As students head back to school, we want to highlight some important thinking one of our summer fellows, Grace Shaw, gleaned from her work regarding the youngest generation, Gen Z. Grace is a senior at Gordon College studying philosophy, creative writing, theology and law. A vanguard of her own generation, we believe her insights will be as eye opening for you as they were for us.  

Generation Z is no longer ‘our future.’ They are our present.

48% of Generation Z in America—most commonly defined as those born between 1996 and 2010—is non-Caucasian, and 39% say that the people they spend time with likely disagree with their beliefs (Barna 2018). They have beaten out Millennials as the most diverse generation in U.S. history.

Researchers have also identified a groundbreaking shift in the way Gen Z sees the world: they do not act in tolerance, but rather inclusivity, of the other (Sparks & Honey).

Sound like synonyms? They did to me; but in practice, I discovered the two could not be farther from synonymous.

Born in 1996 myself, I skimmed the recent New York Times special report piece, “An Outsider by Choice: Some students choose a college where they don’t fit in, on purpose,” with a healthy dose of Millennial skepticism. I’ve met my share of college peers who picked their schools to ‘stand out,’ and by ‘stand out’ they meant ‘pick a fight.’

The story begins by describing a young conservative from central Texas who chose to attend a liberal arts college in the Berkshires. “He did not expect to be ridiculed.” I winced at this statement. When I read that other students indeed ridiculed him for attending a pro-Life rally with the school’s Catholic student organization, my instinct told me the Times had likely reported the story because it ended in a freedom of expression lawsuit.

What happened next shocked me out of a paradigm I didn’t even realize I had: He started a conservative club on campus. The club invited a speaker to discuss what it means to be a conservative, and students attended the lecture—not protested it. That was the whole story. This kid believed he would be included in the cultural conversation, and un-miraculously to him, he was.

I set aside the newspaper and realized: there really is a qualitative difference between a world of tolerance and a world of inclusivity.

Being invited to a dinner party and learning your host or hostess is merely tolerating you is hardly better than being left uninvited. The Millennial generation is, however, so desperate to be heard that we are even willing to take our hosts and hostesses to court and mandate these demeaning invitations. Tragically, that hunger to be heard only spells disaster without a hunger to listen.

The inclusive host, on the other hand, invited you of their own volition and clear-eyed curiosity. It’s something I realized I lacked a framework for. I just didn’t believe it was possible. Looking around, I realize Gen Z is ushering in another world; an inclusive one, and a chance to get this right. Is this not the land we’ve longed for?

Yet their inclusivity is a fragile gift. Tolerance has left people of every creed and kind with boxes full of insulting dinner invitations—accompanied by a comprehensive list of people who sent them. Panel discussions where you were not the guest, but the caricature. Papers a professor condescendingly asked you to “reconsider.” Conversations which ended when they learned who you put on your ballot.  

My own stockpile of these experiences is very real, but so is the culture shift I’m being offered the chance to participate in. Gen Z cannot do it alone. Inclusivity cannot take root unless we all lay down our weapons, and whether I like it or not, I’m going to have to stop collecting the stones others have thrown at me if I hope to reap its benefits.