My Commitment: To Make Myself Useful to Generation Z

I recently spoke to a university student who candidly told me what he was up to. As he shared his political views, his plans for a career, his spiritual beliefs and his fluid gender identification—I immediately smiled, as I knew it was a departure from his parents’ worldview. When I asked, “Have you talked to your parents about all this?” he smiled back and replied, “Not these things. We talk about other stuff.”

This student foreshadows what is to come. Ready or not; like it or not, they are part of a generation that feels empowered; that feels they may not even “need” older adults to form their opinions or to fulfill their dreams. Consider these examples:

1. More students are moving away from their parents’ faith and religion.

According to the Pew Research Center, between the years 1989 and 2000, the percentage of young adults who believed in God changed very little. The vast majority not only believed in God, but they emulated their parents’ faith traditions. By 2016, a full one out of three say they do not even believe in God, and even less participate in church services. Teens today are the most irreligious population of youth in American history. Somehow, the adults who practice their faith have not been attractive enough to spark student interest.

2. More students are choosing a career path without consulting adults.

While they may talk to both parents and teachers about their dreams, the students I know do not look to adults for predictions on what careers or the economy will look like a decade from now. Many college students recognize they might just have a job that doesn’t even exist now. Further, they don’t need us for a launching pad—if they want to write and publish a song, they don’t need a record company. They can post it on-line through iTunes or Spotify. If they want to write a book, they don’t need a traditional publisher to get their story out; they can self-publish it. If they want to launch a business or non-profit, they don’t even need funding from parents or investors; they can utilize a “GoFundMe” campaign. It’s a DIY world today.

3. More students are forming viewpoints apart from the adults in their life.

Today’s high school and college students are the first generation that doesn’t need adults to get information. Parents and teachers were once needed because we knew “stuff” that kids didn’t know. Thanks to Google, Alexa, Siri and other smart technologies, they now don’t need us for information. They scroll through hundreds—maybe thousands of feeds on their phone—forming their own opinion and worldview. I am talking to more and more teens and young adults who’ve come up with their perspective, and have told me, “But don’t tell my parents.”

All of this can be unsettling for an adult who wants to have influence in their lives.

What Can We Do?

The last thing teachers, coaches, youth workers and parents should do is to force a student to align with their viewpoint or to emulate their behavior. Good leaders don’t need to force this—they earn this kind of influence. Let’s face it—students don’t need adults the same way they once did; they feel empowered. And now, we must figure out how to make ourselves useful and helpful in this new world. The key is to provide something they can’t get other places. Let me suggest a few ideas below. These are rare commodities they still need from us:

1. Offer them Life Hacks.

In the same way a typical teen knows how to hack into a computer system, we must show them how they can benefit from our years of experience through “life hacks.” I began meeting with my son and daughter as teens and talked about “hacks” on how to negotiate with salespeople; when insurance is helpful and when it’s not; or why it’s often better to buy a used car than a new one. These insights keep you relevant.

2. Offer them a Safe Sounding Board.

While students are connected almost 24/7 with peers, they often still don’t have a person who’s completely safe to bounce ideas off of and to get helpful feedback. Between ages 16-24, young people are considering big decisions and choosing a path they’ll take for a while. A listening ear and some good questions for them to think about are a rare commodity. This is something you and I can do for them.

3. Offer them Long-term Thinking and Experience.

Almost everywhere they look, students hear “short-term thinking.” Buy this now! You deserve this today! Don’t miss out! These are mantras of a culture that knows little about delayed gratification. What if you offered the rare commodity of “long term” thinking, showing students the consequences of doing what feels good today and the benefits of “pay now, play later.” Share what you learned from your stories.

4. Offer them Your Network.

While anyone—even teens—can build a profile on Instagram or LinkedIn, they still likely don’t have years of face-to-face friendships with the people you know. I began introducing my kids (as young teens) to key people who were in careers that my son and daughter wanted to explore. I leveraged my network for their benefit. Build a bridge to your inner-circle and help them prepare questions for these meetings.

5. Offer them Belief.

Finally, most students still need an older, caring adult who honestly believes in them and their potential. It almost sounds cliché, but they tend to hang around those who can spot their strengths, who believe in their future and who can cheer them on as they grow. Why not be the adult you wish you had as a teen.

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My Commitment: To Make Myself Useful to Generation Z