In college I suffered from a condition called FOMO. It was probably responsible for a half-point drop in my GPA. It’s the reason I sometimes hung out with people until sunrise even though I had an early class. It’s why friends convinced me to drop everything and go on a last-minute road trip from Virginia to Louisiana.
What is FOMO? It’s the “fear of missing out,” a condition long suffered by young people. Following my graduation, as I worked with the next generation of college students, I began to notice a shift. “Sign up for Fall Retreat because all your friends are going” was a far less powerful recruiting tactic than it was in my college days. In recent years, students have become harder to schedule events around. They just spend less time hanging out.
The average young person’s inner dialogue seems to have shifted from What if I don’t go and they have fun without me? to What if I commit now and regret it later?
My experience is only one data point, of course, but my friends who are campus workers have made similar observations. One InterVarsity staffer described it perfectly: “It’s like we’ve moved from FOMO to FOBO.” What is FOBO? It’s the “fear of better options.” The average young person’s inner dialogue seems to have shifted from What if I don’t go and they have fun without me? to What if I commit now and regret it later?
FOBO may be the reason why, if you spend time with young people, you get texts like this: “I’d love to get lunch at that time as long as I don’t have something else going on,” or “I’ll plan on being there unless something changes.” Before you roll your eyes and lament the condition of “kids these days,” let me provide a little perspective.
Not Flaky, Just Anxious
Gen Z is probably the most anxious generation in history. One way this plays out is that many young people are more reticent to commit than previous generations were. Their internal calculus is different. What if I commit to those plans and it turns out I don’t feel ready for the test I’ve been worried about? Or even, how can I possibly make plans for next week when I can barely handle thinking about this afternoon?
There are real reasons why their experience of life is more anxiety-inducing than ours, and those reasons make commitment harder for them.
Nevertheless, for Gen Z and for the rest of us, love requires making and keeping commitments. There’s a reason traditional wedding vows state “until death do us part,” not “as long as something else doesn’t come up.”
There’s a reason traditional wedding vows state ‘until death do us part,’ not ‘as long as something else doesn’t come up.’
So, how can those of us in older generations encourage our Gen-Z brothers and sisters toward loving commitment?
First, we need to make sure that we consistently model faithfulness in our own commitments to them. Do you rub shoulders with young people in your church or place of work? Do you treat appointments and commitments to them with the same level of seriousness that you do others?
Second, we need to express encouragement when young people demonstrate loving commitment. Are there GenZers who volunteer regularly at your church? What would it look like for you to express your gratitude for their service? Has a young person reached out to you to get a cup of coffee? Make sure you tell them how grateful you are for their initiative and prioritize fitting it in.
Third, we need to lovingly share how we experience the effects of FOBO from young people. When I take the initiative to ask if a student would like to spend time together, it’s hurtful to get a noncommittal answer. It’s hard not to hear an unspoken subtext of “you’re not important enough to commit my time to.” I know it might sound uncomfortable to express these feelings to a young person, but it is important to do so. If you are willing to have this hard conversation (gently and lovingly), you may end up being the only person in their life who has loved them enough to do so.
Finally, be patient and empathetic. Again, there are real reasons for GenZ’s anxieties and struggles with commitment. Keep these in mind when you get noncommittal text messages from younger friends and family. They’re fighting a battle you and I may not fully understand.
Loving one another across generations comes at a cost to everyone. For Gen Z this may mean a willingness to commit in spite of the fear of better options. For older generations, it may mean practice in patience and empathy. For each of us, investing in these relationships despite our differences is another opportunity to love others the way Christ loved us; at great cost to himself.