Dear Gen Z: You Might Save Us, But Please First Save Yourselves

By Dr. Lisa Miller

Dear Generation Z,

I totally blew it. Sunday night I rushed to Miami International Airport and waited for the last flight to New York so that I could teach at Teachers College the next day. I had not heard the blasting voice on the concourse PA calling out my name to “come now or yield the last seat” on the flight home. Out of breath and exhausted, I approached the door to the jet bridge. The managing agent was firm, bordering on aggressive. “Sorry, ma’am,” they said. “You missed the announcement. You were not paying attention because you were on your phone, and now this flight is full and closed. Your seat has been reassigned.”

Then came you, about 25-years-old, with bright red hair and that particular Gen Z power in your presence, and still a vaguely gentle demeanor. You paused, with your boarding pass in your hand, inches away from the red-light scanner. You kept still. I wondered who you were. You were listening. You seemed to be in deep reflection. Perhaps I would more accurately call it contemplation.

Before you swiped, you stepped back as if pushing yourself from the door. “You can have your seat back,” handing the boarding pass back to the agent and then graciously walking away.

It was not an easy choice. You looked slightly frustrated and pained. From the stand-by list you had just been given a first class seat to New York, and now you won’t be going home tonight. I wanted to pay for your next flight, or something, but you had slipped away.

You showed me something life changing. With no way of reaching you, here I try to pay it forward.

Ticket-returner, you are exactly the type of person who is going to reverse the destruction and suffering plaguing our time, all the rot from the same source of first-person solipsism, our United States, circa 1950-2019, individualist achievement obsession.

What you did was compassionate, generous and not easy for you. A Baby Boomer likely would not have given up a seat because it was my fault, and “those are the rules.” For work I fly more than 50 days a year and have done so for seven years. I have never seen a Boomer or Gen Xer (such as myself) give up the last seat home. Yes, the governing rules said it was yours. But your higher adherence to your heart led you to surrender the seat to a strung-out professor who would otherwise miss her class.

Gen Zers, one of you saved the day for me this week. I continue to think about your most profound gesture and wish I knew your name. But I am 100 percent sure based on your behavior that you are a member of Gen Z. I know this with certainty because your generation is reworking our societal standards of civility, relationships and ethical culture.

Here are the four markers of the new social standards set by you, Gen Z:

  1. You work together (as in crowdsourcing and bringing down corruption en masse).
  2. You work from heart to head. First you sense what your wise heart knows to be true. Then you implement with your head in an innovative way!
  3. You speak to each other gently, with an everyday stance of compassion and gratitude, knowing that there is a heart inside the next person, too. As universalists, you are the least racist, classist or anything-phobic generation.(Although admittedly at times you might benefit from listening to contradictory ideas.)
  4. And, you connect based upon the mind and heart. Not the outward markers of our bio-body suite or the material objects that older people gave you. You connect to others soul-to-soul.

I know that we have handed you lots of problems. You are inheriting a lot to fix. But I find solace that many of these problems may not be here for you, because you won’t cause them in the first place. You have reversed the forms of thinking that caused unnecessary conflict and hate, power plays, and do not take what is not yours.

This all said, with your enlightened revision of culture, there is a struggling fly in the ointment. Your inner suffering is unsurpassed in the last four generations in our country. Diseases of despair in Gen Z — episodes of anxiety, depression, addiction and even suicidality is epidemic – and has been escalated to a national health crisis by U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek H. Murthy and emphasized by President Biden in his State of the Union address.

The latest research portends a stark reality for your generation. The APA found that of all respondents, Gen Zers were most likely to say that COVID-19 had harmed your mental health. Two-thirds of you reported feeling lonely during the pandemic, and 52 percent had experienced an undesired weight change (either gaining an average of 28 pounds or losing an average of 22 pounds).

Secretary Miguel Cardona of the Department of Education recently said that before the pandemic, 13 to 22 percent of school-age youth experienced some kind of mental health challenge. Now that number is up to 80 percent.

Gen Z, you’re suffering deeply.

What now do you need to reverse what we gave you (or did not give you), to save your own inner life?

Research has a clear answer. Too many of you do not report feeling in partnership with a Higher Power. Twenty-five years of hard data shows that having a spiritual core is the single-most powerful factor in preventing depression, addiction and even suicide. In young adulthood, having a felt transcendent relationship is linked to an 80 percent decreased relative risk of addiction to substances, a 60 percent decrease in suffering from major depression, and a 50 to 80 percent decrease in suicide – the greatest killer of your generation.

We know from MRI studies that the transcendent relationship awakens a circuit in your brain. And so, too, recovering from depression and addiction is improved when it involves realizing or drawing closer to our spiritual core.

National polls show that Gen Zers are the least religious generation. But what I am describing here is not a faith-based connection — but a spiritual one. Peer reviewed studies of twins confirms that religion (which is socialized through environment) is not the same thing as our inborn, hard-wired capacity for personal spirituality (which is innate).

Can you wake-up your innate capacity for spiritual awareness? Yes, you can! Why wait to “hand it over” until bottoming out in AA, or suffering through trauma and loss instead of “sharing the load”?

Gen Z, you like to be asked or informed, and not told. As much as you reject religion, you are known to avidly search for authentic meaning. As a professor I see that you use science as a roadmap in your quest for true purpose.

Whether your word is Higher Power, G-d, Jesus, Hashem, Allah, or Spirit or the Universe, you have an opportunity to find you way back to the power of a transcendent relationship, on your own terms. As you reverse the mess we made and save our outer world, please also save yourselves. More than 25 years of research on the science of spirituality proves that your inner spiritual path will point the way forward. Invite your wise heart to connect with your Higher Power.

We love you,

From your Moms and Dads

Lisa Miller, Ph.D. is a Professor at Teachers College, Columbia University, and parent of three Gen Zers. She is the author of The Awakened Brain; The New Science of Spirituality and Our Quest for an Inspired Life.