The GenZ Gap: Cultivating Hope in the Age of Anxiety


Helping our youngest employees find purpose, hope, and connection is a vital task for a healthy, engaged workplace culture. This blog is adapted from a speech Dr. Dunne gave to a group of San Diego pastors outlining the challenges facing our youngest generation. To learn more about tools for helping yourself or others succeed in the age of anxiety, check out The Multigenerational Marketplace, available at www.DrLisaDunne.com.

For the last two decades, my life’s work has been teaching, coaching, and mentoring the next generation. I’ve watched them struggle through frustration, self-doubt, and a crippling fear of failure. I’ve talked to them, listened to them, prayed with them, laughed with them, cried with them. GenXers and Millennials had concerns of their own, to be sure, but GenZs possess a whole new set of hurdles. The good news is, though, that there are some practical steps we can take to help them succeed, whether in the classroom, the home, the church, or the marketplace.

The emotional health stats on GenZ are sobering to say the least. The National Alliance on Mental Illness says we have a “crisis of mental health” in the United States, including anxiety, depression, suicide ideation, self-injury, and a radical fear of failure. About 40 million Americans in general deal with chronic anxiety, with 39% of Americans saying they are more anxious this year than last year. According to the IQVia, the largest vendor of US physician prescription data, 7 million kids ages 0-17 in the US take psychiatric drugs. The Journal of Pediatrics says that in 2018 that almost 60,000 girls between the ages of 10 to 18 tried to poison themselves.

What’s going on? When I first started speaking on teen culture over a decade ago, I would ask the audience of parents (primarily Gen Xers and Boomers) to raise their hands if they knew someone who was engaged in self-injurious behavior, like cutting or burning themselves on purpose. One or two hesitant hands might go up in a room full of people. But when I ask their kids the same question, hands go up all over the place. Almost every Millennial and GenZ knows someone who is struggling with self-injury or suicide ideation today, and that means a significant social change has taken place in just one generation, on our watch.

The teen and young adult in populations in the US are also one of the most misinformed and falsely indoctrinated generations in America, and one area where the stats hit the hardest is in sexually transmitted disease. According to the Center for Disease Control, over 8,000 teens a day contract an STD in the United States – that’s three million new cases a year (see my blog “A Moral Miseducation” for more details on this tragic cultural shift). The lack of personal worth and value GenZs have absorbed through commercial advertising and blatant secular humanism has, in my opinion, laid the groundwork for some of the socioemotional challenges they face.

GenZers have tremendous struggles, and to make the problem worse, they often don’t want anyone to know that they need help. The Chronicle of Higher Education says that they have an “overwhelming need to seem flawless,” even with their closest friends, a concept we will discuss in detail in a moment.

And, while past generations had physical communities of support like the family and the church, GenZs are largely disconnected from the local church. Many started off in youth groups and college groups but never made the transition to “big church” culture. Barna says they are the now most atheist generation in history, with atheism doubling from Millennials to Zs – with atheism running almost parallel to the anxiety rates. The statistical connection between the two is not surprising.

GenZs have more anxiety, more depression, more trauma, and more drama than ever before. But why are they so stressed out, so frustrated, so anxious? It’s not that the pressures are new. Previous generations have survived wars, economic downturns, academic burdens – even life without a cell phone or Amazon Prime. What’s different today, researchers say, is the level of efficacy: Today’s young adults do not have the same markers of resilience as that of previous generations. They don’t know how to push through the struggles of life, to climb back up on the horse once they’ve come crashing to the ground.

What can we do as parents, pastors, educators, and organizational leaders do to help foster a sense of hope, courage, engagement, and purpose? In my research for the book The Multigenerational Marketplace, I discovered eight communication competencies that are essential for establishing healthy intergenerational workplace culture. Let’s unpack three of them here: creating community, developing “praise” cultures, and fostering emotional health.

Communication Competency #1: Create Community

First, what is this creature we call GenZ? Now, I understand that the idea of “generational theory” can seem a bit divisive or stereotypical, but it’s really just a lens for us to understand people based on their social influences. In the case of GenZ, that means media. Born roughly between 1995 to 2015, GenZs are media-savvy, independent, entrepreneurial, debt-averse, loyal, open-minded, curious, and stressed out.

Creating community is a powerful healing tool for GenZs. Social support is tremendously beneficial for all generations, of course, both physically and psychologically. The Journal of Physiological says that people with socially supportive relationships have a reduction in heart rate, blood pressure, cortisol levels (the stress hormone), fewer incidences of disease, and even a longer life span. Community is a vital human need. We weren’t created to be fiercely independent or pathetically codependent; we were fashioned to be interdependent.

Gen Zs live in that “together but alone” culture many researchers have written about, where we are surrounded by other people but don’t really feel connected to any of them. To reach GenZs in the workplace, we have to create both internal and external margin to connect with them. This means setting aside time before and after meetings to connect (external structures) and it means opening ourselves up to connecting with others (internal structures). It means caring. As Paul told the church in Corinth, we have to open wide our hearts.

One of the ways we can connect with our younger employees is through narrative cultures – that is, moving outside the realm of “just the facts, ma’am” to sharing the heart of humanity. When we share our stories, our life lessons, our testimonies, even our tragedies, an incredible biochemical transition takes place. A tiny but mighty neuropeptide, a bonding hormone, elicits in our audience a sense of trust. Dr. Paul Zak, one of the leading authorities on oxytocin, says it fosters prosocial behaviors, including trust, attachment, community, connectedness, even generosity. It also decreases the sensation of stress, fear, pain. The triune, relational God who created us calls us into deeper relationship with him and with one another.

In addition to creating community with our existing teams, we also need to hire employees who have emotional intelligence, not just technical brilliance. “You’re smart? That’s great! But do you actually like people?” We need to model leadership that walks in authoritative rather than authoritarian style – a vital need for GenZs. The manner in which we communicate within our organizations sets the tone for a culture of value or a culture of insignificance. GenZs need trusting adult mentors who are relationally warm and spiritually mature.

Take a moment and reflect on your own personal and organizational culture. Are you modeling healthy community in your own life? Do you create both internal and external margin to build community with others? What could you do to increase that level of connectivity? Next, assess the levels of community in your organization. Do people seem to gravitate toward one another, or do they bolt for the door as soon as the service, workday, or meeting ends? Organic discussions are a good sign of healthy community.

Communication Competency #2: Public Praise

Second, we need to develop a culture of peer praise. Let me explain. As we all know, the youngest generations have been raised in an “everyone-gets-a-trophy” culture. Trophies didn’t just go to the super-star scoring machine on the team; they also went to the kid who sat in the outfield and picked daisies. GenZs were not allowed to fall flat on their faces, to feel the weight of failure. Instead, for a variety of reasons, the youngest generations have been applauded for mediocrity, and this system of continuous rewards, like classical conditioning, has created an underlying expectation for constant recognition and praise.

The trophy culture isn’t healthy. But it is reality. The slow return to sanity does not eradicate all forms of recognition. Instead, it praises where praise is due.

Encouragement is not specific to GenZs, of course. We all need encouragement. Hebrews 3:13 says we are to encourage one another daily so that we won’t be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness. The root word for “encouragement” here in the Greek, parakaleo, means to call near, to invite, to invoke, to console. What a beautiful picture of encouragement! Is this just a cute little Precious Moments verse we post on the fridge, or do we really live it out?

Harvard Professor Dr. Shawn Achor has shown that a positive environment actually opens the neural pathways to learning. When we offer sincere praise to another person, we do more than simply function as corporate cheerleaders; we actually activate the reward center of the human brain. The neural reward center floods the brain with dopamine, the same chemical that causes people to be addicted cellphone games, chocolate, and likes on social media.

We also benefit from hearing others be encouraged; University of Southern California Professor Dr. Glen Fox found that when people hear gratitude-inspiring stories, especially narratives, their brains light up in the medial prefrontal cortex, the zone relating to empathy. More empathy in our organizations is a win-win, friends.

A culture of peer praise must necessarily begin with a culture of gratitude. We have to actively train our brains to look for the best in others (for inspiring studies on gratitude, visit the Emmons Lab at UC Davis online and learn more about the work of Dr. Robert Emmons, one of the world’s leading researchers in the field of gratitude).

The concept of public praise (aka, the shoutout) may be new to some; however, the human need for recognition is well documented. Public praise means that we promote, encourage, and acknowledge the work of another person in front of supervisors, friends, family, or peers. I call it reverse gossip.

Companies like Jet Blue and Globoforce are using peer praise as an internal form of recognition and reward. And guess what? Research is showing fascinating results: GenZs often feel more valued by verbal recognition than by financial increase. They literally need to hear positive feedback to know they’re doing well. They aren’t fueled by the same intrinsic drive, the same perseverance as other generations. We can help develop these traits in them, certainly, but that change can only come through the door of relationship.

Let’s take a moment to reflect on our own organizations. When did you last offer specific and unmerited praise to another person? Is this a regular habit? Consider keeping a gratitude journal to help you develop your thankfulness muscle (if it’s experiencing some atrophy). Next, assess the peer communication structure of your organization. Do employees seem supportive of or competitive with one another? What is the percentage of nurture versus admonition in your vertical and horizontal communication? What steps can you take to improve the levels of peer praise or reverse gossip?

Communication Competency #3: Fostering Emotional Health and Resilience

Third, we must help our youngest colleagues build efficacy and deal effectively with emotional distress. Stanford University has coined the term “duck syndrome” for the current GenZ crisis. Gliding across a lake, the duck looks effortless and graceful, but underneath the surface, that little guy is paddling frantically just to stay afloat. And because they’ve lacked an open door of communication, because they’ve lacked authentic intergenerational relationships, the worldview of the average GenZ employee has been dramatically impacted. Where there is a void of information, the human brain has an uncanny ability to fill in the gaps with the worst possible scenario.

To counter this, we have to create environments where it’s okay to ask questions, where we can help them reframe their irrational fear of failure. In the classroom, we use an adaptation of Larry Osborne’s Sticky Church model. Students are often afraid to answer a question aloud in case they might be wrong, so we break down this fear by creating small groups that provide feedback opportunities. Once they’ve shared in a small group, GenZs almost always feel confident enough to bring their answers to the larger group.

One of the most striking findings for me in researching for The Multigenerational Marketplace was that GenZs were incredibly fearful of disappointing their boss. It’s not that they don’t have ideas or know the answer or even that they don’t think of new work to do (a common complain I hear from managers): No, conversely, their paralyzing fear of failure often keeps them from taking a risk because they don’t want to say or do something that might embarrass their boss or the organization.

In the midst of their struggles, their fears, their perfectionism, can we find within ourselves the ability to extend grace and compassion? Monica Worline, a Stanford University researcher, executive director of CompassionLab, and CEO of EnlivenWork, recommends the techniques interpreting generously (understanding that every mistake is not borne of malicious intent) and cultivating empathy by refusing to distance ourselves from the frontline.

It takes heart, personal sacrifice, to be a good leader. It takes risk. It takes a love for people and organizations.

As C.S. Lewis wrote in The Four Loves, “To love at all is to be vulnerable.” We can protect the heart, Lewis says, by giving it to no one, by distracting ourselves with luxuries or hobbies. But, he says, the end result will be tragic: “Lock (your heart) up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.”

Learning to show compassion, love, gratitude, is not only a key to increasing our organizational growth, but to increasing our personal growth and development as well.

Finally, we must create cultures of intergenerational mentorship. As Drs. Nabor and Mate have written, the young are not raised to maturity by the influence of peers; they become responsible, contributing members of society through the mentorship of older adults. “Developmental scaffolding,” a term coined by Russian Psychologist Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934), demonstrates how mentoring relationships can serve as functional scaffolding models. Like a stake supporting a tomato vine, the scaffolding provides just the right balance between tension and support. In this way, even if we weren’t part of the problem, we can still be part of the solution! We can become the conduits of hope and healing to the next generation.

Take a moment to reflect: Do you see some of the “duck syndrome” characteristics evidenced in your youngest employees or members? Is there sufficient grace and compassion exhibited in your organization to provide room for personal and organizational growth? Do your own goals, whether stated or unstated, lean more toward progress or perfection? Do you “interpret generously” and cultivate empathy? Is there evidence of intergenerational mentoring? What steps can you take toward improvement? 

In order to help the youngest generations, we must modify our communication strategies, learning how to create community, how to praise publicly, and how to foster resilience. It’s bigger than just us and just now. We are setting the stage for the future survival of our organizations. Will we expand, or will we become extinct?

We can all be a tremendous source of hope and healing to the next generation if we will labor together to encourage and equip them, one life and one organization at a time. As you implement these strategic initiatives, I would love to hear your testimonials. Feel free to contact me here through my website and let me know what’s working for your workplace!

If you’d like more information on communication competencies in the workplace, be sure to check out the books page here on DrLisaDunne.com. If you’d like to schedule Dr. Dunne to speak to your organization, please use the contact page here. Remember, the health of the Multigenerational Marketplace starts with us!