Gen Z: Who they are and how they will change the world

Look out, world—Gen Z is here.

Gen Z, or Generation Z, is the current teenage generation. They are the most ethnically diverse generation, the first to have little or no memory of a world without the Internet, and the generation that is already making their mark on the world.

They may be criticized as being glued to their phones, but they are using these same phones to make changes across the globe. They call for environmental action, racial equality, and mental health awareness.

There is so much to learn about these youngsters, especially as they are already emerging out of college and into the workforce.

Every generation must think several steps ahead of their previous generations. That’s the way to progress and that’s the way to become more and more civilized human beings.

Abhijit Naskar, author and neuroscientist
three gen z girls wearing white tops and baggy jeans
A sample of Gen Z’s fashion style. [Photo credit: Business Insider]

Understanding Gen Z

But in order to understand Gen Z, it is crucial to understand the other generations, as well.

Of course, the generations are not entirely separate units. Millennials born closer toward those of Generation Z will likely be familiar with aspects of both generations, although their birth year defines them as a millennial. The generations are not rigid categories, but generic groupings.

The five largest current generations are, from oldest to youngest, Baby Boomers, Generation X, Millennials (or Generation Y), Generation Z, and the rising generation, Generation Alpha. Each generation is distinguished by different norms, which vary as time progresses.

Baby Boomers (1946-64)Baby boomers are born post-World War II and were-up until recently– the most populated generation due to a population spike after the war (a population “boom”). They believe in the American dream, focus on hard work, are unused to modern technology, and love the traditional.
Generation X (1965-80)Generation X, usually called Gen X for short, are the parents of Generation Z. They are resourceful, put emphasis on the work-life balance, and value responsibility. As they somewhat grew up in the new age of computers, they accept technology (although not all are experts at it yet).
Millennials (1981-95)Millennials are on the younger end of the adult spectrum, ranging from fresh out of college to grazing their early forties. They value change, diversity, and financial safety. Many are currently tackling owning a house, student loans, and more, as the economy inflates. They set the foundations for Generation Z.
Generation Z (1996-2012)Generation Z is referred to as Gen Z. They are the current teenagers, with the oldest of the group in college. They are the first generation to grow up in a world with the Internet. They are tech-savvy, the most racially and ethnically diverse, passionate in their activism, financially- concerned, and focused on mental health. Social media is a keystone to their generation.
Generation Alpha (2013-…) is not included as not much is known about them yet, as they are so young.

Each generation’s values, behavior, and even sense of humor are shaped by the world timeline, as well as the ways in which they are raised by the above generation. Typically, each generation is not radically different from the generation above it, but over two or three generations, the beliefs can differ greatly. This is the generation gap: the difference that stands between generations in beliefs and values.

Gen Z finds itself at the bottom of the generation rung, distinguished from the other generations by its radical beliefs. Gen Z has made waves to stand out, whether it’s the ripped jeans style, their calls for equality, caring for the environment, or their regular use of cell phones.

boomers versus gen z on ripped jeans and the environment ozone
[Photo credit: BoredPanda]

Gen Z has taken what they see as good from the older generations and incorporated that into their own behavior, all while adding their own personality.

Gen Z members also tend to be more defensive about their beliefs, but not stubborn. They are the most accepting generation yet when it comes to diversity. Their personal identity means a lot to them, as well as customization and individuality.

Gen Z’s background

Gen Z is the first to never know a world without access to technology. They grew up with online games and Disney Channel; now, they’re on social media platforms like Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok. They binge Netflix. They listen to Spotify.

Because their world is full of technology, Gen Z is tech-savvy and well-versed on how to behave online. Most Gen Z-ers obtained their first phones around middle school and high school age.

Gen Z is also financially concerned, due to the fact that most Gen Z-ers were children when the 2008 Great Recession hit. While their parents struggled in the recession, Gen Z took notes. Now more and more of Gen Z is becoming of age, opening their own bank accounts and funds.

Times of political unrest have also affected this generation. Gen Z is concerned about being politically informed, especially as a large percent of the generation has reached voting age. In the next presidential election, the younger generations will approximately equal the number of voters in the older generations.

Humor and slang

Gen Z’s sense of humor is increasingly different from other generations’ sense of humor. A lot of their humor is founded on memes. According to the Oxford Dictionary, a meme is “a humorous image, video, piece of text, etc., that is copied and spread rapidly by Internet users”.

Maybe on your high school’s field trip bus you threw spitballs at each other. Well, war has changed. Instead of spitballs, Gen Z has instead taken to AirDropping memes to the entire bus.

Daenery Smith, CHS student

Because of their increased access to the Internet, Gen Z finds themselves swamped in negative news stories about school shootings, declining mental health, the degrading environment, and discrimination. This leads to a collective attitude toward the real world, and out of this, a sense of humor based on absurdity is born.

Gen Z is able to laugh off extremely horrifying or traumatizing real-world goings-on because we realize in the end, there’s truly no other alternative.

Natalie Gabor, Study Breaks blog

Gen Z uses humor to make light despite downhill real-world issues. Absurdity humor also finds a way to be funny without being offensive.

However, Gen Z’s absurdity humor is a different branch from surreal humor. Absurdity humor has managed to confuse the other generations, which is a plus to Gen Z, as it makes absurdity humor exclusive to Gen Z. But if you were to ask a Gen Z member why a meme is funny, they are unlikely able to explain. Why is absurdity humor so funny? It just is.

boomer humor, gen x humor, millennial humor and gen z humor
Samples from each type of humor. [Photo credit: Shut Up and Take My Money]

Gen Z also has a wide range of slang, which is predominantly developed through the social media app TikTok. There is a lot of stereotyping about Gen Z slang, expecting it to be mostly shortened language as it is through texting. However, this is incorrect.

No one uses numbers to replace words when texting. (Ex: B4 instead of before, 2 instead of to, etc.) This isn’t a thing, no matter how much everyone outside of Gen Z thinks it is. Being honest, it’s because on a digital keyboard, you have to press a different button to get to the numbers. It’s faster to just type out the whole word.

Some examples of Gen Z slang include “glow up,” “dank,” “stan,” “swag,” “woke,” “tea,” “hits different,” “in my head rent-free,” “sus,” “pog,” “cap,” and “basic.”

The mental health crisis

Mental health awareness is crucial to Generation Z, especially because so many Gen Z members are impacted by it. The American Psychological Association reported that 91% of Gen Z members have felt at least one physical or emotional symptom of anxiety or depression.

Some common stressors to Gen Z-ers include: the pandemic, school shootings, doing well in school, pressure from family and adults, financial instability, politics, immigration, sexual harassment, bullying and climate change. They are also proven to be more concerned about current news events compared to any other generation.

american psychological association chart showing mental health rates and causes from gen z compared to other generations
Gen Z is the least likely generation to report positive mental health. They also report “stress related to national news” more than any other generation. [Photo credit: American Psychological Association]

Technology and, more dominantly, social media have a hand in the mental health crisis, as well. The use of social media can cause teens to stress about their body image, exclusion, and negative current events.

Grow­ing up in a hyper-con­nect­ed world can evoke intense feel­ings of iso­la­tion and lone­li­ness in some youth. It can also fuel a steady drum­beat of neg­a­tive news sto­ries, a fear of miss­ing out, and shame in falling short of a social media-wor­thy standard.

Annie E. Casey Foundation

However, social media is not the main cause, and certainly not the only cause. Mental illness is unique to each patient. Not every teen with a mental illness has a mental illness because of their phone or social media.

Instead, social media is a way Gen Z members speak out and spread awareness. Gen Z has taken the first steps to overcoming a mental health crisis: recognizing the crisis for what it is.


A call for change

If you look at the headlines for Gen Z, you see them stereotyped as lazy, as being on the screen too much, and as antisocial.

But if you look deeper into Gen Z, you see this is not true.

Their lives are one foot in the real world, one foot in the online one. They grew up with the first Black president and are pushing to correct systematic racism. Mass school shootings have wrecked their world, and so they began to speak out online. They are on their way to becoming the most educated generation. They are fighting to help with the environment. Collectively, they are fighting mental illnesses.

I’d like to propose that alternative, positive perspective about Gen Z: from what I’ve observed, I suspect these latest young people are going to have – are already having – a profound positive impact on the world.

Erika Anderson, Forbes

Gen Z uses the online world not only for entertainment, but also to speak out on current world issues. Because of their knowledge of the online world, they are powerful allies in the workforce. In the span of one generation, an entire online culture has been built complete with expected social behavior and slang.

What we learned from them is similar to what I think every generation would tell you if you actually went out and talked to them in their youth, rather than reading about them online. They’re not all the same. 

…you may believe that they’re obsessed with social media but we talked to several members of the generation who said they had taken a break or ABANDONED it for their own mental health.

Abby Hamblin, Viewpoint PLNU
Members of Gen Z gather to peacefully protest for environmental action. [Photo credit: EJ Insight]

As more and more Gen Z members emerge out of their teenage years, the world will begin to change more and more. Their online presence is powerful, as well as their behavior and beliefs.

Maybe this generation isn’t as hopeless as we think.

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