Agency and Purpose: The Antidote to a “Culture of Distrust” for Gen Z

America’s young people are under attack from all cultural fronts. In a recent New York Times op-ed, David Brooks says Gen Z is growing up in a “culture of distrust” that discourages risk taking, encourages self-protection and tends to delay significant life milestones like getting a driver’s license, pursuing post-secondary education, getting married and having children. It is apparent that our way of life today is heavily influenced by the media, motivated by materialism and often skeptical of families and faith institutions alike. Regrettably, it is against this backdrop that the student debt crisis, the skilled labor shortage and persistent concerns over the value of a college degree continue to brew.  

In her recent congressional testimony for the Committee on Small Business Subcommittee on Innovation, Entrepreneurship and Workforce Development, Patrice Onwuka, director of the Center for Economic Opportunity at Independent Women’s Forum, argued, “For generations, a high school diploma was a sufficient level of education to obtain gainful employment that could be augmented with skills training for a specific occupation. Increasingly, a high school diploma and years of experience or skills are not enough to obtain employment that can provide a middle-class life or a path to upward mobility.” 

Is it any wonder why our youth are seemingly paralyzed by fear and struggling to forge their own paths? 

The antidote to the toxicity of a “culture of distrust” has been and always will be individual agency and personal purpose grounded in a strong sense of belonging to one’s family and community. Yet, no amount of personal will, prayer or fellowship can fix a broken higher education system and soul crushing debt. Enter the helpers, the gatherers and the philanthropists who have been working hard for decades to ensure the American virtues of agency and purpose are passed down. The rationale driving their charitable giving is as diverse as their donor intent, mission statements and grantmaking strategies.  

Many philanthropists have focused their charitable dollars on job training programs, apprenticeships and mentorship programs. Some take a regional or city-based approach, while others are looking to apply pressure to the post-secondary system, as a whole. Thankfully, there are many exceptional organizations providing career education to young people. Several family foundations support HopeWorks, a nonprofit that helps individuals ages 17-26 learn to code, design and develop websites as they advance in their education and career. With a focus on skill development and real-world experience, the program propels young adults into long-term careers that set them up for personal wholeness and financial stability. Another philanthropy backed organization, Per Scholas, provides skills training and access to employer networks for individuals often excluded from tech careers. It has equipped over 20,000 graduates to launch successful careers in tech.

Philanthropies like Adolph Coors Foundation in Colorado and Bader Philanthropies in Wisconsin focus some of their giving on job placement and vocational training, including programs for individuals with distinct barriers, such as returning citizens. Grantees like FreeWorld are helping troubled young people reclaim their futures by delivering job training and placement for returning citizens within 45 days. Program officer Brandon Wigley explains, “We are concerned about the rising cost of college, but we believe it will take a significant culture shift to see college as ‘just another option.’ So, we are actively exploring education – workforce pipeline approaches.” Both its employment and youth development programs focus heavily on removing barriers and engaging in character building and professional development.  

The late Art Ciocca invested heavily in the dignity of work by launching the Art and Carlyse Ciocca Center for Principled Entrepreneurship at Catholic University. The Catholic Entrepreneurship and Design Education (CEDE) program works with high school students across the country to instill the values that undergird business and entrepreneurship. Program founder Luke Burgis explains, “We realized that by the time they got to the higher education system, these young people had already formed their beliefs about business, entrepreneurship and work. We needed something that would engage them earlier and help form their understanding of business and work as a force for good.” 

There are countless other philanthropies investing in the success of future generations – indeed too many to list here. Philanthropy may just be one of the few places in our society that is not guided by distrust and fear but rather promotes individual agency and personal purpose and trust.  

Let’s Keep in Touch

Our Values-Based Giving Newsletter helps philanthropists and charitable organizations apply their values to their giving and follow the best practices for success.

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.