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What Could Go Right? Gen Z is a generation of optimists

Their positivity is surprising, given their mental health struggles.

Emma Varvaloucas

Emma Varvaloucas

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Gen Z is a generation of optimists

The Gen Zers of the United States have spoken. The polling firm Gallup, in partnership with a foundation funded by Walmart’s founders, the Waltons, has just released a new report on the state of this much-discussed generation.

Let’s dive in.

The bad:

Gen Z is struggling with mental health more so than previous generations. Fewer Gen Zers consider their mental health to be excellent, at only 20 percent, and more consider it to be fair or poor, at 36 percent.

How often they feel stress, anxiety, sadness, and loneliness is also higher than other generations.

This is in striking contrast to 2013, when Gallup asked the same question to millennials who were the same age then that Gen Z is now (18–26). In 2013, over half of millennials, 52 percent, rated their mental health as excellent. 

The not-so-silver silver lining: Mental health has deteriorated for both Gen X and millennials since 2013, so whatever is affecting Gen Z—scholar Jonathan Haidt thinks it’s smartphones/social media—does not seem to be entirely unique to them.

The good:

Gen Z’s optimism, as Gallup puts it, is “enduring.” Despite the mental health struggles, 82 percent believe they will achieve their goals. Seventy-six percent think they have a great future ahead of them. Sixty-six percent feel they can nab a dream job.

Which segment is the most optimistic? Black Gen Zers! They feel more strongly than their white and Hispanic counterparts that they have a great future ahead of them and that they will get a good job. 

Also good: Large percentages of Gen Zers report having a best friend at school and feeling motivated and cared about there.

The neutral:

Forty-seven percent of Gen Z say that they are thriving. 

What that means: The survey defines “thriving” as rating your current life as a 7 out of 10 or higher and estimating that your life 5 years from now will be an 8 or higher. A little over half, 53 percent, of Gen Z respondents met the first criterion. Over two-thirds, 68 percent, met the second.

How they compare: Currently, the “thriving-iest” generation is millennials at 59 percent, followed closely by Gen X at 57 percent. These are people between the ages of 26 and 56, when you would expect to be at your peak career and family years. Only 52 percent of Baby Boomers (ages 57–71) are thriving, and 45 percent of the Silent Generation (over 71).  

But Gallup thinks “stage of life” isn’t the whole story. Millennials were asked the same question when they were Gen Z’s current age, and around 60 percent of them were thriving. 

I’m unsure how much we can gather from this other than 1) it represents the combination of the bad and the good, above; 2) it’s a vague way to measure “thriving”; and 3) roughly half of Americans consider themselves to be thriving. Hence the neutral rating.

Other interesting tidbits:

Gen Z’s top three aspirations are financial security (this was top spot by far), getting married, and pursuing a personal passion in work.

Sixty-four percent say that financial barriers or funding options are a barrier to achieving their goals—the report notes that much of that is tied to concerns over student loans.

Just over half, 52 percent, say that their schoolwork “challenges them in a good way.” Surely we could be challenging our students more! (I’m reminded of The Free Press’ high school essay winner, who cited this as the reason why she asked to get homeschooled.)

What you can do with this information:

The survey also found that Gen Z’s feelings about the future are strongly affected by whether they have an adult or mentor in their life who encourages them to pursue their goals and dreams.

If you have Gen Zers in your life, encouragement matters! 

For Gen Alpha parents, if you’re worried about smartphone and social media use, Haidt has some ideas here, as well as tips on alternative gadgets to give your young kids instead of smartphones.

Correction: In last week’s newsletter I wrote that there were .017 deaths per one million air passengers in 2020. The correct figure is .17.

Below in the links section, a possible “holy grail” palm oil replacement in Scotland, MDMA therapy in the US, bio-artificial livers in China, and more.

Photo of airless bicycle tires made with NASA-developed technology
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Old people are hot
First lifespan, then healthspan—from now on, will also be tracking hotspan.

Why we picked it: The article has humor in spades, but the basic premise is true. Changing norms, better lifestyle knowledge, and longer life expectancies mean that hotness no longer solely belongs to the youngins! —Emma Varvaloucas

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Emma Varvaloucas

Emma Varvaloucas is the Executive Director of The Progress Network. An editor and writer specializing in nonprofit media, she was formerly Executive Editor of Tricycle: The Buddhist Review and is the editor of two books from Wisdom Publications.