Generation Z, those born between 1997 and 2015, now outnumber Millennials and have become the single largest population segment in the United States.
We described a positive outlook for the coming generation a few months ago in Gen Z, the “Pivotal Generation” and their quest to change the world. We didn’t, however, really paint the whole picture. Or, at least, we didn’t address growing concerns about the state of the world; the world that the next generation, just now starting to enter the workforce, will be inheriting, and what/how they feel about it.
The article also did not address a recent study by the Lancet Child & Adolescent Health Journal that confirms suspicions about adolescence continuing past teenage years: The study found that 24 is now the average age of reaching “adulthood” and that typical teenage behaviors, and a resistance toward starting a career, buying a home, getting married, and other “adult” signifiers, will last until then.
And what do the current numbers say about this generation, (a generation that Nicole, 15, from Hastings calls a “discard pile of hooligans”), the oldest members of which are turning 20, that now makes up more than 25% of the United States population?
A child’s life at home
Home life plays a crucial role in upbringing. The most recent data, from 2016, illustrates persisting disparity between children raised in single-parent households and those raised in two-parent households (still overwhelmingly considered to be the most stable environment in which to raise a child).
Furthermore, the number of children raised without a father (257,641) dwarfs the number of children raised without a mother (98,309), and alone is nearly 1/3 of married couple family households.
The impact of this, on development, performance, and long term happiness, can vary. The results of a brookings.edu study showed that children raised without a father were at considerably higher risk for abuse, depression, and suicide.
As Will, 16, who spends his time in Mears Park when its warm enough, says, “My mom tried really hard. But she wasn’t home ever and she worked a lot and she was stressed.”
The rates of children raised in single-parent, and specifically fatherless, households running away were also considerably higher.
“So I left.”
And links directly to rates of youth homelessness. In Minnesota, there are (anywhere from) 3,500 to 6,000 homeless youth on the street any given night. And, according to mnhomeless.org:
“Nine out of 10 youth had experienced at least one adverse childhood experience, including trauma and abuse. More than half of youth (54%) had been physically or sexually abused, or neglected; 54 percent experienced an out-of-home placement; 61 percent lived with a substance abuser; 60 percent witnessed abuse; and 48 percent lived with a parent/guardian with mental illness.”
Youthlink, especially, has taken to the streets to combat homelessness in ages 16-23; those on the path from “homeless to hopeful” offering support for basic needs (food, shelter, shower) and health services, as well as help completing GEDs and finding employment.
“But you can’t always get in to those places,” Will says. “And you don’t always really want to.”
“It’s just more of the same.”
And homelessness is not the only issue facing teens in Minnesota (and the rest of the country) today: Suicide and depression have risen at alarming rates among youth in recent years, with fewer answers as to why.
One recent study, published by NPR, suggests that smartphone usage is to blame, i.e. a link was found between excessive smartphone usage and teenagers increasing susceptibility to depression, hopelessness, and suicide.
The keyword is excessive: Research found that teens who spend 5+ hours per day on phones are 71% more likely to have one risk factor for suicide (depression for example) no matter what they’re doing (chatting with friends, watching videos, scrolling through Instagram…) on them.
As Jean Twenge, one of the authors of the study, says, “It’s an excessive amount of time spent on the device. At two hours a day there was only a slightly elevated risk. And then three hours a day and beyond is where you saw the more pronounced increase in those who had at least one suicide risk factor.”
Social media, and the pressures thereof, which ultimately turn the whole world into a stage and a popularity contest, have long been a suggested cause for the increase in teenage depression.
A study of national trends in depression among adolescents and young adults, published in the journal Pediatrics, found that the prevalence of teens who reported an MDE (Major Depressive Episode) over the last 12 months rose from 8.7% in 2005 to 11.5% in 2014, a 37% increase.
It was also reported more than 30% of high school students reported prolonged (more than two weeks) feelings of hopelessness/sadness, and 9.1% of middle schoolers, and 8.4% of high schoolers, had actually attempted suicide.
But this seems to fall short of telling the whole story. To say simply that “the kids are using their cell phones too much” and leave it at that to explain this rapid increase probably misses the point: The idea of taking away smart phones, social media, and the other platforms that have actually allowed teens and preteens to connect in ways never before available, to find friend groups, like-minded individuals and support in other ways, is certainly not solely the answer alone.
“I found my friends that way,” Cesar, 15, tells us. “Playing [mobile app games] Ingress and Pokemon Go.”
“It’s how you find your people,” Will says. “Especially when you’re feeling kind of down or alone and want connection.”
But it is, at least, someplace to start. Twenge suggests that when “…you put that phone down, and you spend the rest of your time on things that are better for mental health and happiness, like sleeping, seeing friends and family face to face, getting out and exercising.”
Cesar shrugs. “Sure. We do other stuff together now too.”
Fix you (and the pressures that mount)
The issue is also being addressed in widespread pop culture, through Netflix’s successful 13 Reasons Why, for example:
And more directly, chillingly, and alarmingly in the still-recent video of the teen who committed suicide on YouTube, livestreaming the entire thing to horrified and fascinated viewers. The cultural milieu has embraced suicide as “a way out” of a stressful existence at increasingly younger ages.
Which does suggest an even stronger, though perhaps more abstract, connection between social media reach/connection/pressure than what was even studied.
(Though the Time magazine article Teen Depression and Anxiety: Why the Kids Are Not Alright also focuses strongly on social media’s role in teen depression. See also: Suicide Rates Climb In U.S., Especially Among Adolescent Girls)
“It’s not just social media,” Kat, 16, insists. “It’s hard to see your ex and stuff but that’s hard at school anyway. It’s just like normal now. When my friend Lena broke up with her boyfriend he said he was going to kill himself.”
“It’s everything, you know.” Cesar says. “Everything.”
The angst and anxiety of not only living in, but also forced to be the ones to take on, and ultimately try to fix, a seemingly and increasingly volatile world creates anxieties that didn’t really exist before – this level of accessibility and connection to world issues is unprecedented.
And what parents and grandparents are feeling certainly trickles down – the sentiments (xenophobia, fear mongering) that elected the current administration certainly paints a picture of an unstable world for those just beginning to understand it.
It’s also the more concrete truth that (traditional) jobs are disappearing, student debt is rising, and stable notion of “go to college/a job is waiting for you” is fast fading from reality: 65% of grade schoolers will have a job that doesn’t currently exist (according to Cathy M. Davidson) which can make the future seem less than clear.
“I know I have to go to school and get my grades up,” Cesar says. “I’ve been skipping school too much. But you have to hustle, you know, make your own way. That’s easier to figure out when you’re not stuck at school.”
And what about acceptance?
As was discussed in the TiltMN article Gender Blur, there has also been a much stronger push to do away with than in previous generations/less need for a focus on than in previous generations the need for binary gender, gender “norms” and normality, and labels in general. LGBTQIA acceptance has become the simple standard (increasingly) among generational peers.
“No gender is the new gender.”
Which is, in and of itself, a positive trend. But it’s also something of a double-edged sword, and doesn’t correlate with the statistics cited in the section directly above, or the underlying causes for those statistics that support the notion that, even if it has become easier to be non-binary, non-cisgendered, or simply gender fluid, among peers, it still hasn’t reached that point in the rest of society as a whole.
Creating a discord which can be even more confusing.
Pressures to conform haven’t diminished nearly enough to curb the rising rates of suicide, for example, especially among transgender youth, with 30% having attempting suicide, and 42% report engaging in self-harm (Science Daily); the pressures of fitting in while still standing out leading to increased anxiety, stress, depression, and suicidal thoughts.
As the Nat King Cole song from which this article took its name says:
If you were on my mind all night and day
Blame it on my youth
If I forgot to eat and sleep and pray
Blame it on my youth
If I cried a little bit
When first I learned the truth
Don’t blame it on my heart
Blame it on my youth
But, perhaps the lyric that should first be thought of in this case is a much simpler one: Whitney Houston’s “Children are the future” which will always remain true. Equally true is that it’s up to the generations currently in charge what type of world Generation Z, the Alpha Generation, and all subsequent generations, will inherit.
As Will says, scratching his head, “Yeah, it’s up to us to fix things. And figure out our own shit along the way.” He looks at the stream running through Mears Park and shrugs. “That’s cool.”