An Open Letter to Generation Z

Robert B. Marks
6 min readMar 27, 2024

Dear Generation Z,

I want a word with you for a moment. I’m late Generation X, and I teach writing and disaster analysis at my local university to engineering students. At this point in time, I’ve had hundreds of you in my classroom, seen you during my office hours, marked your assignments, and I’m getting really tired of seeing people bash on you in the media. There’s all sorts of nonsense being said about you, and you know it’s nonsense — but I want you to know that others know it’s nonsense too.

Let me tell you a bit about my class. It is the program’s professional preparation class — my job is to get you ready for what’s out there in the world. For the first five years I taught it, one of the first assignments was your resume and cover letter. We’ve stopped doing it now (partly because it was a privacy nightmare waiting to happen, and partly because we were duplicating the functions of career services but less well), but what it means is that I had a special privilege that almost no other instructor or professor had: I got to see what you were doing outside of my classroom.

And you know what? I lost track of the number of times my jaw hit the floor as I read those resumes. When I was an undergraduate back in the late 1990s, my summer jobs were things like working as a janitor at a mall, or helping out in an office that sold shrink film, or the property management office of a landlord. That’s not what those of you in my class were doing. Some of you had more experience in the four years you had been a student than many professionals get in the first ten years of their careers. Let me give you a sample:

  • Running a multi-million dollar corporation on campus (in this case, a pub).
  • Saving an engineering company millions of dollars.
  • Working in investment banking.
  • Running an investment fund.
  • Developing security software.
  • Developing apps.
  • Creating and running businesses.

None of the items on that list are isolated incidents, by the way. Resumes that had boring stuff like “lifeguard” were the exception — the items on that list were the rule. Want to know what the biggest challenge with that assignment was for me as a teacher? Convincing those of you in my class that your work experience was already more impressive than your finished degree would be.

But, that’s the tip of the iceberg. I don’t teach an easy class — everything I have you do in my classroom is hard. You know those 737 MAX 8 crashes, the ones with official reports that are hundreds of pages long? Your final assignment is to cover one of those using those massive official reports, and, by the way, you’ve got TWO pages single spaced in which to do it. Oh yes, and one of them happens to be a government cover-up in the wild. And you know what happens every year since we started doing this assignment?

You succeed.

My class will throw you for a loop. I’ll ask you to do things far outside your comfort area, and some of you will get some of the lowest marks in your academic career as you try to navigate it at the beginning, but those of you in my classroom rise to the challenge every single year. I treat you like grad students, and you perform like grad students, even though you aren’t.
So when the media talks about Generation Z wanting to be paid for “setting the tone,” I know that’s complete nonsense. I’ve seen too many of you who saved major engineering companies millions of dollars over the summer to ever think that you’re lazy. You’ve got the potential for greatness, and I can’t wait to see what happens when that potential is unleashed.

Now, let me give you some perspective, as somebody who’s now into their late forties: you’re all going to do stupid things. That’s a given. But here’s the thing about that: EVERY generation does stupid things when they’re in their late teens and twenties. Hell, we still do it when we’re in our thirties. I was a bloody idiot when I finished my first undergraduate degree, and I don’t mind admitting it. So were my friends. So were my parent’s generation, and the generation before that.

Hell, you want to see stupid mistakes? Look up the reconstruction of Iraq in 2003, and get ready to facepalm. A bunch of that was my generation screwing up. Don’t feel bad about making mistakes, or doing stupid things. You wouldn’t believe how many of the great steps forward happen because the people doing it were too stupid to know better. You don’t get wise by making good decisions all the time — you become wise by charting the minefield by repeatedly walking into the mines.

By the way, you’re not the first to get this treatment from the media. They bashed on my generation too, and the Millennials who came after us. It’s something of a sad tradition, really — I imagine that the Greatest Generation had choice words about the Baby Boomers, and caught hell from the generation that fought the Great War.

Let me tell you something else — I’m very concerned about what is going on in the Ivy League schools right now, particularly with antisemitism and cancel culture (and up here in Canada, it’s getting pretty bad too). But I noticed something that gives me hope in that Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression free speech rankings: even as you’ve got authority figures trying to indoctrinate you, shame you, and define you as oppressor or oppressed based on the colour of your skin, most of you aren’t drinking the cool-aid. Most of you may be self-censoring yourselves, but that also means that you’re not agreeing with the ideas that you are expected to conform to. And that’s good — that freedom of thought and critical thinking is what those of us in higher education are supposed to be teaching you. The fact that you’re getting there even when you have to do it in spite of us is nothing short of inspiring.

And here’s where I have to say perhaps the most important thing in this letter: I’m sorry for how my generation failed you. You shouldn’t have to be educating yourselves in freedom of thought and critical thinking in spite of us — you should be learning it in our classrooms, just as we did when we were undergraduates. You shouldn’t be forced to regurgitate simplistic views of the world in the service of defining everybody as oppressor and oppressed, or made to feel ashamed because of your political leanings, or told that you should take the side of murderers who started a war by attacking women and children at a music festival because of “colonialism.” You should be making up your own minds, challenging orthodoxy, and most of all, being free to make your own mistakes. We were provided that environment when we were in your shoes, and it was our responsibility to pass that on…and we failed. That’s on us, and after the House Education Committee hearing before Congress, those of us engaged in cancel culture have no moral authority left over you.

Let me close by saying this: there will be loud and obnoxious idiots in your generation. There will be those who try to bullshit their way through life, and draw public ire for it. They’re not unique to you — every generation has them (some of them in my generation appeared before Congress recently). But they don’t represent you. I have seen, met, and taught the ones who do. You are innovators driven to do great things, and I have no doubt that just about every single one of you who has appeared in my classroom will one day outshine me…and that’s the way it is supposed to be.

Don’t let anybody tell you otherwise or stop you.



Robert B. Marks

Robert B. Marks is a writer, editor, and researcher. His pop culture work has appeared in places like Comics Games Magazine.