“What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead.” Nelson Mandela
So why am I optimistic?
I have been thinking about your life, not just your recent life, but your entire life. Your first 18 years as generation Z have been defined by seismic societal shifts of incomparable proportions. Not since the time of the Greatest Generation, those whose lives were formed in the crucible of the Great Depression and World War II has any group of young people experienced so much in their young lives.
Born in the shadow of 9/11, into a nation wracked with fear in an era of terrorism both domestic and foreign, unaware of the impact these concerns had on the adults around you, and on you. While you learned in first-grade classrooms, the country endured a housing crash, and the Great Recession. Some in our community lost their homes, others lost their jobs, still so young, you were mostly unaware of the stressors on adults. Your parents and other important adults were raising you, loving you, and caring for you amidst these challenges.
Yours is the first generation fully fueled by the tools of social media, you are always connected. These tools have advanced democracies and been used to shame and destroy lives. Your school years are marred by the most mass school shootings in American history, over 300 students and staff injured or killed at 65 campus shootings since 2017. You are experts at active shooter drills and research tells us you fear exiting school when the fire alarm sounds. The world created for you by adults, until now, has defined how you experience it.
In your senior year, the world went into quarantine, schooling was virtual, and as I write this final remembrance to you, we will celebrate your graduation in a parking lot. Each car separated by six feet, the outgrowth of a global pandemic. You lost seminal experiences – senior year, prom, plays, clubs, sports, and most significantly, the opportunity to share these milestone experiences with your classmates. You learned a new concept – social distancing and were reminded of the lesson you learned in kindergarten, always wash your hands. In the waning days of your high school experience, our nation is finally facing racism and its devastating effects on black and brown people and acknowledging its destructive impact on our nation.
But, I am truly optimistic, because now that it is your turn, you will make an extraordinary difference in our world. I choose to rename you, no longer Generation Z, but the Next Greatest Generation. Research tells us that you are the most accepting and welcoming young people ever to enter adulthood. You embrace a truly diverse world and its people. You will lead us in building a humane, just world – you must. It will be so very difficult, extremists will persist on both sides, don’t choose a side – choose what you know to be right. It will be lonely, and you will know with certainty those who are your friends. Each choice you make should advance something that benefits humankind.
Everywhere in the world, there is confusion, distrust, and anger, this will be your starting point. Upon returning from World War II, the soldiers of the Greatest Generation, attended college free, creating a path to a better life – that path was not open to everyone. As the Next Greatest Generation, you must open the path to a better life to everyone, not just here, but everywhere. As the pandemic taught us, the borders of countries will not define the world, your intellect, compassion, and the powerful, ethical use of social media tools will determine our global society’s success or failure. Connecting the world’s people to their best selves, to the only thing that truly binds us – our common humanity - will define you forever as the Next Greatest Generation.
We were sequestered in our homes during the pandemic, often surrounded by those we love; one of the greatest leaders and humanitarians in the world’s history was denied freedom for 27 ½ years. Denied freedom for his commitment to a just world for all people, Nelson Mandela chose to forgive his captors to heal his nation and himself. He understood, sacrificed, and lived a significant life. He observed...
“What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead.”
I am optimistic, fulfill your destiny, all of the challenges faced in your young lives have readied you. Go forth and become the Next Greatest Generation...