Gen Zers, also called postmillennials, Zoomers, or iGen-ers, are the first generation never to know the world without the internet. The oldest Gen Zers, now in their mid-20s, were born around the time the World Wide Web made its public debut in 1995. They are therefore the first cohort to have grown up only knowing the world with the endless information and infinite connectivity of the digital age. So who are they and how do they think?
All four of us work at universities, and over a conversation one afternoon we found ourselves sharing anecdotes about our experiences of postmillennial students. We had all noticed that, in recent years, incoming students were strikingly different from those from a few years before. They had a new vocabulary for talking about their identities and their places of belonging; they were hardworking but also placed an emphasis on their wellbeing and self-care, and they engaged in activism in a distinctively non-hierarchical, collaborative manner. By the end of that conversation, curious about the distinctly different ways in which postmillennials express themselves, we decided to engage in our own collaborative work. We would use the combined methods of our fields of anthropology, linguistics, history, sociology and religious studies to devise a study that would collect data, establish facts and shed light on the broader historical context to understand better just what was going on with “kids these days.”
We then immersed ourselves in the worlds of 18- to 25-year-olds through interviews and surveys in both the US and UK. We also, with the help of machine learning, created a 70m-word collection of the language used by Gen Z.
We looked at the distinctive ways of being, values and worldviews that are shared by many Gen Zers, exploring who they are and how they go about their daily lives. Gen Zers encounter the world in a radically different way from those who know what life was like before the internet. They have had to navigate the new digital world largely without the guidance of their elders, and this has led to distinctive behaviours—though ones increasingly adopted by others, a trend that was accelerated during the Covid-19 pandemic, when so many more aspects of everyone’s lives went online.
The experience of Gen Zers is often paradoxical, even contradictory. They have more “voice” than ever before (a meme or a YouTube or TikTok video can reach millions), but they also have a sense of diminished agency “in real life” (institutions and political and economic systems seem locked, inaccessible to them, and wrongheaded). They are often optimistic about their own generation but deeply pessimistic about the problems they have inherited: climate change, police violence, racial and gender injustice, failures of the political system, the fact they have little chance of owning a home or doing better than their parents. Gen Zers navigate these paradoxes using the new—usually digital—tools that they have at hand. We have tried to observe their methods of addressing those problems and to listen with critical respect to their solutions.
We asked how Gen Zers have gone beyond navigating this new world to harnessing it to achieve a workable coherence of beliefs and values, identity and belonging. We explored the values they have forged to guide them in this new and uncharted territory, and how important those values are to maintaining the stability and security they seek. We investigated their preferences for new ways of acting when authority has seemingly become dispensable and the distinction between offline and online has become obscured. And we discussed the tensions and pressures that Gen Zers are experiencing as they move through this world in transition, along with their hopes and fears about the future.
For those of you (older) readers who are puzzled by postmillennials, our goal was neither to pathologise nor to idealise Gen Zers but rather to understand them on their own terms.
Technology is woven tightly into the lives of postmillennials. This should not surprise us: the oldest Gen Zers were born around the time the first browsers hit the global marketplace and the world began to explode with something called “websites.” New online platforms started to appear—Amazon sold its first book online in 1995—and digital devices began to proliferate.
For postmillennials, there was no life before this powerful, fast, connecting technology: indeed, as one interviewee, Malia, put it: “I wouldn’t want to live without it.” They have used software tools since they were very young to read, write, create, compete, understand, organise, interact, process and interrogate—in other words, to be directly or indirectly in touch with others.
Digital technologies have been instrumental in a push towards collaborative activity. Many postmillennials have been exposed from an early age to software and websites that promote joint efforts. They became accustomed to using GroupMe, Facebook Messenger and Skype to create documents jointly, engage in group chats and share calendars, and they became familiar with “crowdsourcing,” “crowdfunding,” and other communal action through prominent websites like Change.org, Wikipedia and Amazon Mechanical Turk. Offline, digitally enabled ridesharing, couch surfing and community organising have reinforced the idea of sharing.
As technology has evolved, so have other associated social codes and behaviours. Given that text-based communication lacks many of the cues we are accustomed to in face-to-face conversations, like tone and body language, Gen Zers have adapted, perfecting typographical tones of voice. One interviewee, Elijah, boasted: “I can express myself way better—even tonally—through text.” Mindful that their messages can easily be perceived as sarcastic, rude or confrontational, postmillennials have devised strategies that avoid “shouty” caps, commas and full stops.
“Postmillenials will have to deal with the ramifications of climate change, police violence, racial and gender injustice and frightening new technologies”
This can make the intergenerational differences all the more glaring, as any parent of a Gen Zer has learned when trying to text “okay” to their child. Should the communication be okay, ok, K, kk, k, or something else? To a postmillennial, these five responses have come to communicate drastically different messages.
Rapidly advancing digital technologies will continue to drive even more change and influence daily life. A kindergarten teacher in California, who has been teaching for 20 years, reported to us that she had recently noticed a difference in how her five-year-old pupils speak to her—curtly, directly, devoid of respect, courtesy or politeness. She believed this change had occurred because they now see her as a “human Alexa”—an information provider akin to Amazon’s digital assistant.
Gen Zers understand both the potential and the downsides of technology; it would be surprising if they did not, given that they are necessarily engaged with it in every aspect of their lives. They are coming of age when techno-optimism is turning into techno-scepticism, as society is reeling from data breaches and evidence of deceptive practices and “surveillance capitalism” by technologists—and as we have come to realise that artificial intelligence could be seriously disruptive to human society. They are aware of bot-enabled blackmailing, hacking and fake news; potential spying by home devices; and how facial recognition can be used for racial profiling. Deepfake technology, for example, may allow a video to be dubbed or edited without the need for a retake, but it may also be used during class to superimpose a teacher’s face onto a pornographic video.
While the internet brings access to a vast resource of information, contacts, networks, connections and the possibility of more voice and agency, it also brings vulnerability. Journalist Nicholas Carr writes in his book The Shallows that “with the exception of alphabets and number systems, the Net may well be the single most powerful mind-altering technology that has ever come into general use.” The Gen Zers in our study were especially aware of these paradoxes and challenges.
Identities forged in this digital age are intricate mixes of attributes. The search for and articulation of a finely grained identity was reflected over and over in our interviews with students.
Identity for postmillennials is largely the result of a moral process of personal discovery, potentially offering an inner stability that in the past might have come from family or workplace—institutions that they often regard with scepticism. Gen Zers hold on to and even cherish some of their inherited identity markers, while others are rejected: this process of selection and rejection reflects a critical interrogation of the labels that have been ascribed to them by family or society. Casper ter Kuile, a theologian and author of books on spirituality, describes this process as “unbundling and remixing.” Unbundling means that we separate out the different elements from a whole collection of offerings; we then remix some or all of them to suit ourselves—to make them entirely personalised and fully authentic. Postmillennial identities encompass a specific set of attributes that are subject to change as the discovery process continues, enabling greater and greater precision.
The internet especially facilitates the continued refining of identities. Some of these minutely defined identities start as “interest groups,” but as the groups then take on shared vocabularies, in-jokes, memes, heroes and behavioural expectations, they become a shared identity and, often, a shared culture. We see this in both offline and online clubs, as any review of social media will reveal. There are millions of subgroups found on Facebook, Reddit and Tumblr.
Consider one example, the self-identified “Numtots”: over 200,000 people who found their way to, and then became identified with, a Facebook group called “New Urbanist Memes for Transit-Oriented Teens.” One of our interviewees explains: “It’s one of the most niche things I could imagine. It’s just about urbanism and transit. But because it’s such a niche topic, people who are interested in these things, I feel like, don’t really have opportunities in real life to find people to talk about it… It’s shockingly active in the sense that it doesn’t stop, like new content keeps getting created and there’s people in literally every single time zone in the world, so it literally never stops.”
Of all the identity attributes that the Gen Zers wanted to discuss in interviews and focus groups, gender and sexuality—intimately connected to each other but increasingly considered distinct categories—came up most often.
Both online and offline, students frequently introduce themselves in terms of one or more of their gender and sexual identities. Far from being a taken-for-granted “package,” these aspects of identity are differentiated, with each one becoming a site of discovery and choice. Within each category there is a plethora of choices, some with their own tag and identifying label, including non-binary (identifying as neither male nor female), cisgender (someone whose gender identity matches the gender assigned at birth), trans (someone who changes from one binary gender to another), gender non-conforming (neither male nor female, but not necessarily identifying with another nonbinary gender), gender fluid (a type of non-binary gender in which one’s presentation and identity varies over time between maleness, femaleness and androgyneity), genderqueer (identifying as neither explicitly masculine or feminine, but can be a combination of both), and postgender or agender (those who completely disavow gender as a social category).
Surveys reveal that the majority of postmillennials accommodate gender-neutral pronouns. The Pew Research Center, using surveys carried out in 2018, reported that 35 per cent of postmillennials in the US know “someone who prefers that others use gender-neutral pronouns to refer to them.” And nearly 60 per cent of postmillennials stated that they believed that “forms or online profiles that ask about a person’s gender should include options other than ‘man’ or ‘woman.’”
The broadening of gender identities and increased gender fluidity are accompanied by the introduction of new pronouns (eg, ze, ey, em, eir, sie, hir, they, them, their) to refer to an individual. Many of our interviewees, after self-identifying by their gender category, told us which pronouns they favoured for themselves, with the non-binary students generally using “they” and “them.”
In contrast with the sense of flexibility that the postmillennials express with regard to their gender and sexual identity, the category of racial and ethnic identity is generally viewed as not subject to the same degree of personal choice or control, with only occasional caveats and exceptions. This is related to the profound importance of authenticity for postmillennials. There is a sense of the “given-ness” of how race and ethnicity are assigned and interpreted in broader society, and the consequent injustices and dangers that come with that.
Working on wellbeing
For postmillennials, mental health challenges are normal. They talk openly about them all the time: it is a mark of authenticity to talk about what is going on in your life. Many of our interviewees spoke honestly about experiencing periods of anxiety and depression and feeling burnout, compassion fatigue and, at times, hopelessness.
Being able to talk openly is an important part of a generational survival strategy. As Malia said: “Sometimes it feels we’re just screaming at these institutions to care about us, but at least we’re screaming together.” The clear articulation of mental health issues raises the question as to whether this generation has greater mental health struggles or is simply much better at naming their problems and seeking care. It is noteworthy that the word “stressful” appears in our corpus with unusually high frequency when compared with broader language use.
By some standardised measures, postmillennials do indeed have worse mental health than previous generations. The American Psychological Association’s 2018 Stress in America (SIA) survey of 3,500 individuals across all age cohorts, for example, found that 91 per cent of postmillennials aged 15 to 21 reported experiencing physical and emotional symptoms associated with stress, including depression and anxiety.
What part does social media and the constant sense of being “on” play? Although some commentators have put the primary blame on social media and smartphones, studies conducted by Andrew Przybylski and Amy Orben at the University of Oxford and Netta Weinstein at Cardiff University found that, statistically speaking, eating a potato each day was worse for your wellbeing than using social media. Indeed, some of our interviewees found social media helpful in times of anxiety or loneliness. As one put it: “I would say social media has kind of helped me with a lot of college stress.”
Another significant factor is the pressure of young adult life today and the anxiety that can come with that. As the president of the American Psychological Association (APA) Arthur Evans commented on the SIA survey results: “Current events are clearly stressful for everyone in the country, but young people are really feeling the impact of issues in the news, particularly those issues that may feel beyond their control.” One of our interviewees, Eve, said: “In this age, we have information overload. You can go look at pictures from the Vietnam War, or the Syrian crisis, or, like, the Rohingya crisis and, like, the ungodly amount of other atrocities in the world… if I read the news for too long, like, I get into, like, a news hole, and it feels like, shit, like, oh God, everything is hopeless… But I think it’s more a matter of filtering out the excess content that we have been given, via technology, that other generations didn’t need to think about.”
Postmillennials grew up “more aware of and accepting of mental health issues,” as Sophie Bethune, director of public relations for APA’s Practice Directorate, has argued. In increasingly medicalised societies and increasingly common diagnoses of ADHD, autism, dyslexia and more, there is the growing acceptance of personal and family therapy, the use of mood-regulating drugs for children, and what one psychiatrist termed “a cultural shift toward pathologising everyday levels of stress.” It is natural for them to include a mental health diagnosis in the different attributes or markers of their identity, as one interviewee, Ayotunde, did: “My different identities, I think they make me who I am . . . [but] not to say, oh, my only identity is being Black, and a lesbian, and someone with ADHD, or ad nauseum.”
They also grew up being told to respect their own feelings. Add to this the high value they place on honesty and being aware of how they are and how others feel, plus a deep level of digital connection and sharing among close friends, and it is no surprise that talking about mental health has become both a symptom and a way of dealing with some of the many pressures of the digital age. One student who was diagnosed with depression and anxiety said he preferred talking with his friends over his parents, because his parents “don’t understand mental health at all.”
Agents of change
In 2019, the phrase “OK Boomer” went viral among postmillennials to describe an older person whom they considered out of touch and closed-minded. The satirical and cynical expression, said or written with something of a mental eye roll, expressed postmillennial discontent with their inheritance from older generations, as well as their frustration that boomers don’t seem to “get it”—that the huge responsibility of fixing boomer mistakes and building a better world now rests heavily on Gen Zer shoulders.
Postmillennials, who tend to be sceptical about institutions, have grown up in an atmosphere of constant innovation and increasing complexity and uncertainty caused by massive global connectivity, overloads of information, the unknowns of where artificial intelligence may take humankind and threats from a warming climate. They have found it difficult to look to parents for guidance precisely because their elders are themselves trying to understand this fast-changing world. For many Gen Zers, this has grown into wariness about, and even a distrust of, parents and elders, so-called experts, didactic truths, and other traditional forms of hierarchical authority.
One fear among postmillennials is that there will be no further progress in fixing serious problems. The steady belief in progress that was the backdrop to boomer life, and especially boomer activism, has withered. Our corpus shows that the words “stuck” and “stagnant” are more salient than in the data banks of language use in the broader population.
Postmillennial disillusionment goes beyond the student population. In our survey of representative samples of postmillennials in the US and UK, we asked about the political systems in their respective countries. The majority in each country believed that the system needed to be reformed—either to “some” extent (35 per cent in Britain and 27 per cent in the US) or “a lot” (40 per cent in each country). Around 15 per cent in each country thought that the system was completely broken and needed to be replaced.
Postmillennials understand that they will have to deal with the ramifications of climate change, police violence, racial and gender injustice and frightening new technologies, as well as the prospect of potent viral epidemics; they accept that they cannot shirk their responsibilities. Nonetheless, many are feeling some resentment. In early 2018, the American journalist David Brooks reported on his conversations with college students across the US, describing a spirit much like that which we saw in our interviews and surveys. He spoke of the students’ “diminished expectations” and distrust of large organisations. “It’s not that the students are hopeless,” he wrote. “They are dedicating their lives to social change. It’s just that they have trouble naming institutions that work.” Instead, the students he talked with were looking to “local, decentralised, and on the ground” agents of change—people, said one student, “that look like us.”
“Identity for postmillennials is largely the result of a moral process of personal discovery”
Given their concern for both global and local issues, and anxiety about the incapacity of their elders or traditional institutions to bring about necessary progress, it is no surprise that our interviewees repeatedly noted the imperative of tackling the challenges and inequalities they saw all around them. “I know what ‘progress’ is supposed to look like,” said one interviewee, Eve, “and knowing how much progress has been made in history, I feel like I can almost taste it, yet it’s so, so, so far away, and current events can feel like you’re being dragged further and further away from that goal.”
Gen Zers’ hope largely lies in trust in their peers. As Sunita put it, the fact that young people are starting to take charge gives her hope and makes her realise that you do not have to have a parent or an older person to make a difference. Zoe said that what gave her hope was her generation’s attitude and her peers using their voices to speak out.
As one 18-year-old British man from Huddersfield put it in a 2018 BBC radio programme: “I think as a generation we are quite resilient. We’ve grown up with the recession and so many things that could have hindered us. I think we’re ready to just move forward and just take anything on, to be honest, and that’s exciting and nerve-racking.”
Finding the balance
Gen Zers carry a heavy burden: namely, how can we all live in this dramatically changed world? Changes are taking place with a speed, scope and scale never previously experienced by humankind, and postmillennials have had to navigate this new digital world without the guidance of their elders. They are demonstrating much of what is at stake for humanity in the face of a digitally defined, network-oriented society. It is increasingly clear that massive social rebuilding is needed and that the job is going to require all to participate. So far, postmillennials have been effective at modelling alternatives.
As their own words reveal, they are struggling anew with issues that have also long engaged philosophers and political scientists, including how to find an acceptable balance between the needs of the individual and the needs of the community—as well as how to preserve human values in a digital age. By listening carefully to what they are saying, we can appreciate the lessons they have to teach us.
This is an edited extract from “Gen Z, Explained: The Art of Living in the Digital Age” (University of Chicago Press)