As a sociologist, I am amused (and concerned) with incessant attempts to pigeonhole the latest generation of young people. “They” are lazy, entitled, anxious, lonely, and attached to their phones. If these descriptors are true (and I’m unsure they are), sociologists would probe one’s social environment and how parents, teachers, coaches, and pastors may have modelled or nurtured these traits in young people. We would also explore how these narratives are perpetuated in social settings (e.g., media, social media, schools, churches), possibly feeding into the social panic and experiences of some young people as a result.
I want to build on my 2019 co-authored book, The Millennial Mosaic, and (a) describe how young people are both different and similar to other generations; (b) capture some trends among young people during COVID; and (c) highlight an opportunity for those who work with young people.
A quick caution about labeling and defining generational groups (e.g., Gen Z, Millennials, etc.)–these labels are arbitrary and tend to over-accentuate differences over a relatively short span of time. For instance, few labels use the same start and end point for a given generation, plus can we really say that someone born in 1990 is drastically different from someone born in 1995? As such, I use the generic phrase “young people” here, meant to capture overarching trends among teens and young adults.
Young People Today
Three traits characterize young people today: pluralism, individualism, and choice. Young people have grown up with a plurality of worldviews and experiences related to sexuality, gender, race, ethnicity, religion, and politics. Pluralism is magnified in a globalized and technologically advanced world. Young people take pride in individualism, where others do not tell them how to think or behave. And young people confront an array of choice where they can be anything and anyone they want to be, especially in areas such as gender, sexuality, career, family status, or religion. Unlike previous generations, the “traditional life stage” social scripts are quite varied. These traits did not suddenly appear. They are a consequence of progressive social change across multiple generations, changes that have accelerated of late.
As significant as these social changes are, data indicates that on the whole young people are more similar than dissimilar to other generations. As just one example, regardless of the generation, the top five values in life identified as “very important” are the same: freedom, family life, being loved, friendship, and self-reliance. These values have been constant for decades.
As we might expect, people’s major social concerns are on the rise during COVID. December 2020 data reveal that many, including young people, are more concerned about the economy, mental health, unemployment, the environment, poverty, or racism than five years ago. A key reason for amplified social concern is how frequently these issues are discussed in social settings, notably COVID, the economy, and mental health (the latter two are frequently framed as casualties of COVID restrictions).
What is interesting is that people’s personal concerns have actually decreased over the past five years, especially among young people. In other areas, people are less concerned about the future, lack of money, having enough time, purpose in life, loneliness, or boredom. Related, preliminary data with teens show that mental health concerns are no greater during COVID than five years ago. These observations do not diminish the real presence of mental health or loneliness concerns among some young people (which are higher than previous generations of young people); careful professional responses are warranted. But overall, roughly two-thirds to three-quarters of young people are doing just fine; they are quite resilient, and the sky is not falling for most.
Research is clear that young people desire positive adult influences in their lives. As young people grow up in a more pluralistic world than previous generations, where individualism and choice are prized cultural values, they confront many decisions with little discernment on how to choose well (e.g., Who should I date? Where should I go to school? What career should I pursue? What religion should I affiliate with?). Research shows that the more choice a person has, the more likely they are to feel anxious and uncertain with their decision. There is an opportunity for mentors, adult influencers, and intergenerational communities here, to shift from highlighting to young people that a range of choices exist to focusing on how to discern well amidst the choices.