Generation Z: self-absorbed or just self-aware?

When you think of Generation Z, what comes to mind? Depending on your age, you may think of your children, your peers or your students. Maybe a more abstract concept comes to mind — the future, open-mindedness or an unhealthy addiction to screens.
Regardless of your image of today’s young people, one thing is for certain: it’s about time we take them seriously.
Maybe you can convince yourself that you already do that — you are a part of Gen Z, as I am, and you can comfortably pat yourself on the back when told by society time and again that you — yes, you! — are the future.
Or the opposite is true: you aren’t a part of Gen Z and are thankful for that. Besides, kids these days have short attention spans and are obsessed with personal image.
But the notion of taking Gen Z more seriously is not a self-absorbed illusion. I don’t admire Gen Z just because I am a part of it. I also don’t assume that this generation is the best, by any arbitrary measure.
Rather, I think that there is a more complicated difference between the lives of this generation’s young people and the lives of previous generations when they, too, were young adults. Gen Z’s circumstances aren’t something that previous generations “just wouldn’t understand” — it’s more like other generations couldn’t understand Gen Z’s circumstances, even if they tried.
It starts with outside influence. Increasingly dangerous natural disasters with ever-rising temperatures set the backdrop to a political climate that has no interest in reconciling its differences — how does a person live a planned, cautious and traditional life if the world, so tediously organized before their time, is now crumbling beneath their feet?
The reaction to this disorder is bittersweet. Observe the sense of humor of a young person today, for example, and you’ll likely be met with thinly-veiled nihilism. The structure of the world seems like a joke at this point, so why not laugh along?
In the same breath, though, there is a kind of freedom that comes from realizing that the systems of power and presentation are equally garbage, meant to benefit the few and fortunate. That is what makes this generation different from any before.
The change in youth perception is not a rebellious movement. It doesn’t seem temporary, either. The acceptance that this generation has for their peers from a young age is something I think Gen Z can take for granted at times.
Gen Z is certainly not the first generation to recognize that the old way of doing things isn’t necessarily the best way of doing things. But we are the first generation with the ability to influence one another at any and all times, making change accessible.
The internet makes it possible to relate to people from a young age. Of course, this can have negative consequences if the intention is wrong, but think for a moment about the positive impacts — young people today have access to a vocabulary and way of life that for previous generations was impossible or dangerous to explore. I’m referring mostly to identity acceptance, but this takes plenty of forms, to the point that aesthetics become trends.
This generation has no “norm.” Thanks mostly to the internet, there is no longer a standard expectation for how people should act. Rather than try to fit our genuine identities into a mold of what is “normal,” this generation has the unique freedom to find a label — or lack thereof — that fits us. It validates an experience that would have previously been kept a secret.
There is no need to silence a mental health struggle or fear an exposure of gender identity, for example. The social stigma is not entirely gone, but the language to discuss what makes us different is more accessible than ever before.
It isn’t a clean transition from non-acceptance to acceptance. Laws today are already changing in reaction to our identities. As soon as young people start forging their own path and seeking out what they want to learn, the government attempts to regulate the bodies, conversation and education that our generation and those younger than us will see.
“History repeats itself,” the old saying goes. But there is no history to repeat here. There is no blueprint for a cultural shift, as they are always new. There is no telling what the internet will have done to this generation until we are older. We are living in an uncharted moment, with no telling what a generation of people raised with simultaneous compassion and global distress will look like decades from now.
We cannot tell because we have not seen it before. The benefits for someone growing up in this moment, who is accepted rather than rejected as the norm — that is what we should take seriously. That is what I am excited to see.