Creating Connection Across Difference
The unique insight of Gen Z First-generation Americans
Looking for images of resistance and resilience? Open any digital screen of your choosing these days and you’re likely to find a full spectrum of opinions being fiercely shared. Whether interacting online or in person, we are met with the sights and sounds of opposition so incessantly they begin to blur into white noise. This is a time of passion and polarization, with global events and tragedies to national ideological trends raising alarm daily as each side tries to make their points as loudly as possible. Tuning out the conflict is appealing yet unrealistic and turning away is a futile pursuit.
Meanwhile, diversity is on an upwards trajectory. In America, the rising force of Gen Z will be majority non-white by 2026, the most racially and ethnically represented generation yet. According to the US Censure Bureau, more than 42% percent of the American population is now represented by groups other than non-Hispanic whites, a 12% increase over just the past two decades.
Surrounded by differences of thought and image, hurtling forward at the speed of technology, we are witnessing an inevitable evolution towards digital and physical interconnectivity. Yet at the same time we are coming up for air to face the most critical issues of survival the world has ever seen. The challenge is timeless, making our need to embrace the opportunity for collective impact more critical than ever.
Ultimately, the impact of this cultural transformation won’t be as much about the numbers as it will be about the broader extent of our experience — our stories and ability to share and engage them. Whether it’s within the workplace or through creative collaboration, we are seeing the first ripples of this shift in greater efforts to consider inclusivity and representation. Thought leaders and change makers in every industry are coming forward to emphasize the important of bringing new perspectives into play. Meanwhile, intersectional brands and organizations, especially across creativity and social impact, are building new foundations based on the convergence of diverse points of view. While not without challenge, the resonance of these projects is drawing visible traction. Hike Clerb, an LA-based organization, was formed as a radical solution to the lack of POC representation in the outdoors and as a way for people to heal together in nature. Similarly, queer and South Asian female-founded cookware brand Our Place was built around the “transformative power in uplifting the differences in how people cook and eat together.”
As the next wave approaching adulthood, Gen Z is proving it is up for the challenge of bringing together the seemingly disparate. From social media to city streets, Gen Zers are pushing the limits of current frameworks with unapologetic authenticity. Unrelenting in their pursuit of the truth, there is little they are not willing to upend to create space for their identities and ideas.
Within and beyond this demographic is the growing presence of first-generation Americans. Most commonly defined as the children born to at least one parent who came to the United States from abroad, these are citizens of change with deep ties to both the immigrant experience and American legacy. First-generation Americans often live under the radar, a demographic most often without visible or cultural identifiers to fully reveal their unique positioning. Instead, they are united through a connection to two places (or more) at a time, and a recognition of this liminality in each other.
Having grown up in a world that came without a cultural handbook, first-generation Americans are experts at navigating the nuances of social behavior. Forming their understanding between the cultures of their residence and origins, these individuals have an inherent capacity for empathy. From a young age they learn to consider the context and viewpoints of others, and though they recognize the value of tradition and sacrifice, they are driven to surpass their parents’ achievements by redefining success in their own words. Resoundingly, they move through life with a worldly conscience, extending the benefit of doubt, a contextual imagination, and a bridge of understanding even when the experience of others does not ascribe to their own. When you know the feeling of standing alone, you offer belonging wherever you go.
America continues to see more immigrants arrive each year than any other country in the world. Accordingly, first-generation Americans are growing in both social presence and numbers. The Migrant Policy Institute recorded more than 18 million people under age 18 living with at least one immigrant parent as of 2021, an increase of 120% since 1990. The diversity of their experience is finding representation from standup comedy and film to brand identity and politics.
At a time of significant divisiveness in America, there is deep value in looking to the knowledge these perspectives hold. Empathy and understanding are the litmus tests of civilizations old and new, and looking outwards with an open mind empowers us to see ourselves with greater clarity.
First-generation American identity is not monolithic. In the flavors of a simple heritage recipe or the steadfast values of a family standing strong beyond familiarity lies an incredible capacity for bridging barriers, a desire to seek belonging in new forms, and a deep resilience for finding a way forward.
As we inevitably find ourselves working and coexisting increasing proximity to people who live and think differently than us, we can look to those who forge awareness into empathetic connection daily to find the frameworks of our future. While our differences may define us, creating new meaning by connecting to understand is essential to our individual and collective success as cohabitants of many moving worlds.
This post was written by Shanti Basu. ThoughtMatter is a creative branding, design and strategy studio in New York City’s Flatiron District. Find us on Twitter.