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How to Start a Conversation with Gen-Zers

When it comes to Generation-Z—young people born between 1997 and 2012—my number one piece of advice to start a conversation with Gen-zers is: If you want to know something, just ask them.

In social situations—even one-on-one interactions—Gen-Zers can come off as aloof, rude, unsociable, awkward, introverted . . . (pop in whatever stereotype you want). But I have learned that these labels are vastly inaccurate. Many Gen-Zers will admit that they have social anxiety—even walking across the back of a classroom to throw something out can be a challenging journey, let alone starting a conversation with you as an older adult.

Now, before you’re tempted to hurtle more stereotypes—snowflake, weak, weird—I have actually asked Gen-Zers across the country about this dynamic. And I’ve learned it’s not because they have nothing to say. They’ve told me that by being raised in a sea of political correctness and divisiveness most of their lives—where one wrong word or misguided sentiment can get you bullied, cancelled, doxed, or even worse, many of them are now afraid or nervous to initiate a conversation, even in casual situations, for fear they’ll be judged, accidentally say the wrong thing and offend someone, or hurt another’s feelings.

However, I’ve cracked the code here. After chatting with thousands of Gen-Zers, I’ve discovered that if you start a conversation with Gen-Zers, that’s all it takes. You will likely then be in for a fantastic, far-ranging discussion about anything you’d like to know.

For those of you non-Gen-Z adults out there—parents, teachers, coaches, librarians, community leaders, and employers—who may be a little socially anxious or awkward yourself when it comes to striking up a chat with a Gen-Zer, here are ten questions to keep in your back pocket.

“I’m curious, what do you think of your generation?”

I’ve heard every response from “We are the best generation ever!” to “I can’t stand my generation!” The key here is the follow-up question: “Why do you think that?” I would encourage you to then share what you think of your generation.

“What do you think the biggest misconception is about your generation?”

Tune-in to our pop culture—news, TV shows, and so on—and you’ll see this generation of young people largely portrayed as lazy, weak, radical, whiny, detached, even imbecilic, etc. Sure, every generation has radical members on the fringes of issues and those who meticulously portray various clichés and labels. But more often than not, Gen-Zers are not at all what pop culture makes them out to be across the board.

“Why do you think members of your generation are so open and honest about their mental health challenges?”

This is one of my favorite questions to ask when starting a conversation with Gen-Zers. This is what initially drew me to my ongoing work with Gen-Z: I quickly realized that by speaking aloud words like “anxiety,” “depression,” “suicide,” and “I need help,” they were gifting the world with the biggest leap forward in mental health awareness and advocacy ever.

“Your tattoo of __________ is really interesting! What inspired you to get it?”

Gen-Zers have taken the art of the tattoo to a whole new level of sentiment and storytelling. Tattoos of a beloved grandparent’s signature lifted from a birthday card or inked lines on wrists permanently denoting a suicide-attempt-turned-story-of-survival are just a few of the ways young people are expressing themselves and leaving their mark.

“If you could change three things about school to better fit the needs of your generation, what would they be?”

Old-school ways of lecture, homework, test, repeat are no longer working for Gen-Zers. So we can either collaborate with them to figure out the best path forward—as in, more skills-based learning and lessons tailored to different learning styles and multiple intelligences across all subjects—or they will continue to teach themselves via outlets like YouTube and DIY projects.

“What do you think employers should be doing to attract more Gen-Z job applicants?”

The oldest Gen-Zers are now in their first years of working, and, like schools, employers are racing to figure out who these young people are and what inspires them to put their best work forward. The solution here can only be found when employers actually ask Gen-Zers for their input and then work together to adapt and strategize a mutually beneficial path forward.

“If Gen-Z is so open and courageous about their mental health struggles, then why do you think your generation still has the highest suicide rate of any generation in history?”

This is one of the most perplexing and fascinating dimensions of Gen-Z. Both parts of this question are true, but the answer is much more complicated, layered, personal, and elusive. The important part for now is that we keep asking this question in our conversations with Gen-Zers and move forward together in search of the answer.

“What skills does it take to be a successful gamer?”

Many Gen-Zers are gamers, and they take this pastime-turned-competitive-sport very seriously—as do corporations and the military who are both now actively recruiting young gamers because of the incredible set of skills they possess and are cultivating. These include critical and strategic thinking, honed communication abilities, creativity, etc. Even as a non-gamer, I’ve had a blast exploring this topic with young people, and so will you!

“I’ve heard your generation really likes the 1980s. Why is that?”

As a Gen-Xer who came of age in the 1980s, I’m especially proud of this. Of course, we Gen-Xers also faced many of the same issues as Gen-Z, but we weren’t allowed to publicly talk about them, which parlayed into our own enhanced and ongoing relationships with trauma. So, Gen-Z’s love of ’80s pop culture casts us in a bit of an idealistic stereotype, but it makes for a very fun conversation, especially with Simple Minds blasting in the background!

“What is one thing you want the world to know about your generation?”

The consistent answer I have received to this question is: “We just want respect and people to listen to us.” This always feels like a DROP THE MIKE! moment to me, but let’s see what answers you get when you ask.

A Harvard-trained educator, artist, advocate, and international award-winning author, John Schlimm was among the first to start piecing together the authentic and multifaceted face of Generation Z—beyond the stigmas, stereotypes, and often misguided media profiling of these dynamic young people, who remain largely misunderstood and vastly underestimated.  He is the author of What Would Gen-Z Do? : Everything You Don’t Know About Gen-Z but Should. During the past several years, John’s extensive and revealing work and trusted relationship with Gen-Zers across the country has resulted in several thought-provoking essays—for Huffington Post, Harvard Ed. Magazine, and others—and his groundbreaking collaboration with The Andy Warhol Museum to create The Gen-Z Time Capsule, which is a participatory project helping Gen-Zers to further introduce themselves to the world—including to their own parents, teachers, community leaders, employers, and others—while also turning them into a bona fide work of Pop Art.

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