“Generation Z” or the “iGeneration” — those born since the turn of the century. The oldest of them are starting college. They have no memories of the 9/11 attacks. America has been at war their whole lives. They have few, if any, memories of life before smartphones. They turn to YouTube for instruction as much as entertainment, communicate with emojis, memes, gifs and “snap” and “insta” seemingly every waking moment.
And, as a group, they are so socially conscious that the spirit of activism runs through their veins.
Pick a cause, they are likely to be familiar with it. If it has a hashtag identifier, they know it. There are the popular concerns, like global warming, nuclear proliferation, #BlackLivesMatter and #metoo.
In my generation, we spoke of the Amazon rain forests, apartheid and saving the whales. They know those causes as well. My daughter emailed me about the humanitarian crisis in Bahrain — when she was 8.
As a teenager, I could not name a single Supreme Court justice. This generation knows about Ruth Bader Ginsburg and her liberal stances as well as Clarence Thomas’ conservatism.
They know all of the televised moments from American history, But the narrative is different: America is no longer innocent, no longer the victim but a perpetrator.
The Internet gives them access to all the world’s information, so they are aware of our domestic and foreign challenges. If a police officer shoots a young African-American man, they will post the video within a day, with or without context. If a dust-covered child cries when government agents separate her from her parents, they all will see the photo. They know the footage of dolphins and seagulls choking on plastic trash.
The question they pose to me is simple: “Why are we letting it happen?”
And they seem too impatient to wait for answers. It is as though the instant gratification they expect from technology also translates to the expectations they have for society and social action.
Consider their world. They know they can find an answer online to any question. For my generation, the Internet is a resource. For theirs, it is an appendage, a second brain to access at every possible instance.
Students used to call to reach me. Over the years, emails replaced calls. Texts replaced emails. They express their opinions with two-second video clips of tired pandas, birds shaking their heads, cartoon characters nodding in approval.
The most common question on religion that Millennials ask me is about how to reconcile free will with predestination. The most common question so far from the iGeneration is, “Why do I need religion?”
This change has required me to reframe religion from the abstract to the pragmatic. Likewise, I have had to expand their curricula from personal faith to social justice to give them direction for their activism.
When students at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, or here in the Chicago Public Schools shed tears of heartbreak while protesting gun violence, I wonder how much hope they have. Their generation lacks the optimism mine had. Yet they seem determined.
Perhaps this impulse to serve comes from the superhero movies and shows they consume. We had the same heroes in my generation but not nearly as many films or series.
Perhaps they are looking at the life ahead of them and deciding that time is escaping.
Perhaps it is an absence of mentors that compels them to try to solve problems on their own.
This world we have given them tests them in ways it did not test us. I hope we are able to give them the handhold and the skills to succeed as well.
Omer M. Mozaffar is the Muslim chaplain at Loyola University Chicago.