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.
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.