When we take up the task of mentoring, it helps to know some things about the person we’re mentoring. One useful piece of data is the generation to which he or she belongs. Broadly speaking, there are features of each generation — both good and bad — that affect much about us: our assumptions, struggles, strengths, experiences, and more. As you seek to understand the person you’re mentoring, the generational category can be a useful one.
The risk in using these kinds of categories is that they tempt us to explain everything by them, as though we have someone figured out if we know what year they were born. The same risk is involved with personality tests of all kinds. These kinds of tools have some descriptive power, but we mustn’t let them oversimplify or predetermine the way we mentor. Even so, the descriptive power of these generational categories is worth utilizing for each person we mentor. As you seek to invest in someone else, keep in mind some of the below generational realities.
You are no strangers to world war, national conflicts, civil war, and even the Cold War. You saw the advent of space exploration, the military draft at age 18, and even the collapse of the Berlin Wall. As the post-war generation and post-Depression generation, you became passionate about the acquisition of the American Dream. You have a mental picture of an idyllic life post war. You work tirelessly to raise your standard of living. In all your intensity you most likely forget to stop and smell the roses, struggling to enjoy the fruit of all your labor.
Education is this generation’s ladder to a higher place, hence the nomenclature of higher education. Education is sought, prized, talked about, and expected. The introduction of goal setting and attainment of one’s goals became normalized. No more “free-styled living,” Boomers adopted a passion for order, drive, intentionality, and goal setting.
Who They Are
Being a post-war generation, it is to be expected that you would overcompensate for all the pain, losses, images, and the rebuilding of the nation. You are known for your relentless work ethic and don’t suffer laziness and apathy very well. This spills over into the Boomer’s passion for physical health, their breakthroughs in medicine, and desire to live a long and healthy life. Clean living, large families, and conservative politics are ground zero for this generation.
You got busy having babies, building for the future, rejecting the status quo, and putting a man on the moon. Although the second largest generation after Millennials, you understand and value what it means to play for keeps. You adopted technology, were led into the tech revolution, prized leaders like Bill Gates and the creative Steve Jobs. With resolve, you were determined not to be left behind but to think outside the box and value independence. Some have even called you the DIY generation.
Every generation prizes prosperity and, as a generation, you grew acutely aware of the need to save for retirement. Reaching age 65 is a big deal, and one must set a course to arrive with a “nest egg” to live out the final quarter of life. Unlike your forefathers, you were skeptical of the future and of government handouts, so you took responsibility for your retirement and later years. Independence from the system was a matter of stewardship even if that meant you would stay longer in the workforce.
How to Mentor and Minister to Them
Your strong independence is both a strength and a weakness. The dark side of that strength is that you turn inward and might be tempted to forget the next generation. You figured it out, so they should too. This sounds right if you were raised with this ideology, but Scripture calls for each of us to care about others even more than ourselves. There are dozens of one-another commands in the New Testament alone. Please engage and don’t be tempted to ride off in your RV leaving it to the next generation to mess it up. You have more to offer than you can imagine. Millennials need your mentorship, and there is great reward when you rescue one of them from the precipice of apathy or the brink of disaster.
Your financial independence is strong, and being a post-Depression generation, you will be tempted to be stingy. It’s possible that God didn’t raise your standard of living but rather your standard of giving (see Randy Alcorn’s Treasure Principle). What you love is what you worship, and if you love money, you end up worshiping it. Jesus said, where your wallet is there your heart will follow.
Boomers don’t suffer fools well. You have earned the right to be heard. The successive generations will require you to have a long memory of where you’ve come from and immense patience with their shortcomings. The next generation may not be as driven by the American Dream and most likely are far more skeptical about this life and its leaders. They don’t even think about a “nest-egg.” They don’t engage with politics, they lack self confidence, don’t have KPI’s, or participate in the community like you do.
Therefore, I commend to you the Great Commission in Matthew 28:16–20. You were heavily evangelized as Boomers. The next generation needs both evangelism and intense discipleship, life-on-life discipleship as described by Paul in Titus 2. Embrace the responsibility of investing in the next generation and don’t walk or drive away from this burden. In the words of King Solomon, “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man” (Ecclesiastes 12:13).
Gen X has not garnered the kind of attention that either Millennials or Baby Boomers have received. Boomers entered the picture at a thrilling time, as the second world war faded from view. Millennials were born into remarkable affluence in the United States, with the Cold War ending and the future bright. The years that marked Gen X’s entry into the world are years most Americans do not remember fondly. Yet there is much good to celebrate about this generation. That’s crucial to remember whether you yourself are part of this generation or you’re mentoring someone who is.
Who They Are
Gen X is currently about 43–58 years old. They have lived through some monumental historical milestones, but they were born in times of cultural turmoil and unrest unique in American history. Their years of birth, 1965–1980, saw assassinations of important figures like Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, the resignation of Richard Nixon from the presidency, race riots, the cynicism of the Vietnam War, economic recession, and more. While there were some good things that occurred during these years — the moon landing, for one — Gen X was born into tumult, and these years do not represent a high point in American history. Tracing causation in these cases is inherently speculative, but it’s been observed that Gen X tends toward pessimism, and one wonders if the ethos of their first years has influenced their outlook on life.
This generation was raised by Baby Boomers, known for a diligent work ethic and desire for financial stability. Their parents’ commitment to the American Dream left Gen X to be latchkey kids. And in a time that saw the ubiquity of the television — Gen X is known as the MTV generation for a reason — and the dawn of video games and personal computers, the latchkey arrangement worked only too well. The family arrangement for many Gen X kids unfortunately broke down, with divorce rates rising for their parents.
As adults, Gen X is known for valuing a work-life balance, for being fiercely independent, and being generally informal and buttoned down. Their zeal for affluence is not that of their parents, and their struggle with anxiety is not that of their children. They are something of a middle child generation, not known for as much as either their predecessors or their successors.
How to Minister to Them
One of the features mentioned above is their independent and informal streak. One byproduct of this is a skepticism and suspicion toward institutions. This can lead to a negative view of the church — the one institution for which Christ died. Part of ministry to Gen X will include convincing them that the church is God’s idea, the gates of hell will not prevail against it, and we’re commanded not to neglect gathering together with fellow believers (Heb 10:24–25). The community and family provided in the local church is worth investing our time and talents. If you’re mentoring someone from Gen X, encourage them to be part of a church and keep them accountable to it.
Another pattern for members of Gen X is the hands-off approach of their parents and, often, the breakdown of those marriages. One writer has suggested that the defining question for Gen X is, “When did your parents divorce?” In response to this, Gen X has been cautious about marrying and having children, but invested in the stability of their families when they do marry and multiply. To minister to Gen X, a mentor must display the goodness of marriage and children, both from Scripture and personal example. Show them how the Bible opens and closes with a marriage. Show them the glory of the gospel depicted in marriage and the great task of raising image bearers entrusted to a husband and wife. The desire for stable homes is a good desire, so encourage them in this and equip them for faithfulness.
Lastly, inspire them with the Great Commission. Our fallen world will provide plenty of fuel for cynicism, apathy, and mistrust. Perhaps the person you’re mentoring feels like a member of a forgotten generation — they might not be wrong about that. Middle children are often overlooked, and so it can be with Gen X. Give them a vision to seek the kingdom and spread the gospel far and wide. There are no forgotten deeds and no labor is in vain when it’s done for Christ, and our citizenship in heaven is both unshakeable and eternal. Christ promises his presence to those who embrace this mission, and his authority guarantees it won’t fail. All those who know God have a firm foundation and reason for hope everlasting. Help Gen X see these truths and live in light of them.
You remember growing up before two planes crashed into the towers in New York. You were an early Facebook user. You came of age as a recession hit. You have no religious affiliation. You walk the line between making work your identity and cultivating a life outside your profession. If any of these describe you, there’s a good chance you’re a Millennial.
Or maybe you’re reading this not because you are a Millennial, but the person you’re mentoring is. As with all such relationships, it would be good to know a few things about them. The time in which they grew up is not determinative for everything they do, but there is some descriptive power in knowing the generation to which they belong.
Who They Are
Millennials are currently between about 26–41 years old. This means the massive cultural shifts of the last two decades came at deeply formative times in their lives. Most Millennials are old enough to recall what it was like to grow up in the 1980s and 90s. These decades had significant issues, but they also — the 90s especially — were a time of general affluence, stability, and a shared culture in the United States. Compare that with the first two decades of the new millennium, when Millennials entered either their teenage years or adulthood as they witnessed terrorist attacks, long wars, and economic hardship, and saw the rise of the internet, social media, and cultural fracturing. These factors mean that, while most Millennials are not given to profound pessimism and despair — they still remember the 90s! — they carry anxiety. Indeed, some have called this the Anxious Generation.
Every generation prioritizes material prosperity, but Millennials’ experience of recession and instability informs this pursuit. They remember the affluence of former years, and they would like to have it back. But their professional endeavors are not driven by financial gain alone; many value some kind of vocational calling and a sense of identity within their work. One consequence of this quest for stability and calling is that many Millennials have put off having a family. And even some who have gotten married are opting not to have children, resulting in alarmingly low birth rates. This could have a negative economic impact on the future, an ironic turn of events for the Millennials.
How to Minister to Them
The plain reality is that the kind of ministry most Millennials need is evangelism, as many of them have no religious affiliation at all, but are part of the growing group of “nones.” If you are able to invest in a Millennial, though, there may be ways to increase your effectiveness. One result of growing up when they did is that Millennials can sense inauthenticity a mile away, and are keen on detecting when someone is attempting to sell them a bill of goods. So if someone wants to engage a Millennial in a mentoring relationship, they would be wise to do so in a way that is honest and organic. The men and women of this generation, many of whom were discipled by TV screens and then smaller screens, crave face-to-face relationships. Look them in the eye and be in their corner.
Similarly, they want to see leadership that is legitimate and respectable. If you want to mentor a Millennial but are not willing to practice what you preach (and be honest about your shortcomings), you will have little influence. As is true for many of us, Millennials have seen failed leadership in the political realm, and those who grew up in the church have seen high-profile failures of leadership in the church. These are not legitimate reasons to abandon the faith, but they do not help. You will not be perfect, but you’re honest and upright, it will go a long way.
There are also biblical truths that will be crucial for Millennials to know and believe. Given how many of this generation deal with anxiety, the desire for stability, loneliness, and doubt, a primary way a mentor can minister to a Millennial is to equip them to see the way the Scriptures speak to these things. Show them what God’s Word says about what to do with our worry (Matthew 6:25–34; 1 Peter 5:6–7; Philippians 4:4–8). Teach them that the only certain reality in life is God himself (Isaiah 33:5–6; Hebrews 12:28). Lead them to know that they can be honest with the Lord about their doubts (Psalm 13; and that assurance and certainty can be had in Jesus Christ (1 John 5:13).
The shifts and changes from one generation to the next tend to be circumstantial and follow sensible progression. One generation doesn’t have cars, the next does. One generation grew up with television, their parents didn’t. These are changes in circumstance and, while they often lead to massive cultural shifts reflected in the generations, there were also cultural consistencies undergirding it all. For most of American history, those cultural consistencies were provided by a Christian-influenced worldview and a favorable view of the United States.
And then there’s Gen Z.
Who They Are
It is not an overstatement to say that the cultural ethos in which Gen Z has grown up — and which they have helped form — would be completely foreign to most previous generations. The stable affluence that marked the 1990s, along with its shared culture, may as well have occurred in the 1590s as far as Gen Z is concerned. They do not remember 9/11, and thus the changes that came in 9/11’s aftermath — long wars, financial recession, and general societal fracturing — were not changes for them so much as simply the way things are. It is no surprise, then, that they see the world as more dangerous than did their predecessors, and they’re less likely to get their driver’s license and leave home. Everyone knows the world can be a scary place, but for Gen Z, it always has been.
Similarly, they do not remember a time when the internet was not something you carried in your pocket, hence the “screenagers” label. On one hand, there are benefits that come with being digital natives, giving them advantages in certain professional fields. But the results are starting to come in, and they make the overwhelming case that the cost of spending four or more hours a day in front of a screen (a statistic true of 57% of Gen Z) may not be worth it. One third of Gen Z says they’ve been bullied online, their friends and community are often online rather than in-person, and the mental and emotional wellbeing of many people within Gen Z — especially teenage girls — has declined dangerously and dramatically. Social media is not the sole cause for these realities, but it has certainly played a role.
Handling these societal and technological changes on their own would be hard enough, but living through them while growing up in a post-Christian culture is a recipe for serious difficulty. Consider some of the moral and religious realities: just one-third of Gen Z think lying is morally wrong, one-fifth believe the Bible to be the Word of God, and they are twice as likely to claim to be atheist as the rest of the adult American population. They have been immersed in gender confusion, decimated by pornography, and are not attaining the happiness they crave.
One could start to worry about the state of Gen Z, but a better view is to see that the fields are white for harvest.
How to Mentor and Minister to Them
Gen Z needs to be evangelized. If you have a relationship with someone from Gen Z — now between the ages of 13 and 25 — the first priority is to love them enough to implore them to be reconciled to God. Tell them the greatness of Jesus Christ, and show them the joy of knowing and following him.
If you’re mentoring someone in Gen Z, show them the glory of an ordinary, faithful, steadfast Christian life. Show them that joy is not found in likes, retweets, and shares, but in relationships with real people: friends, spouses, children, church members. There may not be anything flashy about spiritual disciplines, but the slow and steady investment in spiritual health is worth it.
Given the mental health challenges that many in Gen Z face, encourage them that faith, hope, and love still abide (1 Corinthians 13:13). Teach them that knowing Jesus Christ as Lord means that no one can snatch us from his hand, and he is the stability of our times (Isaiah 33:6). So whether we abound in happiness, money, and friends, or whether we’re brought low emotionally or relationally, we can learn contentment (Phil 4:11–12) and receive the peace that passes understanding (Phil 4:4–7).
Lastly, teach them the truthfulness and richness of the Scriptures. Chances are they are unfamiliar with its teachings, and they may be unsure whether to believe it. But there is no better way to overcome someone’s skepticism of the Bible’s teaching than to actually make them familiar with it. Walk through God’s Word with them, challenge them to memorize and meditate on what they read, and watch them change.