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Is Gen Z Really So Different?

(Drew A. Kelley)

Coming of age in the 1990s, the state of the world seemed every bit as dire to me as it does to many ‘Zoomers.'”

We often hear about Gen Z being oh-so different from previous generations of young people. But, barring differences in attitude, behavior, and mental health linked to social media, folks born after 1997 share more in common with their predecessors than we may think. 

Coming of age in the 1990s, the state of the world seemed every bit as dire to me as it does to many “Zoomers.” The news abounded with humanitarian and environmental disasters, and, much like today, doomsayers ignored the enormous human progress that had already been achieved. On what principle is it,” wondered 19th century historian Thomas Babington Macaulay, “that with nothing but improvement behind us, we are to expect nothing but deterioration before us?” 

The popular culture of the time reflected this bleak outlook. Singing about anxiety, depression, and suicide, Nirvana, arguably the most influential rock band of the 1990s, quickly gained a huge global following. Although Nirvana’s success was unprecedented, the group’s lyrical subject matter was not. Groups like Joy Division, The Smiths, and a slew of underground punk bands had addressed similar issues in the 1970s and 1980s. 

Today, it is Gen Z megastar Billie Eilish whose dark, melancholy songs resonate with millions of adolescent fans. “I feel the dark things,” says Eilish. “I feel them very strongly. Why would I not talk about them?”

“There is a lot to be depressed about right now,” argues Eilish’s mother, Maggie Baird. “It’s a horrible time to be a teenager.” However, by historical standards, today’s youth are exceptionally sheltered and privileged. “And yet, misery abounds,” reports independent writer Freya India at Quillette, herself a member of Gen Z. “In the United States,” she continues:

“54 percent of Gen Z report anxiety and nervousness, according to researchers at the American Psychological Association. This is compared with only 40 percent of millennials and a national average of 34 percent. It isn’t just a case of self-report bias either, since the suicide rate for Americans aged between 15 and 24 has risen by over 51 percent in the last decade. For Gen Z women in particular, suicide rates have risen a staggering 87 percent since 2007. In my home country of the UK, one in four girls is clinically depressed by the time they are 14.”

What explains this troubling trend? Social media use has been linked to poor mental health in young people, especially in teenage girls. But India offers a different explanation. “My Generation Isn’t Suffering Enough,” reads the title of her article. “For the first time in history,” she elaborates, “much of our misery stems not from too much suffering, but from not suffering enough.” 

Lack of suffering can certainly have an adverse effect on human development. We find meaning and purpose in overcoming adversity, and we grow with the challenges we face in life. It is not at all clear, though, that Millennials and Gen X suffered more than Gen Z. 

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There does, however, appear to be a relation between relative privilege and a sentiment known as Weltschmerz. The online encyclopedia Britannica defines Weltschmerz as, “the prevailing mood of melancholy and pessimism associated with the poets of the Romantic era that arose from their refusal or inability to adjust to those realities of the world that they saw as destructive of their right to subjectivity and personal freedom.” These poets tended to be young men of privilege. 

For centuries, these kinds of feelings—caused by comparison of the actual (or perceived) state of the world with an ideal state—have been expressed through art, which can provide catharsis and a sense of reconciliation with life. However, in recent years, they have increasingly spilled over into the real world, where they are much more difficult to mitigate. 

Social media culture has been instrumental in this development. Gen Z’s Weltschmerz is constantly reinforced by algorithms designed to keep eyes glued to the screen. Members of this generation are told that society is to blame for their malaise, and that they are, therefore, entitled to be protected from further emotional discomfort. And thanks to social media, they have tremendous leverage. 

A single young person who takes offense at a perceived transgression can set off a social media firestorm with cascading consequences. To appease such people, businesses, institutions, and organizations are increasingly pandering to their demands, often preemptively. Indeed, “woke” companies specifically target this clientele, trying to appear virtuous and progressive in the eyes of a hypersensitive generation. 

Such pandering, however, only adds to the problem. In order to succeed in their quest for meaning and identity, young people must learn to cope with discomfort and disagreement. They need to develop resilience, a sense of perspective, and an understanding that, when it comes to navigating reality, subjectivity and emotion are no match for objectivity and reason. 

What they do not need is supposed adults pandering to their every whim in a society increasingly preoccupied with “lived experience” (while depriving them of meaningful life experiences) and hurt sensibilities. It is this lack of opposition and pushback from the adult world that is perhaps most unusual about Gen Z.

Gerfried Ambrosch is an author and writer and holds a Ph.D. in literary and cultural studies. He can be found on Twitter @g_ambrosch

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