Stephen Stern
Dr. Stephen Stern PhD

Sidewalking: why Gen Z often ignores your walk by “Good Afternoon”

Drawing is from shutter stock
Drawing is from shutterstock

Wendy and I were walking near Canter’s deli in LA. We were in our twenties, out of college and catching up. Absorbed in conversation, we said nothing to an older woman who wished us a “good morning.” The woman lit into us and told us we need to acknowledge those we pass by. 

I had not thought about that time with Wendy until I read a Washington Post piece—a month or two ago—wondering if Gen Zers were rude. People were (sometimes) noting that Gen Zers rarely acknowledge their (older people’s) ‘good day’ when out and about. Since that moment, I’ve been meaning to write this.

I teach Gen Z. They’re not mean, and they’re not that different from past generations of 20 somethings, with one exception. They’re politically awake. They vote! When I voted for the first time, I proudly dropped off my Arizona absentee ballot at a Claremont, California voting precinct. It was around five pm on voting Tuesday. My father organized this, but didn’t tell me critical information. I didn’t know I had to send it to Arizona. That’s Gen X. Most of the Gen Z people I know wouldn’t make that mistake. They’re wonderful. My colleagues and I can’t shut up about them. Yet, like previous crops of young adults, they generally do not greet others they don’t know on sidewalks. Stranger danger is still part of their world view.

I can tell you what many think when you wish them a wonderful day, “Are they talking to me? What could they want?” “Scammer!” Many people in their twenties, especially early twenties, have a different orientation to community than those wishing them a good day. 

Gen Z is building futures and is living the emotions of making a life they have yet to live. The twenties—for most—are an anxious time. Most are struggling to surf while noting their surfboards no longer work as well as they did when teenagers. New ones are needed. When you come along with a ‘good day’ they’re just trying to stay afloat. Working to not drown.

I sometimes run into a gen z dog park pal who also has a beagle. She is a 26-year-old schoolteacher. She’ll tell you she is on the cusp of being gen z and a millennial. She told me she and her boyfriend are having a couple over for dinner. It was the four people’s first time having a sit—down dinner party at a friend’s house. Big league adulting! One of the invited asked if they should bring board games. My pal was outraged, saying to me, “what are we, children?! I could not stop laughing. I said, “it sounds like it will be fun no matter what.” My role in her life at the dog park is to discuss beagles and hear her adulting stories, to which I give experiential insight. These are ten-minute chats at a busy dog park.

Gen Z wants to know: are you helpful to them in their quest of building a future? If not, they have no need or use for you. It’s still always about them. Many of the people who commented with outrage about gen Zs’ sidewalk discourteousness forgot that the previous decade for gen Z was from ten to twenty years of age. Their brains are not fully developed until they’re 23–25 years old. 

They’re new adults having no adulthood to reflect on or compare with to whom they’re becoming. Being an active, grown up member of a large community isn’t part of their personal system, not yet. They know they’re part of the world, they care about the world, but not with strangers passing them on a sidewalk. That understanding comes a little later. Wishing an experienced adult an easy or good day isn’t part of their world view. Many are still shocked—when they find out—that they have to pay a fee to have their garbage picked up. 

Young adults I know exercise different understandings of community than older people. They need help to build. If you don’t come with a helping hand or construction materials, you’re distracting them from creating their world. Their consciousness is one of extraction, not with the open eyes look of a toddler, but with an intensity that comes with a great deal of anxiety. 

I’m going to continue to make a blessing of the woman who lectured Wendy and me when passing others on a sidewalk, even those unlikely to note it. We adults with decades of it behind us are setting an example for them, showing them how to commune and greet strangers. Keep greeting them, but try not to take it personally when they do not know what’s going on and ignore you.

Experience shows me it will catch up to them. Gen Z will learn. Their lives are still ahead of them. Wishing others a good day when passing on a sidewalk will become part of the world they’re now building. It did for Wendy and me. 

About the Author
Dr. Stephen Stern has authored Reclaiming the Wicked Son: Finding Judaism in Secular Jewish Philosophers, and The Unbinding of Isaac: A Phenomenological Midrash of Genesis 22. His forthcoming book, The Chailight Zone will be out later this year, 2024. Stern is an Associate Professor of Jewish Studies & Interdisciplinary Studies, and Chair of Jewish Studies at Gettysburg College