When Gen X meets Gen Z

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by JOHN SCHLIMM '01

DEAR MR. VERNON: We accept the fact that we had to sacrifice a whole Saturday in detention for whatever it was we did wrong. But we think you're crazy to make us write an essay telling you who we think we are. You see us as you want to see us, in the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions. But what we found out is that each one of us is a brain, and an athlete, and a basket case, a princess, and a criminal. Does that answer your question?

This is the declaration of independence written by the teenagers to their high school principal - and, in effect, adults everywhere - in the 1980s film “The Breakfast Club.” With these characters and their parting words, writer and director John Hughes encapsulated the DNA of Generation X - the coming-of-age of my generation, born between 1965 and 1980.

More than three decades later, these words would be a gut check for me, leading to the discovery of a beautiful thread and synergy - an unlikely bond that opened my mind and helped me to start better understanding myself and the world emerging around me.

While normally my wheelhouse is teaching public relations courses, during the past two fall semesters at the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford, I've taught Freshman Seminar. In doing this, I was introduced to more than 100 of the 17-, 18-, and 19-year-olds who comprise the first waves of Generation Z, defined as those born after 1997.

These young people instantly fascinated me. I knew there was something different about them, yet there was also something that rang very familiar. Plus, for the first time, a powerful milestone caught me: I realized that if I had kids, they'd be these kids. The parents of Gen Z are my fellow Gen Xers.

Day after day, I got to really know these Gen Zers - their weaknesses and strengths, their compassion and humor, what truly sets them apart as beacons - beyond the simplest terms and most convenient definitions. They've also provided me with a rare lens through which to re-examine my own generation and see more clearly our strengths and weaknesses.

I was riveted from the start - and, I admit, a bit jealous - by Gen Z's ability to so honestly and with such raw poignancy write and speak about the dark, painful places marking their lives.

They told me about their suicide attempts, eating disorders, rapes, addictions, abuse, miscarriages, cutting, depression, anxiety, fears, bullying, struggles with sexuality, broken homes, time spent in mental hospitals, surviving cancer, dealing with disabilities, and seeing friends gunned down in front of them. For the first time in my academic career, a few students admitted to me that they were seriously entertaining thoughts of imminent suicide.

I heard about deadbeat Gen X parents who have abandoned them in exchange for drug habits and other selfish, destructive pursuits; who have kicked them out to make room for new boyfriends and girlfriends, and who have foisted unreasonable responsibilities on these teenagers, like forcing them to be the breadwinners for the entire family.

And my students also relayed stories about the teachers and coaches and parents who have told them they'll never amount to anything - that they're “too dumb,” “too lazy,” “worthless.”

But to me, these young people, with all their baggage and joy, became inspirations and reflections of my own soul.

For one assignment, I asked my students to write letters to their five-year-old selves, describing the journey ahead of them. I knew they'd be great, since Gen Zers are collectively very good writers, but still. Only two letters into reading them all, I was sobbing - for what they've already endured in such a brief lifetime, and for the similarity these letters bore to my own youth, suffering silently as a victim of bullying. Only these young people were expressing it all out loud in the here and now, something I never could do at the time.

All of this - everything Gen Z was and is right now - has been set against the backdrop of a swelling mental health crisis that is sweeping across every school campus in the country. As my students granted me unprecedented access into their private worlds, I started to more closely study this national tsunami of mental health challenges, searching for even more clues about who they are. In the process, I also learned more about who I am.

Across the nation, a disturbing pattern emerged. I very quickly encountered overwhelmed counseling offices with month-long waitlists where maybe two or three counselors are responsible for thousands of students in need of immediate help. I witnessed how it's often easier for adults to reduce these young people to clichés and stereotypes - weak-minded, self-absorbed, entitled snowflakes - instead of starting a dialogue and actually getting to know them.

And I've rolled my eyes more than once at vapid one-sheeters like “10 Tips to Stress Less,” “Be Kind to Your Mind” and “Tips for Staying Healthy in College” that are punctuated with smiley faces and other stale graphics, and which are mostly ignored by these students who deserve better. These flyers often only serve as generic Band-Aids to make befuddled adults feel like they're doing something to keep sinking ships afloat.

I asked myself, if these students - who are remarkably gifted in many ways - are so willing to tell us anything we want to know about them, then why are they so misunderstood and why is the mental health epidemic - with them smack-dab in the middle of it - spiraling out of control? Why aren't we - as the adults and professionals - doing a better job of helping them?

I reached out to mental health experts and other educators in search of answers. The first group taught me the basics of brain physiology and introduced me to terms like “trauma screening,” “trauma-based counseling” and “mental health first aid.” However, alarmingly, from the second group - who is on the frontlines in classrooms with Gen Z every day - I often heard whimpers of confusion and passing the buck when it comes to mental health.

Slowly an answer to my original questions came into focus. While, yes, these young people are open to sharing their highs and lows unlike any generation before them, it's the adults - their Gen X parents and teachers and even some counselors - who simply don't know what to do with that level of blood-and-guts, no-holds-barred transparency and brutal authenticity.

No judgment here, I get it.

In our youth, we Gen Xers - including many of those current parents, educators, and counselors cited above - suffered many of the same atrocities as Gen Z, but we didn't talk about them like those “Breakfast Club” characters based on us so gloriously did in their high school library one Saturday during detention. It was an unspoken - and sometimes explicitly expressed - rule perpetuated by parents, educators and other adults that we shouldn't lay bare our battles with suicidal thoughts, depression, bullying, sexuality, addictions and so on. We were taught to internalize and mask them, and to smile our way through what we were told were the best years of our life.

Guidance counselors, teachers, school administrators and parents back then were often inept at understanding or dealing with any of these issues, perhaps because they chose not to for fear of exposing their own fragility and scars. They had yet to see the brain as an organ of the body rather than as some untouchable enigma.

My one saving grace was the realization a few years ago that no matter how viciously

I was bullied - for the way I walked, talked, gestured, dressed, you name it - when I was in middle school and high school, I never once tried to change myself. Talk about a light bulb moment!

I took the abuse quietly, yet I still continued to be me authentically.

To understand that about my younger self was akin to inhaling the purest oxygen. It now helps me to listen without reservation or stigma to my Gen Z students tell their stories. It has also allowed me to recognize myself in their stories, which has been key in facilitating my connection to them.

While there are great Gen X parents and teachers and counselors - I know and respect many of them - my Gen Z students have described many of these adults in their lives as “close-minded,” “judgmental,” “unhinged,” “homophobic,” “checked out,” “immature” and even “hateful.”

Are we Gen Xers that messed up? I wondered as I listened to these young people in my classroom.

Turns out, yes, in many ways we are that messed up.

During a roundtable discussion, I asked these teenagers, “If your parents and other adults are like this, then how did all of you learn to be so open-minded and vocal?”

In near unison, they replied, “Social media.” Having instant access to other Gen Zers around the globe and hearing them share their experiences has been a positive game changer for this new generation, they told me.

In trying to better understand the Gen Z brain (and, for that matter, my own), the trauma experts I spoke with drew what many times is a direct line from issues like depression, social anxiety and stress back to previous traumas.

This concept was revolutionary for me - a new starting point - and this area is only now in recent years being more actively researched and understood by professionals, but it has yet to fully trickle down to where it needs to be in the grassroots. I'm still only at the beginning of my mission to grasp all of this, for my own benefit and that of my students.

In this promising new light and motivated by my students' courageous candor, I more mindfully examined my own current triggers that induce anxiety, anger and fear. With surprising ease and clarity, the links back to the bullying and other challenges that I once suffered and internalized and masked emerged. The results of this exercise have been relief and healing, and empowerment.

While it's taken me more than four decades of living to fully understand and openly express that I, too, am a brain, and an athlete, and a basket case, a princess, and a criminal, and then some all rolled up into one big Gen X bundle, Gen Zers already know this mantra by heart. Without letting the shame or hang-ups of adults shade them, they embody this rally cry in everything they do. In real time, they very publicly endure and process their challenges, and use them to strengthen and propel themselves and others forward.

Just as John Hughes transformed the flat clichés and stereotypes of Gen X into multi-dimensional human beings in whom we kids of the 1980s can find kindred spirits even all these years later, Gen Zers are doing that for themselves. They already know that they're composed of many ingredients - good and bad - and that the world is theirs for the taking, one rung of the ladder at a time.

I see so much of us in them, and them in us. I only hope my fellow Gen Xers can see it too - for all our sakes.

Bearing witness to the birth of this new universe right there in my classroom has further freed my mind. In encouraging my Gen Z students to continue telling their stories wherever, whenever, and however they can in order to move the world ahead in a more open and productive direction, my own voice has been amplified and energized.

I told my students how recently I set out on a solo, two-week road trip through the American Heartland - the first time in 47 years that I ever did anything like that on my own.

The pinnacle of this 1,000-mile journey was a very familiar-looking building on a quiet side street in Des Plaines, Ill. It once served as the exterior and interior of Shermer High School in “The Breakfast Club.” After the fan-boy selfie, I rolled down my car windows and slowly drove past the iconic facade, blasting the movie's title track - Simple Minds' anthem “Don't You Forget About Me” - a full-circle, fist-pumping note to self.

My students all smiled, totally getting it.  

John Schlimm is a Harvard-trained educator, artist, activist and international award-winning writer. His essays and other writings have been widely published, including at The Huffington Post and as an “Architect of Change” for MariaShriver.com. We're also proud to call him our own. He earned his teacher certification in English and speech communication through Pitt-Bradford.