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May 27, 2024

Generation Z Has Serious Problems. It Has Serious Advantages, Too.

Generation Z was the first in history to experience a childhood and adolescence focused more on screens than on unstructured play with other kids.

There are an estimated 2 billion people in Generation Z. As it happens, two of them are my children, which is probably why I am drawn to reading (and sometimes to writing) about how their cohort is doing.

A flood of words have been devoted to the topic, and many of the reports are discouraging.

Two landmark studies of the generation born after 1995 — Jean Twenge’s iGen, published in 2017, and Jonathan Haidt’s The Anxious Generation, which appeared in March — are replete with data documenting that members of Gen Z are much more likely than their predecessors to be unhappy, mentally fragile, lonely, withdrawn, or depressed. The two psychologists (Twenge teaches at San Diego State University, Haidt at New York University) argue that what fundamentally distinguishes Zoomers from the generations that came before them is technology: They were the first to grow up on smartphones and social media, and therefore the first not to spend most of their formative years playing in the company of other children or engaging in unstructured and unsupervised exploration. Screens became central to their daily routines and social connections.

The result was what Haidt has called the “Great Rewiring” — a shift from “play-based childhood” to “phone-based childhood.” It turned out to have ominous consequences. Study after study confirmed, in Twenge’s words, that “all screen activities are linked to less happiness, and all nonscreen activities are linked to more happiness.” Beginning around 2012, as the first Gen-Zers were reaching their mid-teens, a mental health crisis was underway. Reports of anxiety, depression, and self-harm among the young began to soar. Most alarming of all, suicide rates for adolescents spiked, rising 91 percent for boys and 167 percent for girls.

Like countless other parents with kids in Gen Z, I know only too well how addicting screens are to teens — and how hard it is to impose limits on their use. But I also know that societies adapt to transformative technologies. Smartphones and social-media apps will not escape being regulated, either through legislation or through litigation. Public attitudes will change, too. It wasn’t that long ago that much of mainstream America smoked cigarettes. At the turn of this century, 35 percent of young adults used tobacco, according to Gallup; today the rate of smoking among the young is just 12 percent — and only 7 percent among college students. Before the youngest Gen-Zers (born in 2012) are out of their teens, we may similarly see a marked easing of the mental health crisis.

In any case, mental health is only part of the Gen Z picture. By other measures, especially those related to wealth and work, their age group is doing pretty well.

Many Zoomers themselves, of course, are prone to lament that they face vastly greater economic hurdles than their parents did at their age. Online, it is easy to find videos of solipsistic and self-entitled young people bewailing their financial circumstances or the expectations placed on them in the workplace by their Gen X or millennial bosses. (In surveys, those bosses concur that Gen Z employees can be exceptionally difficult to work with.)

And yet, as The Economist observed last month, “Generation Z is unprecedentedly rich.”

Worldwide, Gen-Zers are entering a workforce bursting with historic job opportunities. Unemployment among the young is lower than it has been in more than 30 years. In the United States, hourly wages for workers younger than 25 jumped by 13 percent last year; for those between 25 and 54, by contrast, the year-over-year increase was just 6 percent. “This was the highest ‘young person premium’ since reliable data began,” noted The Economist. In other countries, too, Generation Z workers enjoy a similar advantage.

When compared with the cohorts that preceded them into the workplace, Gen Z is much more likely to have a four-year college degree and much more likely to have money in the bank. Citing research by the American Enterprise Institute and Federal Reserve, The Economist reports that the average 25-year-old today earns an annual income of more than $40,000, outstripping (in inflation-adjusted dollars) members of every previous generation — millennials, Gen-Xers, baby boomers, and the silent generation — when they were the same age.

Boomers like me had a 35- to 40-year head start on Gen Z, so naturally we are more likely to have more substantial life savings, to own property, and to be less in need of a side hustle for money. But that will change as the Zoomers supplant us — which they are already on the point of doing in the workplace. Time and the power of compound interest are as ineluctable as they have always been. Today’s teens and twentysomethings may be waiting longer than my generation did to move on to the responsibilities (and the pleasures) of adulthood, but so did Gen X and millennials. One encouraging marker: Gen-Zers, despite, or perhaps because of, the greater levels of loneliness they grew up with, overwhelmingly say that serious relationships are important to them. Newsweek points to survey research in which 93 percent of Gen Z respondents say they are interested in marriage. If true, that is a deeply hopeful development.

Generation Z will come through these anxious years, and then they will catch up with and surpass their parents. Every generation does. Twenty years down the road, how astonished they will be when the cohort that they raise grouses about not having it as easy as their parents did. To those of us waiting patiently to become grandparents, what a pleasure it will be to hear our grandchildren voice that complaint.

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