What leadership will look like when Generation Z takes over (and I love Pope Francis)

If you want to understand Generation Z (born in the 200o’s), take a look at Pope Francis. He is not just a new pope. He is revolutionizing the Vatican in a way that Generation Z is likely to revolutionize secular institutions. For those of you who are not following Pope Francis, you should. He is so cool he makes me want to give money to the Catholic church. He is a Gen Z mascot.

Francis was not trained to be a powerful man. He is honest, for one thing, and no one trains for power through honesty. But also, he wants simply to do good for people and keep the Church healthy and vibrant. He doesn’t care about power.

This is exactly how Generation Z will view power: something that distracts from the real work of helping people. Gen Z will gain power by restoring beneficent institutions that hold our society together.

Generation Z will shore up institutions.
The history of civilization is cyclical. Generations build up institutions and later generations feel stifled by those institutions and tear them down. Generation Z is what comes after an era of destroying institutions. Generation Z are stabilizers.

Want to know what that will look like? Gen Z will refuse to engaging in polarizing topics that have no practical need for resolution. While Gen X is offending people and millennials is trying to build consensus, Gen Z will see it all as a waste of time to discuss – they want people to put the needs of the cherished institutions before our own needs – inside and outside of the church

Pope Francis models this behavior today when he tells everyone the church needs to stop focusing on fighting abortion and working against gay rights. Pope Francis church is going back to the roots of Christianity: he is washing the feet of the destitute and leaving people alone in their bedrooms and clinics.

For Generation Z, self-effacing action is the new authenticity.
Do you know how you can tell what age someone is online? Look at their domain name. Millennials are nuts about getting their namesake as their handle. How many women have said they are the next Oprah  or the next Martha Stewart? Generation Z doesn’t care. They just want to do what they do best. Pewdiepie and AntVennon are post-millennial. They have huge web sites, but they are not self-promoting so much as promoting something bigger than themselves.

This is how Pope Francis sees himself — as part of world-wide Catholic organization that helps people. You don’t need to be better than other people to help people. You don’t need special recognition to help people. Pope Francis is humbly human and refuses to be part of an elite, stand-offish culture that has come to plague the Vatican.

The rise of Gen X coupled with the rise of the Internet ushered in a new authenticity through transparency. Millennials reframed that as packaged authenticity via Instagram and Facebook. So it’s no surprise that the Vatican of the last 20 years was one of religious veneer covering up sex predators, clerical orgies, and global racketeering.

Pope Francis does not care for covering up. He does not need to present anything except a Pope doing good deeds and installing other clergy who do good deeds. He let the Italian government tax $93 million away from the Vatican. He kicked out clergy who were judgmental and divisive, and he invited a new era of clergy that, like him, never expected power or prestige and spent their whole lives in service to others in need.

Gen Z are pragmatic and sensible – no aspirations of stardom.
As millennials is the generation of reality TV, Gen Z is the generation of reality. In an era where institutions are crumbling around us, Gen Z has no time to shun conflict in favor of denial. Gen Z knows the times are desperate. They were born into a world of terrorism, a crumbling middle class, and global warming. One of the reasons Gen Z has no sacred cows is that the Gen Xers who raised them have disdain for following rules. But the real reason Gen Z can look you in the eye and tell you the truth is that Gen Z feels a responsibility to shore up the mess other generations left behind.

Pope Francis is saving the church through an unrelenting determination to be a realist. He is saving the world in his own way, and modeling for a new generation what it’s like to be a rebuilder of institutions.

How ironic it is that as Pope Francis implores Catholics to curtail power-mongering within the Church, because he makes the Catholic church one of the most influential leaders of the coming generation of institutional saviors.

42 replies
  1. Robb
    Robb says:

    As a GenY member, (born ’86) I couldn’t help but agree with this post. I hadn’t seen anybody put it as definitively as this, but it echoes a lot of things about Gen Z I think I’ve felt for a while now.

    • Karelys
      Karelys says:

      My husband is from 86 and I am from 87.

      I am thinking that when Gen Z kids are in charge we won’t have to fumble around trying to pretend to be in the good paying jobs/businesses for the sake of much money making. I think there will be a chance for us to be our true selves and still make a living. Because that type of gumption is welcomed and there will be a place for that.

  2. Julieta
    Julieta says:

    I loved what you wrote in here. A statement from a person point of view not from a religious one. That’s exactly what I feel about Pope Francis.

    When he was on the Rolling Stone cover I bought it, so I can tell my sons: look! Once the Pope was so cool that he even made it to the Rolling Stone!

    • Dave Gordon
      Dave Gordon says:

      Meh. Even Doctor Hook made to the cover of The Rolling Stone. And yes, that’s a reference only a Boomer will get.

      Pope Francis is setting a high bar for global leadership. His role in the reconciliation of the US and Cuban governments is unprecedented. Watch this guy – if anyone can convince the Sunni and Shi’ite to peacefully coexist, it will be him. At some point, Gen Z will need to start analyzing the track record of capitalist democracies, and asking whether electing a politician as head of state still makes sense. Plainly, it only gets a positive result for the defense industry.

  3. Jen Gresham
    Jen Gresham says:

    One of your best posts ever, which is saying something. And I sincerely hope you’re right. Outside of a handful of figures like Pope Francis, leadership around the world is pretty depressing.

  4. Jack
    Jack says:

    Perhaps I’ve read World War Z too recently, but did anyone else think “Generation Zombie” when they saw Generation Z?

    Humor aside, I certainly how you’re right. As a new father, I suffer too think of the world we as a race are leaving for our children. At this point, I just hope we can survive the coming economic mess. It’s going to make the Great Depression look like a cake walk if we continue on our current course.

  5. amy parmenter
    amy parmenter says:

    I love Pope Francis as well. Not only the best thing to happen to the Catholic Church in my lifetime, the best thing to happen to the world. And, like you, I’m Jewish…so I don’t idolize him…but I do admire him. Greatly.

  6. Caroline
    Caroline says:

    I slightly agree . . . Francis is opposite personality-wise, a true hands-on pastor whereas Benedict a bookish theologian. But I don’t see Benedict as opposite in the sense of caring about power. Else, Benedict wouldn’t have been the first pope in forever to retire.

  7. Jim Grey
    Jim Grey says:

    Being Gen X (born in ’67, the summer of love) and having felt in the shadow of the baby boomers my whole life, I’m kind of … well, don’t take this wrong … but I’m kind of looking forward to the Boomers being gone and seeing what kind of world we get in the hands of Gen Z. I feel like that’s the next leadership generation. We Xers and maybe even the Yers are going to be too old by the time the Boomers all shuffle off.

  8. GenerationXpert
    GenerationXpert says:

    Thank you for writing this. As a Catholic Gen Xer, I feel it seems acceptable to slam Catholics at any opportunity even though I wouldn’t slam another religion. So thanks for giving him his props.

    And, I too, think he rocks. As does Gen Z. Can’t wait for them to storm the workforce.

  9. Sarah M
    Sarah M says:

    Ah, I just loved this post. I love reading your posts about the differences between generations. I grew up Catholic and although I don’t practice anymore, I still try to stay up with the general news of what’s going on with the church. When I heard about Pope Francis washing the prisoners feet I teared up and remember telling my husband, “I think this guy will actually be what the church needs” (we all need leaders like this to look up to, not just the Catholic church now that I think about it). I have been rooting for him on the sidelines and have appreciated his humility so much. I hope he’s around for a long time.
    I didn’t know about the $93 million tax, but good for him.
    Sarah M

  10. Maria
    Maria says:

    As usual, your timing is impeccable, Penelope!

    Today I had a meeting with a man in his 60’s. We discussed faith and technology and going into business together. I explained I required an agreement from each pastor that they would not preach anything that would violate the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms nor incite hatred. He said the pastors he deals with would refuse to sign the document. I told him, then they would not become clients.

    He pointed to Isis and I explained the damage religious extremists and cults do and ultimately, the weapons dealers are the only winners. I refused to be part of a religious war.

    I would not budge on this matter. He walked out angry.

    It’s important to be part of the solution and not the problem on a global level and also on a personal level and put peace over profit.

    I think the pope is setting a good example. Like John Lennon once said..”Give peace a chance”.

    Just my 2cents worth.

  11. Skweekah
    Skweekah says:

    I share the sentiment of many when I say that I really hope what you are saying becomes reality. Too much capitalism, materialism and greed in the developed world.

  12. Derek J Scruggs
    Derek J Scruggs says:

    Eh, maybe. Once upon a time the Baby Boomers were very idealistic, but then they embraced Reagan tax cuts.

    I think Gen Z is more mature at a younger age, but once in their careers they probably won’t be happy to see how much of their earnings are going to Baby Boomers’ retirement.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Baby boomers grew up to be exactly how they were raised- being vbery competitive and getting as much as they can for themselves in a growing economy.

      Gen Z has no illusions of having a lot of money and they are aware from day one that they have impossible debt of previous generations to manage. It’s what they are preparing for.


      • Jennifer
        Jennifer says:

        It’s Gen Y that will spend their lives saddled with debt, not Gen Z. Gen Z has the time to figure out alternatives to crippling college debt. My kids will have the ability to take online classes at a local college while still in high school, and paid for by the public high school, as just one example.

        Also, Gen X parents absolutely adore their kids, and raised them to be respectful rather than entitled; so I predict we will be perfectly happy to have our kids live with us until they marry. Especially because they’ll help pay the damn mortgage. (My kids will be almost 30 by the time mine is paid off!)

        • T
          T says:

          The word entitled has been used so much in reference to Gen Y that I’m not even sure what it really means anymore. I fail to see evidence that Gen Y as a whole believes that it is any more deserving of special treatment than any other generation. I might agree if you said that Gen Y was naive or had overblown expectations of society. Gen Y does not desire personal entitlements, but instead of higher quality of life for all people. Gen Y expects that if you work hard and go to school, or create something, or try to contribute in some way that something good will come of it eventually. And there are plenty of people in Gen Y who are committed to paying their student loans. Most Gen Yers I know are really nice and loving people who are just trying to survive. There are people in all generations who have both positive and negative qualities. Bullying Gen Y seems really unfair.

      • Derek Scruggs
        Derek Scruggs says:

        “being very competitive and getting as much as they can for themselves in a growing economy.”

        I would dispute that’s how they were raised. Their experience was that the economy just grows and grows (i.e. from the late forties through the sixties), jobs last for 30 years and and the main thing to worry about is how to avoid the draft. Then the seventies came along and punched them in the nose.

  13. Kat
    Kat says:

    I think the real message is putting good deeds above all else. Gen Z’s realist tendencies won’t literally translate to nicer behaviors.

    Facebook already has Gen Z flavor in their operation model. With little interest in vertical corporate ladders they work laterally. Still, it does not resolve them from politics and power games. Leadership that disregard traditional power is an oxymoron.

    Precisely because Gen Z will be dealing with depleting resources, they need to be even more results-driven than ever. There is no guarantee that they would prefer to spend time on deconstructing institutions – just for the sake of it – over hurrying up to create new solutions. In order to get what you want, things get ugly and history repeats itself.

  14. holly
    holly says:

    I love Pope Francis also. Makes me want to be Catholic (sort of). He epitomizes to me what I believe a good person in a powerful position should be like and I hope that Generation Z will be able to bring more of these values back in the world. And one more thing, you gotta love a Pope who loves pizza.

  15. Heather
    Heather says:

    I am a Catholic Gen-Xer raising three Gen Zs and yes, they love zombies, LOL. I do love Pope Francis. He is truly living up to his name. I took the female version of this name for my confirmation name, but it was for St. Francis of Assisi as well. Our oldest is 14 years old and I’m having fun watching her take our experiences and advice and make it into her own. One of my favorites is not putting labels on things or relationships. The world will become more interesting with them in the world.

  16. R Lloyd
    R Lloyd says:

    This was an excellent observation!! I certainly hope you’re right, Penelope, as this viewpoint of the world through the Gen Z lens makes so much sense to me. Yes, I’m INFJ. I don’t disparage anyone their success, but it shouldn’t come at the cost of anyone else’s and in all things: first, do no harm.
    Let everyone do their thing instead of lying, cheating, being a hypocrite and hurting people to further your own agenda/cause.
    I see great things on the horizon from this next generation – fingers crossed!

  17. Pirate Jo
    Pirate Jo says:

    He lost me a bit with this comment:

    “A society with a greedy generation, that doesn’t want to surround itself with children, that considers them above all worrisome, a weight, a risk, is a depressed society.”

    He went on to say that people who choose not to have children are “selfish.”

    Then Jack, above, says, “As a new father, I suffer to think of the world we as a race are leaving for our children.”

    Maybe people who don’t have children aren’t greedy – maybe they just can’t afford them, don’t think it’s right to foist the expense on others, and give half a thought to what kind of lives their hypothetical children might have. And, having taken a realistic look at it, would only have children they could bring into a world with enough clean water to go around. A depressed society, maybe, but Jack makes a good point. (Although I don’t know why Jack had kids, given his views.)

    Then again, people of most religions view faith as a virtue. Others see faith without reason as delusion.

    Pope Francis was awfully nice to that little kid who had lost a pet, I’ll give him that. He’s certainly a cut above the others.

  18. Elizabeth
    Elizabeth says:

    I always love when you write about Generation Z. I’m a Gen Xer raising 3 Gen Z girls and it’s like they were born with this strange yet alluring type of confidence, it’s so tangible. A very determined and focused group of kids being born, I can see it in my friends children as well. I am excited to see what this group accomplishes in their lifetime.

  19. Nicholle
    Nicholle says:

    I’ve been re-reading this post over the last few days. You had me at Pope Francis. :)

    Over the holidays I wrote a blog post about how St. Nicholas, who Santa Clause is based on, was an old Turkish/Greek drunkard (true) and how holidays might be more soulful if Santa were created more in the likeness of Pope Francis… Nothing like this post, of course! ;) It’s fun to see how you’re also inspired by this great human.

    Thanks for the perspective and understanding you build with your posts. Always look forward to opening your emails the second I see them in my inbox!

  20. Jennifa
    Jennifa says:

    I had not heard about Pope Francis’ statement that childless married people are selfish until Pirate Jo’s comment. Apparently he did say it, but I do not hold it against him (even though I am childless and married). He is old afterall, and this childless/married thing traditionally has a stereo-type associated with it. Like all preconceived notions about people who are on a different path, it takes a while for acceptance.

  21. Christopher Chantrill
    Christopher Chantrill says:

    Sorry to rain on the parade but, to me, this misses the point.

    Christianity, and all the Axial Age religions including Judaism, are about a new thing, that the individual is responsible directly to God. To simplify, it is about People of the Subordinate Self growing into People of the Responsible Self.

    When we talk about baby boomers and Gens X, Y, and Z, we are talking about People of the Creative Self, for whom responsible individualism is not enough. The catchphrase “expressive individualism” is often used to capture our yearnings.

    But the great issue today is not with the upper 20% in the creative educated class, except perhaps our universal hypocrisy. The problem is the bottom 30 percent. Charles Murray shows in “Coming Apart” that, for US whites in the bottom 30 percent, the men don’t work very much and the women don’t marry very much. Consequently the children don’t succeed very much.

  22. AP
    AP says:

    I’m still stuck on Pewdiepie promoting something bigger than himself. I’ll have to pay attention to him a little more to figure out what he’s promoting, if it isn’t himself. All I ever hear, when my kids listen to his YouTube channel, is a bunch of expletives and general kookie-ness. My kids love him.

  23. steve
    steve says:

    I am sure the author is well intended, however the idea of separating generations is ridiculous. Picking a random year and saying “this is generation ??” implies that somewhere along the way a change occurred in the populous that divides one type of flesh and blood from another. I also dont know what makes anyone think that a single generation (after that magic year) will all at once be different from anyone else who has ever walked the earth. To believe this tells me no one is paying attention, people will always be people, good and bad. Some will want to be achievers, some will be willing to follow and far to many will expect to be taken care of. As for the pope, in my life several popes have come and gone, if not for the evening news, most people wouldn’t know any different. Each one has been called the “new kind” of pope. I am doubtful of any “new” kind of people.

    • Serge P
      Serge P says:

      I get you’re skeptcism about people being born in year ___ are generation ___, but each generation raised does have a certain group think influenced by the conditions of that time and how the previous generation handled those conditions. Those labels are just a general signpost of mostly American society, and of course anomalies will exist when, say, a “Gen Xer” will be raised by immigrant parents from Asia who were born or raised during the Depression.

      Everyone’s basic needs are going to be the same, but the priorities of those basic needs will be different. Look back at what conflicts and economic conditions were present during the past 100 years and there are certainly behavioral patterns that emerge.

  24. Dion L.
    Dion L. says:

    I’m not so sure you can generalize the generations; I am a baby boomer, and I am sure as hell not getting more conservative. The “greatest” generation, and the silent generation, began the rightward reactionary swing that made Jesus Christ synonymous with tax cuts and perpetual war. Nobody gets a clean slate in any honest history.

    There may be some truth here, but saying one generation has this and another generation has that–seems to me nobody has a hand in what time they were born in, or what the color of their skin is or their gender. Perhaps the next generation will totally reject all such stereotypes, but its doubtful.
    The past will always repeat to some extent with human beings–old, young, black or white.

    The truth, as always, will transcend generalities, like Pope Francis transcends the crisis of the church and the crisis of humanity.

    Don’t give up on anybody yet, unless they’ve checked into the dirt clod motel forever…

  25. Joyce
    Joyce says:

    Thank you for writing about Pope Francis. I live in the Philippines, and he visited our country last January. Here are the lessons I learned from the pope during his visit:

    1. Dream and hope for a family.
    2. Sleep on a problem.
    3. Be with people even if it’s late.
    4. Keep silent.
    5. Listen to women.
    6. Feel free to cry.
    7. Learn from the poor.
    8. Learn to receive.
    9. Think, feel, act.

    Today I just watched Pope Francis washing the feet of prisoners, drying them, and kissing them. He said that he wants to be more of a slave to serve others.

    I’m an idealist so I read your blog, Lifehacker, Cracked, the news, and even the manosphere to give me a good dose of reality. But when I watch and read about Pope Francis, I always realize that there is always faith, hope, and love in the world. Thank you!

  26. brooke
    brooke says:

    I still like this pope despite his criticism of couples who choose not to have children. We are “selfish,” which leads me to wonder how having children is “generous” as most children are accidents anyway.

  27. Ben Grimm
    Ben Grimm says:

    Generation Z, the post-millennial generation, is only 8 years old. No one can properly predict them more than they can predict the future of technology.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Ben, there’s really good research from social scientists and historians about the cyclical nature of generational traits – google Straus and Howe generational theory.

      Also, your assumption that we can’t predict the future in very broad strokes seems like an indictment of the study of history, which is, essentially, a study of the past to better predict the future.


      • Ben Grimm
        Ben Grimm says:

        Straus and Howe have failed to use their theory to predict Gen X and Millennials before they came to be. It’s not possible because generations are formed by the general zeitgeist (created by the generations before them) and by world events which cannot be predicted.

        All one can do is wait for Post-Millennials to hit their early adolescence to get an idea for their common traits. That’s the age when people become self-conscious of their actions and consequences.

        Or we can wait for 20 years to pass and come back to this article to see how much it relied on vague or broad descriptions.

  28. Asleem Amod
    Asleem Amod says:

    Great insight! Amazing that generational traits are so universal but so often ignored in practical business and lifestyle decisions.

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