Will Gen Z be All Right?
It’s mid-June 2017. Suddenly, the cheerful sun is shining upon us ever so brightly, colorful blooms providing a hopeful landscape of opportunity… and highway I95 on the Northeast Corridor is crazy jammed more than ever. It’s jammed more than ever because it’s a very special season: college graduation season for Generation Z. At the age of 21, the first wave of Gen Z is graduating from college. So much anticipation and so many opportunities amidst way too much anxiety.
I tear up with joy as I watch our future leaders confidently march across the stage with a degree and a smile. But I also tear up with concern as I consider the world Generation Z is graduating into, wondering how they are feeling about the next chapter. I want to get a pulse on Generation Z’s levels of optimism, enthusiasm, outrage, acceptance, ambition and courage at this pivotal point in their life stories, in the world. Are they excited? Afraid? Ready to get dirty, or ready to rumble?
One way to better understand what 2017 graduates are thinking is to listen to college graduation speeches delivered by Gen Z’s themselves, students carefully selected to speak on graduation day. Sure, the celebrity speakers like Helen Mirren at Tulane, Bill Clinton at Hobart & William Smith, Will Farrell at USC and Jake Tapper at Dartmouth are intriguing, inspiring and even entertaining. But the student speeches / valedictory addresses offer authentic insights into what Gen Z feels right now.
So I viewed the student speeches delivered at nearly 20 different colleges. By far, the most inspiring and telling speech came from Notre Dame’s Valedictorian C.J. Pine. Despite sharing the podium with Mike Pence, this polished yet gritty grad cited today’s “grim realities of life and death”, offering heartfelt guidance to students with statements such as:
“I fear that who I am is not enough.”
“Carry out everyday acts of love.”
“Let’s get these gowns dirty together.”
”Wade muddy waters for justice.”
“Examine structures of injustice.”
I also watched speeches from Smith College, Coast Guard Academy, University of Maryland, University of Southern California and Indiana University to name a few. Popular themes woven into most every speech include concern about employment, snatching internships, advocating for moral and social justice, promoting inclusion, the importance of grit, immigration and a cry for leadership.
Generation Z is not selfish nor are they afraid to fight for their convictions. These grads may be concerned about their own future and the future of America, but they are not going to be bystanders. As predicted, Gen Z has the ambition, moral conscious and feisty spirit to become not tomorrow’s, but today’s game changers. They are here today, and they will be all right. I’d say, “Welcome to adulthood Generation Z. We need you and we’ll be here for you if you need us.”