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By Jenna Drennen

It is often acknowledged that hardship builds character and strength‭. ‬For those Americans born between the two World Wars‭, ‬a generation was shaped and defined by innumerable hardships‭. ‬Coming of age during the roaring twenties amidst prosperity and booming‭ ‬technological advances‭, ‬these individuals experienced a quick shift upon reaching adulthood‭. ‬Enduring profound loss coupled with the economic and social turmoil The Great Depression and World War II ushered in‭, ‬this generation came together to sacrifice what they could in hopes of a better world‭. ‬Through unspeakable adversity‭, ‬they overcame trauma to usher in an era of cultural growth and affluence that came to define the American dream‭. ‬

As we face a new set of obstacles set in motion by a global pandemic and its ensuing cultural and political unrest‭, ‬a new generation is taking the reins and proving themselves to be the next‭ ‬“Greatest Generation‭.‬”‭ ‬Gen Z‭, ‬consisting of individuals born between 1996‭ ‬and 2010‭, ‬represents a unique collective coming of age amid the rise of social media and near-constant connection to technology‭. ‬With the traumatic events of the past year serving as a defining generational marker‭, ‬Gen Z is using adversity as an opportunity to address and redefine longstanding political and cultural narratives‭. ‬Driven by a digitally unified passion‭, ‬drive‭, ‬and empathy‭, ‬Gen Z is working to expand who has access to the American Dream while questioning what that dream should and could look like‭.‬

Members of Generation Z, like the young locals pictured, are born between 1996 and 2010.

Serving as the most racially and ethnically diverse generation to date‭, ‬Gen Z defines themselves through their advocacy for social justice‭, ‬equality‭, ‬and inclusion‭. ‬Participating in unprecedented civic engagement‭, ‬Gen Z ushered in the Me Too movement‭, ‬empowering women through empathy and solidarity while generating and redefining cultural narratives surrounding sexual harassment‭, ‬assault‭, ‬and consent‭. ‬Following the horrific Parkland school shooting‭, ‬students nationwide mobilized to organize marches and social media campaigns addressing our nation’s need for gun control reform‭. ‬In a more proactive step towards curtailing global warming‭, ‬Gen Z continues to emphasize buying power as a vehicle of activism‭, ‬increasing cultural conscience surrounding where and how we spend our money‭. ‬Gen Z served as a foundation for the Black Lives Matter Movement‭, ‬viewing tragedy and racial injustice as an opportunity for mobilized activism‭, ‬education‭, ‬and reform‭. ‬With 1‭ ‬in 6‭ ‬Gen Z teenagers and adults identifying as lesbian‭, ‬gay‭, ‬bisexual‭, ‬or transgender‭, ‬a generation emerged giving a voice to the LGBTQ community while championing diversity as the norm rather than the exception‭. ‬Gen Z consistently works to appreciate each individual as their most authentic self‭. ‬Despite criticism‭, ‬the generation is overly sensitive and defined by‭ ‬“cancel culture‭.‬”‭ ‬Gen Z redefines that‭ ‬“sensitivity”‭ ‬as an understanding that many normalized experiences and cultural attitudes are‭, ‬in fact‭, ‬toxic‭, ‬and they are choosing not to repeat them‭. ‬Their power lies in their comfort and effectiveness at driving change‭.‬

Serving as the first generation completely defined and guided by social media‭, ‬concerns continue to arise addressing increased depression and lack of mindfulness associated with constant screen time and digital connection‭. ‬Despite these obvious drawbacks‭, ‬social media’s cultural power and networked collective ushered in a new age of creative influence‭, ‬restructuring longstanding power dynamics‭.‬‭ ‬The decentralized peer-to-peer communication format typical of the Gen Z social media-fueled experience combats the top-down approach of previous generations‭. ‬Social media’s influence and creation of an interconnected global community produced a generation more politically and socially united‭, ‬with‭ ‬a greater ability to shape broader opinion and enact change on a structural and systemic level‭. ‬This cultural shift gave representation to many people who previously had little access to public opinion or influence while providing a voice to more diverse populations‭. ‬Social media consumers are the creators of their own media‭, ‬giving them license to examine and restructure how our culture decides what is important and who gets to benefit from these changes‭. ‬This mobilizing energy‭, ‬or‭ ‬“crowd power‭,‬”‭ ‬allowed Gen Z to rewrite existing narratives while giving a platform to new ones‭. ‬

‭ ‬ Concepts championed by the Gen Z generation‭, ‬such as body positivity‭, ‬stem from social media’s assistance in restructuring power dynamics allowing for shifts in standards of beauty and sexuality‭. ‬Entering the collective cultural conscience less than a decade ago‭, ‬the body positivity movement offered exposure to different modes of beauty‭. ‬Real people posting real images slowly shifted cultural perceptions of long-held beauty standards‭. ‬Social media campaigns normalizing gender fluidity and more diverse notions of beauty and sexuality celebrated a wider range of body types‭, ‬skin colors‭, ‬and physical‭ ‬abilities‭. ‬They served to alter the fashion industry as well as many people’s relationships with their bodies‭.‬

Much like the World War II generation‭, ‬Gen Z was in many ways shaped by tragedy‭. ‬As our nation mourned the losses of 9/11‭, ‬Gen Z‭ ‬was left to process the secondary trauma that inevitably resulted‭. ‬This generation is growing up in a society ripe with cultural and political unrest and the normalization of mass shootings‭. ‬A global pandemic served as the foremost defining marker of a generation already impacted by trauma‭. ‬Pulling strength and resilience from their experiences and choosing to let adversity guide‭ ‬lasting positive change distinguishes Gen Z while offering renewed hope during a time of great loss‭, ‬uncertainty‭, ‬and fear‭. ‬

With 35%‭ ‬of people born between 1996‭ ‬and 2010‭ ‬reporting worsening mental health since the pandemic began‭, ‬Gen Z took the opportunity to combat the enduring stigma surrounding mental illness and fuel a movement to increase access to mental health services‭. ‬They have created a dialogue that encourages openly discussing mental health issues‭, ‬normalizing asking for help‭, ‬and seeking out support services‭. ‬Gen Z reports seeking treatment for anxiety and depression at greater rates than any preceding generation while working to ensure increased access for more diverse and vulnerable populations‭. ‬

With the transition to remote learning brought on by the pandemic‭, ‬shifting perceptions emerged addressing how education should‭ ‬look‭. ‬While students overwhelmingly reported a preference for in-person learning‭, ‬the remote learning experience provided a chance to assess and redefine educational goals and experiences going forward‭. ‬For a generation defined by diversity and inclusion‭, ‬an opportunity arose to design a post-pandemic educational environment that more closely values these concepts‭. ‬Gen Z vocally advocates for authentic and meaningful spaces to connect in a variety of educational platforms while accounting for and accommodating diverse learning styles‭.‬

As I interact with my kids‭, ‬both firmly rooted in Gen Z‭, ‬they provide me a great deal of pride and hope for the future amidst a‭ ‬turbulent and uncertain time‭. ‬I am grateful my son has not internalized the toxic masculinity so common in previous generations‭,‬‭ ‬feeling safe to feel his feelings and cry when he is sad‭. ‬When my daughter corrects my pronoun usage or feels comfortable using‭ ‬her voice to identify and speak out against misogyny‭, ‬my resolve that their generation will be the next‭ ‬“Greatest Generation”‭ ‬is once again solidified‭. ‬Sure‭, ‬they may mock my beloved side-parted hair and skinny jeans‭, ‬but I’ll take a middle part and mom jeans any day if they come with a side of body positivity and social justice‭.‬

Jenna lives in Firestone with her husband‭, ‬two kids‭, ‬and a house full of animals‭. ‬She enjoys‭, ‬running‭, ‬gardening‭, ‬and climbing mountains in her spare time‭.‬