The angst was evident when I interviewed my five Gen Z grandchildren to find out what was on their minds. It’s no wonder — those born after 1997 have faced, from a young age, an economic crisis, a pandemic health crisis, the fight against terrorism, political instability, school shootings, and the ravages of climate change.
What struck me was their shared concern for the larger world and their worry about the kind of future they will live in. You may remember I interviewed my five older Millennial grandchildren a few months back and I was curious how the two groups would differ. (You can review my April blog to read about the Millennial grandchildren.)
Let me introduce my Gen Z grandchildren:
Victor, 22, a recent college graduate has a job in his career track and was recently promoted to the engineering department.
Jonah, 22, another recent college graduate was a music major, plays in three different bands, works in a store, and teaches guitar lessons.
Maya, 19, is a sophomore at a small, liberal arts college in New England and plans on majoring in political science and public policy.
Aliya, 17, is a senior in high school who played varsity soccer until she hurt her knee. Now she is working on her college applications.
Asher, 15, is a sophomore in high school and his focus is on theater, doing well in school, and getting into college.
Of course, my grandkids are no scientific sample. They are, however, diverse by race, religion, and interests. I interviewed each of them by phone, asking them the same questions. I selected some specific words from each of the five to use here. Then I added thoughts from my perspective of being more than 60 or 70 years older. I end this blog with six specific ways we can be helpful to the next generation of youth — whether they are our grandchildren or other young people.
Q. How do you see your own generation, Gen Z?
A. We are the first generation to grow up with the Internet. We worry about jobs. Confused. Lots of anxiety and depression. Polarized. Feel isolated. Have online friends and real friends. Tiktok friend. Progressive. Struggling. Communicate by texting. Hopeful. Impulsive. Stand up for our beliefs. Tired. Stick to our own kind. Fearful. On screens. Underpaid. Saw too much porn and violence — it was harmful. Concerned about the future.
My thoughts: I heard how profoundly the Internet and technology have colored their lives and how very different their patterns of socializing are from earlier generations. It can give them a false sense of being connected that can make them feel lonely, which echoes the physical loneliness many older adults feel. Also, they are so very aware of mental health issues — a perspective that allows them to seek help if they need it, which was reassuring to me. My generation was so uninformed about our own stress.
Q. What does your generation worry about?
A. Political conflicts. The environment. Job market. Grades. Economic situation. Getting approval. Climate change. Inequality in the world. A cataclysm is coming. Covid. Finding a good job. Finding a career we’d enjoy. The economy needs to work better. Everything is so expensive. Getting into college. Getting approval.
My thoughts: The kids who are still in school are hyper-focused on getting into college in a way that seems developmentally appropriate and normal. Some 57% of Gen Z is enrolled in at least a two-year college, putting them on track for the best-educated generation. But all five are clearly worried about both global issues and political problems. Their world is uncertain. Now, we older people are worried about the hydrogen bomb, but Gen Z’s level of awareness and worry seems greater. The young college graduates are finding the adult world today challenging. Their cohort doesn’t find getting a great job all that easy. And I believe it is, in fact, far more difficult for them than ever before. It is upsetting that they feel tired. I think the older generations have let them down and have not been able to provide them with the support they need.
Q. What do you think older people — those over 70 — think about your generation?
A. We spend too much time on social media. We are not worthy to inherit the world. We are lazy and don’t work as hard. They think they know better than us — had more experience. They believe they are more empathic to us than our parents are. We spend too much time on screens. We spend too much time taking pictures of our lives rather than living them.
My thoughts: I was surprised the youth see the older generation as so critical of them and their generation. But it is true we do go on and on about too many screens. At the same time, my heart goes out to these young people, perhaps far more than they realize. I feel bad about the complicated, uncertain world they face. And I think most of my generation feels the same way. Clearly, we have not gotten that message across.
Q. What do Gen Z young people think about people over 70?
A. They are set in how they will be. Old-fashioned. Slow. Make demands. Cautious. Some are sweet. Kind. Judgmental. Grumpy. Wise. Talk about how they worked so hard. Not understanding LGBTQIA+. Outdated. More like 1950.
My thoughts: It doesn’t feel so great to be seen as outdated and judgmental, but we are slower and maybe set in our ways. They also speak out more bluntly than my generation ever did, which I found healthy. And, of course, I did ask them to be truthful.
Q. What do you Gen Z’s think older people worry about?
A. Death. Being lonely. Whether changes are good. Stuff like robot marriages. The future. Health. Traditions. That our lives are not going to be the same as theirs.
My thoughts: Their answers are very perceptive show how psychologically savvy they are. I got a kick out of robot marriages which I have to admit are not on the top of my worry list.
Q. What are your hopes and dreams for yourself for 10 years from now?
A. Married, have kids, a career, will have traveled. I will be less worried about the economic situation and climate. I will give back to the community. Not sure I’ll follow the pathway of my parents of career and family. Not sure about bringing children into this unstable world. Hard to count on being happy, having money, and a fulfilling relationship. I will have a cool job, will be close to my friends, and want a family and kids. I will go into business and I am confident I will make enough money.
My thoughts: Obviously, there are two very different sets of feelings here — some of them express confidence and some are more doubtful and concerned. This makes sense. And it is clear to me that leaving college and suddenly becoming an adult can be understandably stressful in today’s truly uncertain world. Gen Z is proving itself to be quite entrepreneurial. And they are redefining how and when to work, which is likely to give them more options in achieving their preferred work-life balance.
Q. If you could send a message to your generation, what would it be?
A. Life is not as easy. Keep going even when things are hard. Gen Z needs reassurance that everything will work out for them.
My thoughts: Amen to the last comment — Gen Z young people do need reassurance that everything will work out for them. We in the Silent Generation need to speak up and express our feelings and truths to them more often. And we need to create more support systems to assist them.
Six Ways to Help Gen Z Youth on Their way
1. Provide financial support as you can, when they need it for school and starting out as adults.
2. Tell them you do not see them as lazy, shiftless, and ungrateful if that is the case. Make it a point to acknowledge their strengths and what you like and admire about them.
3. Listen to them. Connect with them in person, on the phone, or by texting whatever works. Ask them, “How’s it going.” Learn about their world. Listen with compassion. It will be helpful.
4. Invite them to spend time with you. Ask them to bring their friends, too. Take them to places you enjoy or have learned from. Or explore a new place or activity together.
5. Let them know it was not all that easy for us — life is never all easy. Share how you’ve managed during difficult times. Our generation underestimates how much we matter to our grandkids and the influence we can have.
6. Tell them you love them and that you will be there for them. Reassure them that you have confidence that in time it will all work out well for them.
Katharine Esty is a psychologist, a widow, a mother, a grandmother, and a writer. Her recent book, Eightysomethings — A Practical Guide to Letting Go, Aging Well, and Finding Unexpected Happiness, was published by Skyhorse.
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