Generation Z was born between 1995 to 2015. The oldest of the cohort in the US were in kindergarten during the 9/11 incident of the World Trade Towers bombing in 2001. They have also grown up seeing the global recession of 2008, the election of the divisive Donald Trump in 2016, school shootings at Parkland in Florida in 2018, the Covid-19 pandemic, and finally, the economic crash of 2020.
Gen Z is also called the Founders (of a new society), the Plurals, iGen, and Homelanders. They’re digital natives who use the internet more than books, GPS rather than maps, Spotify rather than CDs, and Netflix rather than videos, and rent fancy dresses instead of buying them. Many students have been forced to practice virtual learning due to the pandemic of 2020. As they’ve been surrounded by unemployment and college students graduating with an average debt of over $35,000 in 2019, many are reluctant to take loans, work long hours, and work for themselves in the “freelance economy”.
As a diverse generation (almost half are people of colour) like the Gen Y, the Gen Z are comfortable with diversity (i.e. ethnicity, gender fluidity, LGBTQIA+) and use the word “intersectional” in their organising. They tend to be progressive and liberal in their political views, but older Americans are still more likely to turn out to vote even though the youth are very worried about climate change and the environment. Some of them think politics is corrupt and not worth taking the time to vote for. They volunteer at about the same rate as Gen Y, but with longer hours, according to Corey Seemiller.
In an international online survey of young people in 2019, the Future of Humanity Survey reported the top global issue was climate change (41%), followed by closely-related pollution (36%) and terrorism (31%). The survey included more than 10,000 youth aged betwen 18 to 25 years across 22 countries.
The report concluded with the youth realising that they live in a failed system. This generation lives in a world of widening inequalities, economic instability and austerity where a vast number of people have been left behind. The climate crisis, pollution, corruption and poor living standards are all windows on an alarming truth about how the powerful have exploited their power for selfish and often short-term gain.
Seemiller surveys and writes about the Gen Z — mainly college students, whom she characterises as loyal, thoughtful, passionate, open-minded and determined (Corey Seemiller and Meghan Grace: Generation Z Goes to College, 2016. Generation Z Leads, 2017. Generation Z: A Century in the Making, 2019. Generation Z Learns, 2019).
They are spiritual rather than affiliated with a religion. She reports that their parents have shifted from being protective helicopter parents, and more than any other generation, they look to their parents as role-models. They learn through an experiential, active demonstration of a skill and then practice it with feedback.
Unlike the Gen Y, they don’t prefer to work in groups, but they like “social learning” such as studying next to each other in libraries or coffee shops. They like honest feedback from their parents, employers, coaches, etc. in contrast to the Gen Y who mainly want positive feedback. They’re more interested in being happy and making a difference in their work than making a lot of money. Relationships are important to them and nearly half intend to start their own business. They seek passion and meaning in their work; almost 40% would like to invent something to help change the world. In my interviews with global Gen Z female climate activists, many of them described themselves as passionate.
Many of them are addicted to their smartphones and some suffer anxiety if their phone isn’t nearby. The average teen spends more than seven hours a day on screen for entertainment. The average Gen Z in Seemiller’s surveys has 8.7 social media accounts. They get a lot of their news from Twitter and YouTube. They can suffer from information overload and sometimes misinformation. This may be part of the reason why Seemiller found 83% prefer face-to-face communication, followed by texting (60%), even though they tend not to be good communicators.
She found they may not even know how to flirt or banter, but she says the biggest legacy of Gen Z is their belief in unconditional love. The University of Michigan Monitoring future researchers discovered that girls are spending less time with friends, exercising and in nature because of their time spent on social media, which contributes to loneliness and increasing rates of feeling bored.
Anxiety and depression rates are high due to high stress and loneliness. However, they’re more likely to report mental health problems than any of their earlier generations. A 2019 Pew Research Center found that 36% of girls reported being extremely anxious daily. Michael Gurian observes that girls have “an intimacy imperative” that values relationships and social media, rewires the youths’ brains.
He adds that in 2011, nearly 31% of first-year college women had an overwhelming anxiety attack in their first year, and this increased to 62% in 2016. An icon of depression amoug the youth is award-winning teen singer Billie Eilish, who said she wants to be “the voice of the people” and says she loves freaking people out. She too is uncomfortable with her body, wearing large baggy clothes. In one of her music videos, she’s tormented with cigarette butts and in another, she’s poked with syringes, which apparently helps her deal with depression.
Professor Jean Twenge blames smartphones as one explanation for the increase in major depression among teens since 2010 — especially for girls. Their rate of having Major Depression increased from 12% in 2011 to 20% in 2017 and their suicide rate doubled since 2007. Based on three surveys of more than 200,000 teens in the US and UK, Twenge found that girls spend more time on social media and boys spend more time on games.
In case of both girls and boys, teens who spend more time on digital media are more likely to be depressed and unhappy, especially in case of girls — and social media is designed to be addictive. Social media creates hierarchy, Twenge says, based on the number of likes and followers. This leads to comparing yourself to others, which can be depressing, worrying about appearance. Many of the girls I interviewed for the climate activism book told me they have body image worries because of social media.
A study on the Gen Z reported that some of them are turning away from social media. The survey of over 1,000 young people aged betwee 18 to 24 years in 2017 reported that 91% use social media and 51% say they use social media almost constantly. The most popular social media platforms are Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook.
The problem is that 68% report that social media has sometimes (48%) or often (20%) made them feel anxious, sad, or depressed and 29% said it has hurt their self-esteem or made them feel insecure. At the same time, 61% said it had a positive impact on their self-confidence. Over half (58%) wanted to take a temporary break from social media. Certain cited reasons were that it wastes too much time (41%), too much negativity (35%), too much pressure to get attention (18%), or it made them feel bad about themselves (17%).
However, my conversations with teens indicate they’re anxious about a lot more than the social media likes or photos. High school students are working as well as trying to get good grades to get into a good college, do sports and other school activities, maintain friendships and family responsibilities.
Homework keeps them up late, which contributes to depression. College students worry about how to finance their education and pay off student loans. A YouTube influencer is followed by a 15-year-old girl because she talks about “how it’s harder being a girl than a guy, how we feel more pain”. (Claire Balleys, et al, “Searching for Oneself on YouTube: Teenage Peer Socialization and Social Recognition Processes,” Social Media and Society, April 2020) The Gen Z girls I’ve interviewed are very well-informed, articulate and devoted to making a difference. They are unapologetic feminists.
The author is writing a book on global Gen-Z young women climate activists, a follow-up of “Brave: Young Women’s Global Revolution.” In order to gain insights into Indian Gen Z, comments are welcome.
Note: The article was originally published here.
Featured image is representative.