of course, involved parenting, often termed “helicopter parenting,” has been perhaps the most significant of these trends. The self-esteem movement, where everyone gets a trophy, is closely related. Another significant trend that receives less attention is the focus on student-centered learning in education, which has added to the societal focus on providing what a child wants or needs. Like other trends, it has at times stripped young people of opportunities to learn how to overcome obstacles, solve problems on their own, or deal with failure and disappointment.
Most significant of the cohort effects, however, is the fact that Millennials represent the first generation of post-modern natives. Peter Drucker, in his book Post-Capitalist Society, explains, “Every few hundred years in Western history there occurs a sharp transformation…society rearranges itself…its worldview; its basic values; its social and political structure; its arts; its key institutions…we are currently living through just such a transformation.” Postmodernism, a response to the failing promises of the modern era, with its reliance on systems, science, logic and reason to solve our problems, has been the impetus for this transformation. David Harvey, in his book The Condition of Postmodernity, describes, “Somewhere between 1968 and 1972, we see postmodernism emerge as a full-blown though still incoherent movement out of the chrysalis of the anti-modern movement of the 1960s.”
So, what does this post-modern movement mean for Millennials? As it unfolded in the 1960s and 1970s, it gradually worked its influence into the fabric of our society. By the time Millennials began arriving in the 1980s, post-modern ideas were firmly at work in our education system, media and popular culture. Millennials are the first generation to be raised with predominantly post-modern values. While some of them still identify with modern values based on their particular upbringing or education, they belong to a peer culture that adheres to a post-modern worldview, a peer group of post-modern natives.
What are some of the key differences between a modern mindset and a post-modern perspective? As mentioned earlier, the modern era relied heavily on science, logic and facts. Postmodernity values experience, emotion and stories. As a result, decisions made by Millennials and Generation Z are often influenced by feelings versus reason. The rigid systems, hierarchies and structures of modernity are giving way to organic processes, open participation, and networks. Collaborative education has taught students the value of working together, engaging in a process, sometimes without concern for a specific outcome or result. Perhaps the most significant difference is related to views of truth. Modern perspectives held to absolute truth that could be discovered and proven. Postmodern perspectives hold pluralistic views of truth to be equal and believe they are defined in the context of community. As a result, we often find those of older generations strongly committed to their views of truth, whereas younger generations are much more open-minded, but can struggle to articulate personal convictions.
While there are many more differences and nuances, the points above begin to illustrate the fact that we are truly facing a cross-cultural gap as we seek engage across generations. This gap does not always neatly fall along generational lines, with many older individuals identifying with postmodern views and some younger ones still grounded in modern perspectives. However, Millennials are unique as they represent the turning point, the cusp of the transformation occurring in our society, the first cohort of postmodern natives.
Dr. Jolene Erlacher is a wife, mommy, author, speaker, college instructor and coffee drinker who is passionate about empowering the next generation of leaders for effective service!