I met the Gen-Z’er at the Olive Garden, because if there’s anything that can bridge the distance between a Millennial and a Gen-Zer, it’s the pillowy softness and buttery, garlicky delight that is a basket of breadsticks from a so-so chain Italian restaurant. I had to start somewhere. The waitress had just poured my coffee when they came in, phone in hand, dressed like a 1992 United Colours of Benetton mall ad. As much as their generation claims to hate 90s nostalgia, they certainly love dressing in 90s fashion that was considered ugly at the time.
“Yo, Old Person,” they greeted me, not looking up from TikTok.
“‘Sup, Toddler,” I replied with ironic pleasantry. “Have a seat.” They sat. “Phones in the middle of the table,” I said. “What I’m about to tell you isn’t fit for TikTok.”
“Let me guess,” the Gen-Z’er sneered, grabbing a breadstick. “You saw that TikTok making fun of Millennials.”
“I did,” I said.
“And you’re all triggered by it.”
“Actually, I don’t really care much, one way or the other.”
The Gen-Z’er dropped their breadstick. “But you wanted to talk to me about it.”
“No, I don’t. Really,” I added, seeing the Gen-Z’er’s skeptical expression. “I don’t care what you put on TikTok, and I don’t actually care that much if you make fun of Millennial stereotypes.” I took a sip of my coffee; too bitter, just like always, so I dumped a packet of sugar and a miniature pail of half-and-half into it.
“But you’re talking to me about them.” The Gen-Z’er picked up their dropped breadstick and took a bite.
“Kind of,” I conceded. I sat back, considering my next words, thinking back to when I was eighteen. How would I have taken news like that back then? Would I have taken it? “Put it this way: I know you don’t believe it, but I was a high schooler once upon a time.”
“When? The Pleistocene Era?” The Gen-Z’er snickered.
“Ha ha ha, kid, I’m thirty-one. And yeah, kind of. Tumblr wasn’t even around when I was in high school, can you imagine.”
“So, like, what did you do?”
“Hung out. With people. Friends. At the mall. Like in the Robin Sparkles song.”
“Okay, now you’re just being an asshole.”
“So I am, forgive me.” I took another sip of my coffee and shuddered; what kind of restaurant manages to screw it up that badly? “What I’m trying to say is, I was your age, and not all that long ago.”
“Oh, stop trying to relate to me,” the Gen-Z’er snarled. “What do you know about my world?”
“Explain,” I said calmly.
“Do you know what it’s like to grow up without any dreams? Do you know what it’s like to know the system is broken and have to just live with it? Do you know what it’s like to have absolutely nothing as your future? Wanna know why we bag on Millennials? You had dreams. You had a future. And then you turned around and started shitting on us for pretending to eat Tide Pods.”
“Okay, in fairness, that was a stupid-ass trend and a few people actually did eat them, and some of them died,” I interjected. “Take some responsibility for that.”
“Is it really my fault if some people were too stupid to get the joke?”
“I suppose not,” I sighed. “And it’s not like Millennials didn’t start some idiotic trends, either. Planking, all that gluten-free crap, the fuck were we thinking?”
“Get to the point, I have a dance video to post,” the Gen-Z’er snapped.
“All right, here it is.” I pushed my coffee and the basket of breadsticks out of the way and looked full into the Gen-Z’ers eyes. I wish I could say I saw hope there, but I also understood why I didn’t.
“Gen Z has had it rough, I’m not denying that. The world you guys are about to enter is fucked up beyond all reason, and there’s no point in trying to salvage what we had. On that point, we agree and are… Well, not friends, I suppose. Comrades, maybe.”
“Ooh, the socialist Millennial,” the Gen-Z’er giggled.
“Yes, and I’m proud of it. My point is, I don’t envy your generation, and I really do feel bad about the world you’re entering. But I’m not about to let you skewer us without a little bit of perspective. Which is all I’m asking for, okay? I’m not asking for agreement or sympathy. This is purely for your consideration.”
The Gen-Z’er locked eyes with me for a moment, then gave the slightest of nods. I continued.
“I was born in 1988, and when I was your age, things were going well. The economy looked like it was strong, a college degree still got you somewhere, and for better or worse, Bush wasn’t going to be in office much longer. My generation had dreams and ambitions, and as far as we knew, there was no reason we couldn’t fulfill those dreams and meet those ambitions.”
“And then, let me guess, 2008 happened.” The Gen-Z’er rolled their eyes. “Why do Millennials always think they were the only ones affected by it?”
“We don’t. We were just the ones it hit hardest. Almost overnight, all of us had our future and dreams ripped away from us.” I closed my eyes. “Do you know why people say that hindsight is always twenty-twenty?”
“Because you can look back and see all the mistakes that were made.”
“Exactly. There was no way any of us could have known, back then, as it was happening, just how bad it would be.” I opened my eyes again. “And we were too innocent to understand just how much it wasn’t our fault.”
“But the way you reacted to it, all you did was work and burn out and leave us to deal with the mess.” The Gen-Z’er, having polished off their first breadstick, reached for another one and took a bite.
“We didn’t know what else to do,” I said.
“That’s a shitty excuse.”
“I know,” I sighed. “But it’s true.”
The Gen-Z’er pointed at me with the unbitten half of their breadstick. “And you haven’t gotten around to the fact that we have no future.”
I looked down; the ripped sugar packet was lying on the table in front of me. I began fiddling with it, trying to think of what I’d say next.
“Put it this way,” I began slowly, looking up again. “Say you have a neighbor with a dog. A friendly dog, you think. It greets you when you get off the bus, and it always looks happy to see you. Its owner tells you all the time how friendly the dog is, how much it loves kids, and how much you should look forward to having a dog when you grow up. And you are looking forward to having a dog when you’re old enough, because as far as you know, the dog is on your side.
“And then, one day, when you’re walking up to your house -key in hand, ready to unlock the door- the dog runs up to you, frothing at the mouth. It grabs your leg and rips huge gashes in it. You need stitches, antibiotics, the doctors treat you for rabies, just in case. But that’s not the worst of it. The worst is that the neighbor blames you for all of it. They blame you for being attacked by the dog, in spite of the fact that you literally did nothing, and couldn’t have done anything to prevent it. And they harp on and on and on about how you should have taken a different route home, you should have done this differently, you should have done that differently. The neighbor never takes responsibility for their dog attacking you, doesn’t offer to pay for your medical bills, doesn’t offer to build a fence to keep the dog contained, nothing. All they do is point the finger at you and remind you constantly that you got attacked by their dog, while claiming that the dog behaves perfectly for them.”
“That would suck,” the Gen-Z’er agreed.
“No kidding,” I said, “but that’s not the end of it. After you’ve spent time processing what happened, getting over the trauma, developing coping mechanisms for how afraid you are of dogs, coming to terms with the fact that it really wasn’t your fault in any way, you start hearing a bunch of punk-ass teens in the neighborhood talking about the ‘dog that ate that dumbass kid’ once and making fun of your coping mechanisms. They all know to stay away from that dog, because of what happened to you. And the owner of the dog still isn’t taking any responsibility for their role. Who’s the real villain in this story?”
“The dog’s owner, obviously,” the Gen-Z’er said. Their eyes widened. “Hang on a second…”
I smiled and raised my cup of stone-cold coffee in a toast. “You’ve got it.”
“But then there’s nothing we can do, is there?”
“Of course there isn’t. Hear me out,” I said, as the Gen-Z’er scoffed. “Things look bad right now, I get that. This year in particular has been hell. But here’s why I’m staying hopeful. One, because hope is a rebellion in and of itself, especially in times like this. The other thing is, I know you guys know the system is broken beyond repair, and you have some good ideas on how to replace it. You guys are the world’s best hope for everything to change.”
“Gee, thanks, that’s a responsibility my generation should be shouldered with,” the Gen-Z’er snapped.
“You’re right. Millennials could have done more, and we know that now, too. But when we should have really been busting our asses -and again, I know it’s shitty, but it’s true- we were trying to survive. We had to take care of ourselves, figure out how to go forward, and learn how to be adults, while dealing with the loss of our future.”
“And again, we have no future.“
“Have you not listened to a word I just said? You do have a future, you just need to accept that it’s going to be a rough ride.”
“And if things don’t improve?”
“If you’ve already given up, then they won’t.” I shook my head. “My point is, Millennials can’t do anything about the past. But we can do something about tomorrow, just not on our own. We need you guys. Our generations have a common enemy, and as long as we keep sniping at each other and trying to play the ‘who has it worse’ game, that common enemy keeps winning and making us miserable.”
The Gen-Z’er seemed to consider what I’d said. “So… What do you need us to do?”
“Those of you who are eighteen or older, register to vote. Then go out and actually vote. All of you, keep pushing for change. Keep up with local politics, that’s where the change starts. Get involved in your community.” I stood up and put a twenty on the table for the coffee and breadsticks, and a tip. I was feeling generous. “Don’t do what Millennials did. Don’t go into a stupor.”
“So basically, clean up the mess.”
“The curse of all generations, since time immemorial: They have to clean up the messes the previous ones made.” I smiled and reached for my phone. “Think of it this way: If Britney Spears could survive 2007 and come back stronger than before, we can come back from this. Not easily, not without some work and real looking inward, but we can.”