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An Open Letter to those born during from 1997 to 2012 (Gen Z) from a guy born between 1965 and 1980 (a Gen Xer!)
Dear Gen Z,
I’m not sure which of you will see this, but I wanted to let you know that some of us know your secret. You know that the way people stereotype you is all wrong. I know it, too.
But the reason I’m writing is that I wanted to share something you might not know about yourselves. More on that in a minute.
First, you know it and I know it: Older generations think you’re weak, Gen Z.
They say your generation has spent too much time on screens, and this has stunted your brains. They say you have been coddled and spoiled your whole life. You can’t fight your own battles. You can’t handle defeat.
They note that you get pregnant less and drink less, but they chalk it up to a sheeplike tendency to do what you’re told; they don’t see your strengths even when they’re clear.
Your allergy rates are notorious, your gaming obsessions are lamented, your mental health is said to be bad, and your (supposed) lack of interest in religion is a source of constant worry in my churchgoing circles.
This grand dismissal of your generation makes you sick.
On the one hand, these accusations become your self-talk, the narrative you buy about your life.
On the other hand, they make you furious. “Seriously?!” you think. “The people who put me in front of screens, feared every step I took away from them, fussed over my every illness and never talked about God without embarrassment — those same people are telling me it’s all my fault?”
But you know and I know something that obliterates their case against you.
The fact is, your generation has been more resilient, more self-possessed, and more sacrificial than your accusers ever had to be. They never faced a global pandemic, with its lockdowns, lock-outs and loss in their youth. You did.
The virus meant you lost loved ones who were precious parts of your lives. The lockdowns meant you lost opportunities you counted on. Masking and distancing and online classes meant you lost human contact and community.
And what did you do? You pushed forward and succeeded. You — the supposedly coddled, pampered, over-supervised generation — proved them all wrong.
The pandemic took away your summer jobs, summer camps, babysitting, field trips, internships, school dances, service opportunities, youth groups, sports, sleepovers, birthday parties, movie nights — formal events, informal events, unplanned events.
Almost no one who criticizes you had to face anything like what you faced, and you showed us who you truly are: the resilient, can-do, bounce-back generation.
But, like I said, there is one thing I know about you that you might not realize.
My generation thinks you have rejected religion. They say even secular people should worry about your lack of faith. They imagine you are all militant atheists who consider religion something ugly and discriminatory that should be abolished.
But, mostly, you’re not like that. The fact is, you aren’t religious because you haven’t been offered religion. Surveys say you likely were never brought to religious services, or Sunday school. Your parents didn’t pray with you or talk about religion.
You’re not into religion for the same reason you’re not into box kites, macramé, or Flemish dancing: No one exposed you to any of those things. If anything, research suggests you want to hear more about Jesus.
And what I know that you don’t know is that you are the Church’s bright future.
You haven’t yet heard in a credible way about Jesus Christ. Once you do, wow. You will do more for the faith than anyone else.
First: You will bring to it your longing for real community. No one has spent more time on screens than you, so no one knows better how badly we need real, face-to-face human contact. You’re going to love seeing Jesus Christ in the sacraments, confessing to another human being, and communal liturgy that uses all your senses.
Second: You have the right attitude toward institutions. The divisiveness in politics, the Church and education has been so heightened, your generation is now wary of all institutions. Good. But you also know more than ever how much we need strong institutions. Even better. You can rebuild them.
Third: Times of overemphasis on technology tend to be followed by rediscovery of tradition. Your generation is no exception. Both millennials and Gen Z are more traditional than supposed. You are going to church more than Gen Xers. You are looking for spiritual answers to the big questions.
Ultimately, our big mistake has been thinking that you failed us.
In fact, the very opposite is true. We failed you; and now only you can save us. And you will, if we actually introduce you to Jesus Christ.