Media coverage of Generation Z veers wildly from “they’re gonna save the world” to “they’re ruining music festivals.” Side note: Remember music festivals? Honestly, as a millennial, it’s just nice to see wild headlines accusing some other generation of killing something for a change. But Gen Z defies easy stereotypes. Read on to find out about the drive, loneliness and optimism that characterize this generation — and how this year may have changed them permanently.
So much for carefree youth. An American Psychological Association study conducted in August found that Gen Z is the generation most stressed and depressed by the pandemic, owing to the inability to plan ahead with certainty. But even before 2020, Gen Z was the loneliness generation: A survey of Americans released in January found that 8 in 10 Gen Zers reported being lonely compared to 7 in 10 millennials and only half of boomers. The pandemic has also upped their digital diets on average, a trend that could continue even after health protocols are lifted and, some worry, permanently affect their communication skills.
2. Hanging Up on Hookups
Though sex-mad teens have been a staple stereotype since teenagers were invented, they’re getting markedly less so, according to surveys. In fact, the proportion of high schoolers who’d had sex dropped by a third between 1991 and 2019, with just 38 percent of teens now saying they’ve done it. While that could herald a lack of intimate relationships for young people, it could also just be a rejection of shallow hookup culture and a focus on personal safety and protection, say some experts. And hey, the teen birth rate is at a record low. One note: Even if teens aren’t having sex, they’re certainly thinking about sex and gender in new ways, with pan- and bisexuality on the rise in this generation.
Social media has been a lifeline for people of all ages during the pandemic, as in-person meeting is often unsafe. But doomscrolling is bad for the soul too: A survey of Gen Zers across the Asia Pacific region found that nearly a quarter said social media has helped their mental health during the crisis, connecting them to family and friends and offering something to alleviate the boredom of lockdown … but a third said it actually made things worse.
4. School Daze
As a whole, Gen Z is far less likely to work before going to college than past generations were — with just 18 percent of 15-to-17-year-olds employed in 2018 compared to 27 percent in 2002. That’s a sign that they’re particularly focused on education … and that poorly paid burger-flipping jobs teens got in decades past are now going to adults instead. Still, that education focus has also been upended by COVID-19, with a recent survey of students showing 4 in 10 think the pandemic might affect their ability to graduate on time. For some, it’s also changed their outlook on what to study: About 30 percent say COVID-19 has made them change their planned career path, and another 20 percent are still unsure.
Still, Gen Zers who’ve begun their careers in earnest are showing a surprising enthusiasm for some aspects of office life. In fact, they’re the generation most eager to stop remote working and return to the office. More than 4 in 10 would rather work in person than stay remote. Some attribute that to youthful exuberance: Work is still a novelty and a social scene for the very young, meaning the office environment’s positives far outweigh the commute negatives. Furthermore, they’re most likely to be living in tiny spaces (or worse, with their parents) and long for their spacious cubicles.
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As the U.S. presidential election draws to a close, OZY is partnering with Danai Gurira, Stephen Daldry, Lynn Nottage and dozens more members of the theater community who are presenting Act Out: Vote 2020, a special hourlong video event featuring monologues, songs and other dramatic performances to encourage audiences to vote. The special will be available to stream TONIGHT at 9 p.m. ET. Subscribe here so you don’t miss the premiere — and stay tuned for Friday’s special episode of The Carlos Watson Show featuring Gurira and Heidi Schreck talking about the project.
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Practically raised on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat, Gen Z activists are using these tools as naturally as past decades of revolutionaries took to manifestos or public speaking. From Syria to Florida, teens are exposing the crises they’re living through in real time via social platforms — and some even hearken back to early activist forms like ’60s-style “culture jamming,” but with the twist that now they’re using TikTok to do it. And that doesn’t mean they’re abandoning traditional ways of impacting the political process: 81 percent of college students in a recent survey said they were registered to vote, even though 17 percent said their ability to do so has been impacted by COVID-19. And 94 percent of those registered or planning to register said they’d be showing up to cast a ballot in this year’s election.
2. Be a Boss
Since the days of Mozart, we’ve all been obsessed with prodigies. But Gen Z is marching ahead with the idea that you don’t need to wait for that MBA (or even a high school diploma) to start your own business, spawning a generation of teen entrepreneurs with their own startups and Etsy stores. A survey of Gen Zers in 2016 found that 42 percent say they dream of having their own business, far higher than any other generation surveyed. And maybe 2020 will be the year they find the space to make those dreams a reality: In another recent study, the proportion of Gen Z saying they were stressed all the time dropped 8 percentage points during lockdown.
Across the globe, 12 million underage girls are married every year — and in Pakistan, nearly 1 in 5 women are married before the age of 18. Eighteen-year-old Hadiqa Bashir is trying to change that: She dissuaded her family from forcing her into marriage at the age of 11, and now she goes door to door in Pakistan, talking parents out of pushing their daughters into marriage and helping them see other options.
Like many Black Americans, Coreco Ja’Quan Pearson, aka C.J., grew up in a family of Democrats. But from the age of 12, Pearson has been outspokenly involved in conservative politics, chairing youth outreach for Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign when he was barely old enough to have his own Instagram account. Now a die-hard Trump supporter, the 18-year-old Pearson continues to question whether Democratic candidates take Black voters for granted — and what his community gets out of the deal.
Galvanized by the killing of George Floyd, Missouri student Jalen Thompson — then just 17 — organized a protest for justice in his tiny town of O’Fallon, Missouri. And he got 2,000 people (more than 2 percent of the community) to come to it, working with the police to make sure the event went off peacefully and, he hopes, to spread a message that the time to talk honestly about racial inequality has come.
Part of Mexico’s indigenous Otomi-Toltec community, 18-year-old Xiye Bastida is now a leading climate activist who has spoken at the United Nations and organized massive strikes and training programs for fellow youth activists. Like her contemporary Greta Thunberg, Bastida is determined to salvage the planet for her generation (and those who come after them), helping to infuse her movement with optimism even as protest actions like strikes are forced to go digital amid the pandemic.