How We've Failed Gen Z and What We Can Do About It
From the rise of technology to the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, Generation Z, the group born between 1997 and 2012, has come of age in a world of constant upheaval, one that is more connected yet increasingly fragmented. Gen Z experiences increased stress and anxiety than previous generations due to a confluence of factors, including the fast-paced and uncertain nature of modern life, the pressures of social media, and the constant exposure to a 24/7 news cycle that bombards them with doom and gloom.
Additionally, this generation faces tougher challenges such as rising tuition costs, a highly competitive job market, and the looming threat of climate change, which can feel devastating and insurmountable at times. All of these factors have contributed to a mental health crisis among Gen Z, with many experiencing high levels of stress, anxiety, and depression as early as middle school. Despite being the most educated and diverse generation in history, we've failed to cultivate their wellbeing and knowledge in a number of ways.
#1) How we failed Gen Z through lack of innovation in the education system. The school system is not built for the digital era, and children are getting very little out of school aside from organizational skills and a way to occupy their time. While the internet has made information more accessible than ever before, the school curriculum has failed to keep up with these changes. Many students feel that they are learning outdated information that has little relevance to their lives. As a result, they may become disengaged from the learning process, leading to lower levels of academic achievement and a lack of motivation. Not only is the content outdated but so is the structure. With the transition back and forth from distance learning, Gen Z have an extraordinarily different expectation of schooling, from how it's paced to the role of teachers. We currently have a patchwork quilt of educational options with a limited range of accommodations for all types of learners. Even private schooling has failed to engage kids, and much of this is due to the pressure to meet A-G requirements for higher education that no longer prepares students appropriately for the modern world.
#2) How we failed Gen Z with lack of access to quality mental health support. Gen Z understands so much more about mental health that adults are completely naive about. While previous generations may have been timid to discuss their mental health openly, Gen Z shares constantly and through any possible platform. TikTok became the de facto education outlet at the onset of the pandemic, and we are just barely grasping what this massive dissemination of mental health education means for the future of the field. Though democratizing mental health information can advance equity, it can also be overwhelming when consumed in quantity without specification of unique individual needs. Many young people may struggle to distinguish between wise and misguided mental health advice, leading to confusion about how to apply it. Additionally, the lack of access to quality mental healthcare persists, making it difficult for young people to obtain personalized help when they need it.
#3) How we failed Gen Z by reneging on our commitment to the better future we promised. Watching society unfold online can be as daunting as it is telling about what we really care about. Seeing how adults navigate multiple sectors of public life (politics, religion, education, and business) would leave anyone feeling hopeless. Interestingly, many youth escape to social media platforms for a more optimistic future - one where we are unified by trends, hashtags, art, humor and curiosity about one another. TikTok's unique way of creating shared culture through surprisingly simplistic content has become the digital native's "third place" in the era of dying institutions. And because they've facilitated this space for themselves online, the physical environments adults continually regenerate seem trivial at best. Most of us are relieved to receive very slim improvements to our quality of life such as remote working options, time off, and the illusion of disposable income. We've failed to imagine something enticing enough to both motivate Gen Z and ourselves toward a better future.
It is essential to recognize the challenges faced by Generation Z and take action to address them. Let's commit their quality of life in a way that may inspire our own. Here are some steps we can take to support the well-being and success of this generation:
Get involved with school boards: Instead of putting pressure on teachers to endlessly adapt their curriculum (and accelerate their burnout), it is important to get more involved with school boards. We need to voice our concerns more directly to the decision-makers. Understanding that when the entire system improves, our children will grow up in a better world. We can attend board meetings, advocate for policy changes, and vote for school board candidates who prioritize the needs of this generation of students.
Educate yourself about mental health: It is crucial to educate ourselves about how mental health is talked about among young people. Encourage kids to get into therapy so they can experience it themselves rather than apply concepts online that they may not understand completely. Increase their access to quality care by advocating for policies that prioritize mental health services for young people in schools, healthcare, and the community.
Embrace Gen Z culture: Social media is a powerful tool for communication and connection, and when navigated well, it can be a source of optimism and inspiration for young people. We need to both learn from Gen Z how they engage the online world and offer our wisdom so they can make informed decisions about what they consume. Focus on how social media cultivates trust and understanding, and that critical thinking still applies. Rather than be threatened by how youth express themselves authentically online, embrace that they may know something about social connectedness that we may be underdeveloped in our own lives.
It's time for us to shift our focus to the future of our children and recognize that they need our support more than ever. It can be easy to feel overwhelmed by the challenges we face in the present, but we must remember that our actions today will shape the world our children inherit tomorrow. By expecting that the changes we want can be realized, recognizing our political power to make those changes, and remembering our own experiences of navigating social crises, we can commit to a brighter future for all. Let's work together to provide our children with the tools they need to succeed and build a world that is more just, equitable, and sustainable for generations to come.