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Author Harlan Cohen Shares His Approach to Connecting with Gen Z

We interviewed New York Times bestselling author and self-proclaimed “Transition Expert” Harlan Cohen to get his take on how brands can talk so Gen Z will listen…


  • Rejection is something everyone has in common, and marketers can use that fact to reach Gen Z through empathy
  • Colleges, employers, and brands can—and should—do more to help Gen Z as they transition from high school to college and from college to the workforce
  • Respect is key when it comes to connecting with young people online

YPulse is always on the lookout for those who are connecting with Gen Z most effectively—brands, influencers, public figures, and other young people alike. Through his social media (and IRL presentations) best-selling author and journalist Harlan Cohen has made it clear that he knows what it takes to make Gen Z feel heard in a way that makes them open to learning his messaging—just ask his 575K TikTok and 192K Instagram followers. With that open line of communication, he aims to help young people, their parents, their schools, and their future employers understand how to get “comfortable with the uncomfortable”—especially the tricky periods of transition that all young people go through. While his work is more interpersonal, his approach of embracing rejections and finding community is something anyone, or any brand, looking to connect with Gen Z can take on. 

Through series’ like “Life Tips” and “College Tips” (of which he has posted hundreds), Cohen is answering the questions that many young people have but may be afraid to ask—or may not even know they have yet. Whether it’s about applying to college, feeling anxious around new people, or even navigating their love life, Cohen is dedicating his career to speaking the language of young viewers—something every brand is trying to do. We sat down with him to ask exactly how he understands Gen Z and their struggles, and what people like employers can do to make their transition into adulthood more seamless:   

YPulse: What are some of the biggest issues you see teens facing right now?  

Harlan Cohen: Well, I’m obsessed with rejection, which is really being obsessed with inclusion, because the opposite of being included is to be rejected. And I think that teenagers really want to feel that they are welcome and included and accepted. So, when I’m presenting to an audience and working with teenagers, my goal is to do everything I can to be the opposite of rejection. And they feel that. And I talk about rejection, too, because there’s something about [wanting] to create a place where they feel accepted and included and welcome and valued. But I think there’s also something really genuine about saying, “I’ve been rejected my entire life, and a lot of you are going to reject me now, like you don’t want to hear me, like, that’s perfect because that’s life and it’s normal.” So really pointing out the opposite of it, of rejection, but at the same time really making it comfortable and welcoming.  

YPulse: So with these struggles that Gen Z is facing, how do you think they’re dealing with that in the transition from school life into their careers?  

HC: I think they’re not doing well. I just did a video on transition, and transition is really difficult. And we don’t teach this in school. There really is no clear path anymore. And especially given COVID remote working and this entrepreneurial spirit that you see in the world, it’s “Do I work for someone else? Do I work for myself? Where do I live?” Here’s a great question: it’s “How do I make friends in college?” They’ll have orientation groups. They’ll have clubs, activities, and organizations. But once you leave college, you have to be the one to seek out your people and places and you have to be patient. And the idea of people, places, and patience, it’s really foundational to what I share and what I write about.  

A lot of Gen Z haven’t had to find friends [in real life]. They don’t know how to create community. They don’t know how to deal with rejection and adversity. And because of social media and this constant drip of “everyone’s having a better time than me,” it could become very easy to think there’s something wrong with you. But getting comfortable with the uncomfortable and understanding how to navigate change is something that they don’t know how to do, and they welcome it. They really do. And I think that’s why I’ve had so much success through my TikTok and through Instagram and doing live events. It’s because they really need help when it comes to just basic community building connection and getting comfortable with the uncomfortable. You know, we look at those statistics of hopelessness. Hope is tied in to having dreams and wanting. And so many Gen Z [are] afraid to because they are afraid of getting hurt or they don’t know how to get what they want. So, it becomes very hard to have hope when you continue to get hurt and don’t recognize that pain is part of the process. What I do is make it lighter and make it more fun and make rejection something that is going to teach us and help us and lead us, not hurt us and discourage us.  

YPulse: That being said, what do you think employers should know about this new generation coming into the workplace?  

HC: I think they should know that [Gen Z is] eager to find connection and community and the more [employers] can do to support that through regular events, through mentoring programs, through clubs and organizations within the community like community activism, community engagement, young professional groups, things that are highly encouraged, if not part of their first year training. So many members of Gen Z have social anxiety and I look at it through the lens of “What are colleges doing to really foster a sense of community and engagement?” And then, well, “How does that carry over into the corporate world?”  

YPulse: How do you think colleges are preparing Gen Z for their futures?  

HC: Well, I think they’re really good at solving problems that they’ve been able to work through in college. But when it comes to the social / emotional aspects, when it comes to communicating [and] advocating for themselves, so many new employees don’t know how to advocate. They’re afraid to not know the answers. This is where a mentoring program [or a] peer program [help to make them] feel comfortable and included and part of a community—especially if you have people who are working remote. And it could be as simple as whenever there’s a meeting where you have a lot of people together, they start off talking about, you know, they start off talking about one of the hobbies they love when they’re not working and if two or three people have similar interests, well, now they have a way to connect in a way they wouldn’t have before. But they just need help.  

YPulse: YPulse has seen that the value of higher education is being questioned a bit more post COVID-19 by Gen Z. Is this something that you’re also seeing in your work?  

HC: Yeah. I mean, you see it every day. The question of “should I go to college?” and “Why should I go to college?” And this is where as someone who’s guiding students, you know, I think if you’re an employer, not just to be involved with seniors, but be involved with freshmen, be part of classes, show up on campus, be willing to be a mentor, have a shadowing program, incorporate your expertise into their learning experience, and don’t wait for someone to contact you. [But also employers] don’t even need to start in the colleges, [they can] start in the high schools: have a shadow program where you have seniors in high school come to your office and spend a day and have them meet some of your 20-somethings who have gone through the process, who can tell them how to get where they want to go. One thing I’ve been doing is I work with employers and schools to highlight videos of alumni, to highlight videos of younger, newer employees. In those videos you have people who look more like the people who are going to be starting to work in their office, sharing their challenges, their struggles, their victories. And it creates a sense of community again and a sense of safety of “It’s okay if I don’t always get the answer right because I know I’m supported” and we create that connection as early in the process as possible. 

YPulse: In your experience, what are the best ways to resonate with young people on social media and engage with them? We saw that you went from 7K Instagram followers to 150K in four months and one of your best videos has some 20M views.  

HC: I think it’s respect. I treat them with respect, like their emotions are real, their needs are important and how they feel is something that needs to be understood and acknowledged. And they come from a world where their feelings matter. So, when I’m making a video, I’m acknowledging that you might be uncomfortable about this and be too afraid to tell anyone or you might be someone who comes from a family or a zip code where you haven’t been taught how to advocate for yourself, where authority is the end of the line. But if you have dreams, and if you have a passion and someone or something isn’t allowing you to get where you want to go, you have every right to respectfully communicate. But how do you respectfully communicate and advocate when you haven’t been taught or you’ve lived in a world that has communicated that your voice isn’t important? I’m like a middle-aged white dude. That’s who I am. And how could I connect with a teenager? It’s because I respect them, and we have rejection in common. But I have a little more life experience that I can share with them. And I also know I am no better than anybody else. I’m no more special. I just have more life experience and more insight based on all the people I’ve talked to over the years. And that’s it. I think they sense that.  

YPulse: How do you think brands can create content and connect with young consumers most effectively? 

HC: Really try to understand how what you do helps those who are using it, and not only how it helps, but while you’re doing the work to figure out how it helps, you can document that. Like the idea that you actually care enough to know how what you do helps and the impact it’s had. That’s the meat. I think so much of what happens behind the scenes stays behind the scenes so that we can create something that’s going to move people. But the things that you’re doing to learn and move people are the things that people want to see the most, that will help them to appreciate that you truly hear them and see them and care about them. Young people want to see ads, influencers, and models that look like them, that look different, that are inclusive. So, [brands] just have to listen to this new generation for sure. 

This article has been edited for clarity and length.   


Harlan Cohen 

Harlan Cohen is a New York Times best-selling author, journalist, and public speaker. His work focuses on getting “comfortable with the uncomfortable” and his most recent book, “WIN or LEARN: The Naked Truth About Turning Every Rejection Into Your Ultimate Success” highlights the importance of embracing rejections. Through his social media and writing, he aims to help anyone—but especially students—navigate the hard parts of life, like transitions between education levels and getting started in their career.