It’s cap-and-gown season.
Another flock of high schoolers and collegiates is flying the coop, making the abrupt transition from students to workers.
All that pomp and circumstance has been on my mind because this spring marks 10 years since I graduated — outdoors, in the rain — from Grove City College.
To top it all off, one of my cousins just graduated from high school and will be heading, of all places, to my alma mater in the fall.
This graduation season also marks a transition for some of the young ag students I’ve met as part of my job. I certainly hope their job prospects are better than mine were when I stumbled into an economy still blasted by the Great Recession.
Indeed, I have a lot of hopes for this tassel-teeming tribe half a generation younger than me.
I enjoy interviewing young farmers and rural students — at fairs, at schools and sometimes with their families on the farm.
It’s natural, after all, to be optimistic when meeting people on the cusp of moving from promise to fulfillment. It’s why the NFL draft is must-watch TV.
The state FFA and 4-H officers are always impressive because of their professionalism and polished speaking, but there’s a lot of mechanical talent and farming sense in the rank-and-file members of those organizations as well.
That’s not to say that I completely identify with the members of this youthful horde. In fact, I’ve started to notice gaps opening up between myself — a middle-of-the-generation millennial — and the vanguard of Gen Z coming into the workforce.
The most obvious differences are superficial, such as tastes in music and social media platforms. I still have never been on TikTok, though Lancaster Farming has an account.
The most profound shift, I suspect, will be in young workers’ attitudes about gender identity. In my school days this subject was widely seen as seedy and ridiculous, but today’s graduates can barely remember a time before gay marriage and the political fights over transgender issues.
As for the new generation’s beliefs about food and farming, I think it’s too soon to tell. A lot of Gen Z’ers are still living with their parents and have not yet emerged as independent consumers.
Obviously, perspectives on healthful eating have evolved, and messaging about eco-friendly food production has proliferated.
But human nature hasn’t changed. I’m willing to assume that the majority of the new generation — setting aside the foodies and the connoisseurs among them — will ride the tide with older groups. They’ll buy what’s easy, familiar and in the grocery store.
One of the best-publicized challenges I see for Gen Z right now — and this will sound familiar to farmers — is stress. The pandemic exacerbated the problem, but it already existed.
Sometimes there’s no way through a task or a week but by slogging, grubbing and doing your best. I had certainly learned that by the time I took my place in the sea of rain-soaked mortarboards 10 years ago.
In any case, I’m not the only one who wants to see this rising generation succeed in agriculture.
Schools have pushed STEM education to an almost obsessive degree, but this strategy will equip students with skills and the enthusiasm that the ag industry needs.
State governments have been easing barriers to entry for our technical and capital-intensive field.
In the past few years, Pennsylvania has approved several ag-related apprenticeships and a tax credit that encourages landowners to transition farms to early-career producers.
And if the ag students I’ve met are any indication, Gen Z is producing in particular a lot of talented women.
As an industry, we may always have to convince young workers that farming is a calling and not mere mud-flecked drudgery.
Yet somehow food, the most basic of necessities, is exciting to people in 2021. That’s in our favor.
And in a squishy conceptual sense, farming isn’t so different from going to school. In both cases, the goal is to grow.