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Want solutions that last? Invite Gen Z to the table

November 28, 2022, 7:00 PM UTC
Young people at a table working together
How can families and our country learn from these intergenerational conversations? We can start by listening to the youngest participants.
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In homes across the country, holiday tables are being set. Married Gen Xers and millennials with plates full of responsibilities will sit down beside boomers who have a lifetime of knowledge. And they will be joined by Generation Zers ready to make their mark on the world. 

Conversations around these holiday tables can be exciting and eye-opening. But they can also be stressful and frustrating, which is no surprise given that many Americans feel they cannot have a constructive conversation about issues on which they disagree. How can families and our country learn from these intergenerational conversations? We can start by listening to the youngest participants.  

Generation Z is no longer at the kids’ table for the holidays or our country’s future. In fact, more than 8 million Gen Zers were eligible to vote for the first time this year. We went straight to the source to better understand how this generation wants to participate.  

In conversations with Gen Zers from across the country—the ones who will inherit our society and planet—we asked how we can work together to solve our biggest problems. Here is what we heard. 

Despite growing up during an incredibly divided time, Gen Zers want to collaborate with their peers and communities. Consider that 70% of Gen Zers report involvement in a social or political cause, in-person or online.  

“Civic engagement is definitely one of the most important ways to bring about change,” said Carolyn, a 24-year-old New Yorker who took part in our Gen Z Views on Civic Engagement and Collaboration study. “Real change comes from the people in a country—and the leaders, the people in power, will answer to the people.” 

While just over half of Americans say they are willing to have civil discourse with someone on a topic where they disagree, Gen Zers are much more eager to bridge divides.  

More than 80% agree that “even if we disagree 90% of the time, it’s important that we find the 10% of things we agree on so we can make progress.”  

“We need to learn better collaboration skills to share our thoughts and ideas instead of screaming and yelling at each other when disagreement ensues,” said Khanh, a 19-year-old from Dallas. 

Kylee, a 20-year-old from Houston, said she is frustrated by the inaction of leaders who are supposed to work together. “That is why things are out of control, and the world is in the horrible shape it is in.”  

This generation is confident in themselves but has little faith that current institutions are willing to take on big long-term issues. Gen Zers told us they have not had good role models for collaboration—and say there are too many leaders who talk but do not listen.  

Samuel, 23, from Los Angeles, said while it can be challenging to find common ground because of the sharp polarization in the country, “there are certain points within a whole belief where we can find some common ideals.” 

Burdened by the challenges of today and tomorrow, Gen Zers stressed the importance of listening, the power of awareness-raising, and the need to build community by including everyone in decisions about how to move forward. 

“Feeling connected to your community not only helps create change in the way you want to see it, but it also builds empathy and compassion for the people around you, and it makes you want to take care of the place that you live,” said Chrissy, 23, from New York City. 

Helen, 23, from San Francisco, said, “Connecting with other people is the most important way to bring about change.” 

Those in power are responsible for fostering better collaboration, and Gen Zers expect to see better representation. In short, Generation Zers want their seat at the table and room for historically underrepresented groups.  

“We all need to come together to help better our community and our country,” said Shania, 15, from New Jersey. “For that, I think there needs to be fair representation from all different types of people—different races, genders, religions, beliefs, and even work status.” 

“If we’re talking about environmental policy, we need people of color at the table who are most likely neglected or dealing with the repercussions and facing those the most,” added Benjamin, 24, from New York. 

So what lessons should we take from the message Gen Z is sending us? As philanthropic, business, and government leaders, we need to expand our circle, rebuild trust, and start thinking of one another as family. We need to redefine collaboration.  

While we might view challenges from different perspectives, respect, understanding, and empathy will be what ultimately guide us to lasting solutions—for every generation.

Caryl Stern is executive director at the Walton Family Foundation. The Walton Family Foundation is a partner of the Fortune Most Powerful Women Summit.

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