Archive for April, 2021

Fault Lines

It has become fashionable to criticize Generation Z. According to the experts we lean on for such insight, they are the generation that diffuses the intensity of their focus across a dozen interests and calls it multitasking. They crave affirmation but eschew effort. They pour hours into social media while remaining socially aloof. They are interpersonally introverted, technology addicted, and hopelessly stressed out. They are easily offended and defensive, yet they are eager critics. They rarely read, but will devour a season of their preferred drama in a weekend. In argument, they prefer pathos to critical thinking, and at work, they expect to be valued for who they are, not for how well they perform.

When I read those critiques, or when I hear them from colleagues in the teaching profession, or even when I hear the voice in my own head drawing similar conclusions, I am always tugged back into reality by two cords of rope.

The first is a class called Journal & Autobiographical Writing.

For seven years, I have taught this course at my university. For the first few renditions, my students were members of Generation Y, or the Millennials, depending on who you ask. I have had a front-row seat for the transition to Gen Z, and I must admit that students in 2021 are different than their Millennial predecessors. I used to consider those generational labels – and the stereotypes that accompany them – to be more based in marketing theory than in substantive truth, but not anymore. Each generation is like its own continental plate. They exist side by side. They comprise the same terrain. But look a little closer and the fault lines are not difficult to spot.

Journal & Autobiographical Writing offers a different perspective. In this classroom, students write about themselves. Week after week, they produce short reflections about their lives. They share recollections of joy and disappointment – of heartache and heartbreak, of love and loss, of hope, humor, and hurt.

This semester, students wrote about leaving a university for the last time, of a near-fatal river rafting mishap, and of an 18-hour car ride from San Francisco to Montana with a sibling prone to car sickness. Through the words these students brought to class, we walked the beaches of northern and southern California, smelled the musty dampness of fallen leaves on a farm in Washington state, and we visited the Swiss Alps. We felt the devastating numbness of losing a father unexpectedly, and we experienced the sad, slow descent of a loved one fighting ALS.

We helped an old blind woman to her seat at a refugee camp in Ecuador. We experienced the sweet attention to detail of a new bride describing her husband. We saw a dog eat a birthday cake, and a group of friends flirt with a waitress at a diner. Our car broke down on the way to an audition. Grandma injured herself playing soccer. Our pasta was bespoiled beyond saving by a well-intentioned, but misguided cafeteria employee.

We visited soccer stadiums, walked familiar streets near home, and learned the Latin names for plants and how to coax them into the fullness of their beauty. We even went to Harry Potter World and came home with the wand that chose us.

Through it all, what I learned – or really what I remembered yet again – is that what is most striking about all generations is not the differences, but the similarities. We are born into the respective decades of God’s choosing, and whatever number corresponds to each of us will, to some degree, define us. And those differences are beautiful.

But there are experiences that transcend time. There are threads common to the human condition that cross those generational fault lines. And it is those threads that are the true focus of what we discovered – or rediscovered – in Journal & Autobiographical Writing. It is one of the great and wonderful ironies of a course like this one. We share our unique experiences through memoir, and in so doing, we discover how much we have in common.

Generations will always pit themselves against each other. It is a favorite pastime to draw lines, make maps, and grab territory. It is embedded in our darker nature to find the differences and rush to claim the high ground.

Therein lies the second cord of rope that always yanks me back from indulging in the generational stereotypes: memory. I am from Generation X, and I remember what the other generations had to say about us. We were the latchkey kids, the cynical children of divorce, pollution, and the Cold War. We watched too much MTV and we didn’t have any attention span, either. We were lazy. We were self-absorbed. We were supposed to ruin the world.

Well, we didn’t … and neither will Generation Z.

I don’t claim to know the depths of Gen Z, of what makes them truly tick or precisely how they will shape the world they are destined to inherit.

But I do know they are human – human in every way that matters and in every way that will ever matter.

That’s more than good enough for me.


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