Oh no he didn’t call his latest crop of incoming college freshman Millennials! After they proudly proclaimed “We’re Generation Z!” he quickly learned not to lump these forward-thinking, self-aware and mature-beyond-their-years individuals in with Millennials.

In this recent HuffPost article, John Schlimm, international award-winning artist, activist, educator, and author of “Five Years in Heaven,” shares the story of his awakening to the “dawn of a new universe” after spending a semester getting schooled by 50 Gen Z students.

By “meeting these students where they are,” rather than allowing himself to get stuck in “the way it’s always been done,” he learned a number of valuable lessons that educators — as well as brands —  should take to heart when engaging with these incredible young people.

  • “First, that “Gen-Z refuses to be boxed in like a bunch of lab rats, come hell or high water, literally. They very mindfully live outside the box, partly by choice and partly because many have been tossed out there to fend for themselves.”

So, what did “meeting them where they are” look like? Schlimm reports it was “a hopeful, albeit gritty and sometimes murky, place,” and  “a launching pad fueled by talent and bravado.” Another lesson learned after hearing about their current endeavors and plans for the future (which include everything from politics to entrepreneurialism to medicine, law enforcement and all manners of activism):

  • ‘They dream it AND they know it’s possible—this knowing sets them apart.”

“Gen-Z’s home turf is also a place that simultaneously broke my heart and lifted my spirit toward the brightest percolations of the days to come.”

During the semester, Schlimm had the opportunity to hear directly from his students about their lives. He says “these snapshots of their lives took my breath away.” They wrote honestly about the tough business of being a teenager today, sharing gritty stories about suicide attempts, eating disorders, discrimination, harassment, bullying and more. Being the realistic cohort they are, it’s no surprise they didn’t sugar-coat their stories. And they aren’t playing the victim…


“This is a big, powerful transition point that makes all the difference when it comes to Gen-Z—they also wrote and spoke about how they have traversed through the darkness and hellfire, how they have come out on the other side battered and torn and scarred, but victoriously intact, stronger, and enlightened. They, at age 18, embody a level of transformation, self-awareness, and maturity that has taken me more than four decades to achieve.”

Schlimm calls them, determined, tough, sentimental, optimistic, and compassionate survivors.” That they are! Isn’t that what I’ve been saying for more than a year?!


Schlimm’s advice for his fellow educators?

“New generation, new rules for us educators: evolve or be left behind in the dust. Do we want to inspire or crack knuckles with wooden rulers? For me, the choice is a no-brainer.”

The choice for brands should also be a no-brainer. “Evolve or be left behind.”

Learn more in my new book “Marketing to Gen Z” co-authored with my colleague, Jeff Fromm, coming out in March 2018 and available for preorder on Amazon.