My son Liam can be classified as Generation Z, the group of young people in America born this century. Therefore, I care deeply about understanding the context into which he has been born. I also plan to pastor for at least 20 more years. And Walt Mueller was the first person I ever heard say that reaching young people today is like cross-cultural ministry. And so, as a pastor and a parent books like this one by Tim Elmore and Andrew McPeak are high-priority reading.
Let me preface this article with this: much of this may be controversial. As such I have attempted to write with as much grace, nuance, and balance as I can. There are issues in this book that, when filtered through the last two years in human history, give us room for disagreement. Especially in Christianity. These are not absolute truths at stake.
The Anxiety of Generation Z
Yet, I think this book, titled Generation Z Unfiltered: Facing the Nine Hidden Challenges of the Most Anxious Population, makes important enough points that I’m willing to debrief them. Keep in mind, Elmore and McPeak wrote this book in 2019, before anyone had ever heard of the Coronavirus. Yet that is the circumstance in which I read it. And it stunned me to see him talking about things that would only become more obvious during a pandemic. Especially concerning Generation Z.
Near the beginning, Elmore tells the story of John Walsh, who in 1981 lost his 6-year old son to kidnapping and murder. As a result of that, Walsh, with the help of the government and others, launched a number of initiatives to help others avoid the same fate. These included a TV movie, getting missing kids on milk cartons, a center for exploited children, and even the show America’s Most Wanted (16-17).
These things all seem like positives. But as Thomas Sowell says, “There are no solutions; only trade-offs”. Elmore writes, “Even though Walsh was trying to make the world safer, the unintended consequence was that it made us feel the world was more dangerous.” And also, “Throughout the 1980s, parents had begun to grow fearful, even paranoid, about their children’s safety.” And then concludes, “If we are honest we must acknowledge that our fears are understandable but often exaggerated. And that this has harmed our kids” (17).
Eventually, he cites a study conducted from 1981 to 1997 by Peter Gray at Boston College. Statistically, kids began to spend more time at school and doing homework, meaning their time was more directed. As such, they were more protected and supervised but took less risk. And he concludes, with others who have interpreted that data, that brain development is affected, problem-solving and decision-making skills suffer, anxiety and stress increase, and motivation decreases (86-88). It’s not as simple as saying kids need more outside and minimally supervised recreation time, but it’s in that vein.
One Generation’s Fear Is Another’s Depression
And his overall thesis, at least in part, is that this is worse for Generation Z today. Because their parents are the ones who grew up with this. And given the advancements in technology over the last 25 years, it is not surprising at all that he calls this the most anxious population.
He makes some commonly known but still crucial points about the effects of 21st-century technology in this way. Among today’s American youth we see major concern in areas like depression, memory, attention spans, sleeplessness, and impulsivity (48-49). Research frequently ties this to the astronomical amount of time young people spend on devices and with screens. Let there be no doubt that adults, myself included, can struggle with things like cell phone addiction. But when you are the first generation to hold and operate a Kindle in your hand at 3 years old, the effects on society will be drastic. There are positive aspects to be sure, but we may not have even scratched the surface of the negative.
He doesn’t say it this way but I get the impression that he believes we have structured and limited free time and enhanced unstructured screen time. When it should be backward. I realize many parents and even some schools push back against this but I think in general his points are fair.
In addition to the negative effects already mentioned to Generation Z, he makes the case that if you prioritize speed, kids will think slow is bad. If you prioritize convenience, they may think hard is bad. If you prioritize entertainment, boring will be bad. And the same for nurture and risk, as well as entitlement and labor (115). I find this very poignant and relevant today.
The Repercussions Are Physical, Emotional and Social
Yet I want to close this review focusing on his point about risk because while everything he writes is salient, this is where my brain is right now. Near the end, he cites Dr. Alison Gopnik who argues that “Thanks to hygiene, antibiotics and too little outdoor play, children don’t get exposed to microbes as they once did. This may lead them to develop immune systems that overreact to substances that aren’t actually threatening–causing allergies. In the same way, by shielding children from every possible risk, we may lead them to react with exaggerated fear to situations that are not risky at all and isolate them from the adult skills they will one day have to master” (233).
He then quotes statistician Nassim Nicholas Talib who opens his book Antifragile with a metaphor: “The wind extinguishes a candle but energizes a brushfire.” Elmore makes it clear that his goal is to help parents raise up a generation of brushfires and not candles (234). Because at this moment in time, the opposite is happening. Our vernacular reveals it: We hear the word “Snowflake” used for this generation, we have witnessed the rise of the term “helicopter parents” and we commonly bemoan participation trophies and grade inflation (234-235).
To be clear, Elmore gives a ton of material as far as answers and ideas. And while he does not bring Christianity into it aside from a brief mention of “Do Not Murder” being a Judeo-Christian value, his advice is all easily compatible with the Bible. That matters to me because I am not looking for worldly answers to spiritual problems.
My 2022 Personal Concerns As A Parent and Pastor of Generation Z
And that leads to my response to this book, as filtered through the last two years. Obviously, the pandemic and our response to it have only heightened in my mind the concerns that Elmore writes about. I, for one, have not and do not want to take an all-or-nothing approach to how to deal with such a complex topic. Yet, I cannot help but feel that measures like putting kids through extended periods of things like social distancing, masks, and required extensive screen time for education are only deepening the lack of resolve this generation has with fear, panic, and anxiety.
To be clear, this is true with other things as well. Like active shooter drills, when the threat of a school shooter isn’t significant. And also to be clear, I am not saying that any of these things are wrong all the time. I am merely pointing out that there is a trade-off to trying to keep children safe. Going back to Walsh in 1981, we are likely making them feel the world is much more dangerous than it actually is.
I feel this is true for adults as well but that is more complex to me. And I can disagree with less fervor there. As a pastor, I have not advocated masks and distancing as much as others have. But I do not desire to create more division with this, so I am truly focusing on this book, and as such, this generation. Generation Z.
For our youth, I feel many leaders have overreacted to the threat of the virus to them. Because it is disproportional to what it costs them in their ability to socialize normally, to understand risk, and to develop an endless amount of skills they will need not only as adults but need even now.
So I advocate a careful and thoughtful reading of this book by leaders and parents alike. We all have a serious vested interest in Generation Z. Just as I can only imagine what Neil Postman, who wrote Amusing Ourselves to Death in the 1980s, would think of how we are killing ourselves with entertainment today, I also can’t help but wonder how this book would look had it been written now instead of two years ago. Regardless, the material is worth digesting and dissecting.
I give it an enthusiastic 5 stars.
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