Discover more from JDV on Gen Z
A generation of listeners
My thoughts and hopes for Gen Z and the Class of 2023
When I was a teenager, my friends and I would ride our bikes to a local college campus to play basketball in the summer and ice skate in the winter. Never in a million years would I, or anyone I knew, have predicted that 40 years later, I would return to Stonehill College to receive an honorary Doctorate and address the Class of 2023 as commencement speaker.
This was one of my life's great, unexpected honors. I am grateful to the administration, faculty, staff, and students who made us feel so welcome this weekend — I hope my remarks hit home for at least some of the 500+ graduating students and those who care about them.
My Big Three Takeaways
My objective was to craft a message that would resonate with the newly minted graduates and their parents. I focused on a theme of listening and my concern that, as a nation, we are in danger of letting this muscle atrophy.
I grounded my remarks on the notion that while some people call me a pollster or public opinion researcher — at the end of it all, I’ve earned a living as a professional listener.
Here’s an excerpt and summary of my remarks. Let me know what you think in the comments section below.
#1: Embrace the power of listening
You may not see yourself in every statistic or key finding I produce, but I hope you believe the experiences, perspectives, and values I share are real, valid, and alive within someone you know – or even someone you might never meet.
Embracing this power of listening and understanding unlocks the potential for progress in our lives – and meaningful transformations to shape our world for the better.
The ancient Greeks reminded us that we were gifted with two ears and one mouth – a pretty clear hint that we should be listening twice as much as we're talking. And they stressed that a deeper appreciation for the breadth of the human experience can be developed through carefully listening.
Every person here knows that listening well builds trust and makes relationships stronger. Real listening makes people like you more. Listening hones our empathy, even if we cannot always understand every aspect of someone else’s experience. And it is the first step in making communities of every kind stronger and more vibrant.
And what some people might argue is a radical act -- listening is actually fundamental to social and political life. It's not just a nice-to-have; it's essential for human flourishing – and for your own flourishing.
Yet, as a nation, we often seem to be more interested in waiting for our turn to talk than actually listening. I am afraid we are letting these muscles atrophy. In some of us, it’s worse – they are dying, making it difficult to recover and reconnect. But what truly fuels my hope, what keeps me optimistic for our future – is every one of you.
Yours is a generation of listeners.
In the immediate aftermath of a gunman killing 17 members of his high school community, David Hogg and the students of Parkland, Florida, listened to the thousands of voices from suburban, urban, and rural America and built a national movement – and six months ago, sent one of their own and the first of your generation to Congress.
In 2020, 17-year-old high school student Darnella Frazier bravely listened to her gut while holding her iPhone still for ten long minutes to capture what her 9-year-old cousin would soon call their “first murder.” The death of George Floyd.
And every day, young people like yourselves are volunteering in homeless shelters and staffing mental health crisis lines – lending an ear, identifying and pledging to eradicate some of the root causes of the distress.
Gen Z isn't just the most educated generation; you’re the most empathetic, too. Why? Because you’re curious, you're connected, and you care. But we must cherish and protect this quality. It needs to be nurtured and exercised. It’s a simple principle: use it or lose it.
I urge you to keep challenging complacency by piercing the bubbles we find ourselves in. Strive to connect and engage with those outside your trusted circle of friends.
Chat with your Uber driver and learn their story.
Go to lunch or dinner in a different part of town.
Seek out individuals with different viewpoints and strive to understand how their values were shaped.
If you're a fan of MSNBC or Fox – give the other a chance once in a while – resist the eye roll.
And most importantly, listen.
Despite surface-level differences, I guarantee that you have more in common with others than you might think.
#2: Gen Zers are fighters, not snowflakes
This is for the parents, grandparents, and people like me who are not part of Gen Z.
It is important that you hear what I hear when I step outside my bubble and meet with your children and grandchildren:
I hear concerns about their future.
One-third of young Americans in my most recent Harvard survey are fearful that one day they could be homeless.
I hear concerns about their safety.
Nearly half of young Americans have felt unsafe in the last few weeks. Forty percent are concerned about being a victim of gun violence or mass shooting.
I hear concerns that rights and freedoms are under attack.
The right to clear air and water;
To feel safe in school;
To health care;
And a quality education.
I hear concerns about their mental health.
Half of college students have felt depressed or hopeless for several days in the last two weeks – and the same number have felt lonely.
A quarter of young people under 30 have had thoughts of self-harm in the last two weeks – 5 percent nearly every single day.
What I hear a lot about – far too much -- is fear.
But not everything I hear is dark. I also hear about hope, compassion, and determination. Despite your real anxieties and fears, the Class of 2023, you haven't turned away. You haven't shirked the responsibilities that your Stonehill education, which values service to others, has instilled in you.
You're an integral part of your community. You volunteer your time and resources and vote at rates surpassing those of older generations in their youth. You are fighters, not fleeting snowflakes, but enduring diamonds.
While every generation has its own unique challenges, I can't help but admire how adeptly you've dealt with the rapid chaos presented to you. This is especially remarkable given that you're doing this before neuroscience tells us your brains are fully mature.
You fight, not just for yourselves but for those without power and are under attack. With no memory of the unity we experienced the days after 9/11 – you strive for a united America that stands for justice, freedom, and moral leadership across the globe.
You gauge success not merely by your personal achievements but by the positive impact your actions have on others.
#3: Gen Z has the power
In the coming years, especially in 2024, I urge you to listen and amplify your voices and the voices of those more vulnerable than yourselves. Your voice, your perspective, your experiences, and your votes are what will shape the America of tomorrow.
We are in an era where listening – while so vital – is just the beginning; action must follow. Don't be a spectator. Stand up for your values, challenge what you believe is wrong – wherever you find it – and fight for what you know is right.
Remember, the power of change isn't just in the hands of a few elites – but in the hands of the many. It's in you. Exercise it.
The Bottom Line
The transition from high school to college is challenging -- even under the best of circumstances – but 2023’s graduates have had their first year of classes, sports, concerts, internships, and more cut short by Covid – and only beginning to feel a sense of comfort and engagement as they stepped into your final year – that's a test that can't be fully comprehended by others.
None of us can entirely grasp how deeply this has affected Gen Z – all we can do is tip our hat to the passion, grit, and resilience that has carried today’s students to where they are today. They deserve our admiration and respect.