Something wonderful happened just days before I sat down to write this column: I changed my mind.
Today, it can seem like changing your mind is bad or weak. For politicians or Supreme Court justices, it can even be unforgivable. It is almost as if we want to set ourselves in concrete as we are now: Why would we even consider that we could be wrong about something?
I’ve found admitting I’m wrong and changing my mind hugely rewarding. (It happens a lot!) To me, following the command to be “born again” as Christians means a constant commitment to re-see the world in fresh ways – to admit I’m wrong daily.
And in science, nothing gets really interesting until scientists start getting things wrong. Many astronomers were determined to make an Earth-centered universe work, devising complicated calculations to try to make it so. It wasn’t until Copernicus discovered everyone was wrong that humans took a gigantic leap forward. Albert Einstein’s theories of relativity, too, came when Newtonian physics began to break down. Scientists had to admit they were wrong before entirely new vistas of the universe could open.
So it was with interest that I helped moderate a discussion at Principia College in Elsah, Ill., at the end of February. One of the topics was Generation Z, based on a cover story we ran earlier this year. If you don’t know who Gen Z is, it’s the generation that came out of the womb with an iPhone and an Instagram account with 500 followers.
That pretty much summed up my view. The discussion was about why this generation seems to be growing up so slowly – delaying so many of the markers of responsibility, like dating or getting a driver’s license or moving out of the house. And I, like many of older generations, attributed it to the coddling they received as kids and the anxiety that came from never being allowed to learn independence or failure.
Those things absolutely factor in. But what I heard in talking with students opened new mental vistas for me. For older generations like mine, the clock for success and adulthood generally began after college. “Success” was defined by a family, a job, and a home.
But those markers are completely different now. Homes are unaffordable. Jobs offer little stability. And Gen Z has seen that marriage doesn’t inherently bring happiness. What’s more, the clock for Gen Z can start almost in kindergarten, it seems, with every decision calibrated toward getting into the right college.
From that viewpoint, Gen Z is actually growing up faster, with the post-college world feeling like a precipice. What are the new markers for success and happiness? Gen Z is having to figure that out, and it’s a daunting task. One student said it felt like rock climbing without a harness.
But in changing my mind, I saw a clear element of progress, too. Gen Z is being forced to find happiness in themselves, not in any outward markers of adulthood. That might take a little longer. But it could also be a step forward in our understanding of what happiness truly is.