Deep Dive: Generation Z
Melissa: Good morning, Gen Z graduates. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry, host of The Takeaway.
Dorian: I'm Dorian Warren, co-president of Community Change. Wohoho, there's a lot of you out there.
Melissa: That's right. Whether finishing fifth grade or college, whether your future is uncertain as you leave foster care or securely rooted in an exciting new job, we just want to say congratulations.
Dorian: Congratulations on your survival and your accomplishments. We are here to celebrate you and to say what others might not. We're sorry.
Melissa: We're sorry.
We're sorry for poisoned lands and rising tides, for deepening inequalities and ideological divisions. We're sorry your debt is so steep and that your gas is so expensive.
Dorian: We're sorry that despite generations of organizing, of resistance, of dreaming, and of building that you will still inherit so much struggle.
Melissa: We also come bearing gifts, not advice from our generation, but words of wisdom from your own. Reminders that you are the ones you've been waiting for.
Female Speaker 1: We do have a voice. Just because we're young doesn't mean that we don't matter.
Female Speaker 2: Trans girls are here. We exist. You don't have to ignore us as friends or as girlfriends.
Melissa: The issue that I want people's votes to affect is immigration reform. Undocumented youth have been marginalized far too long.
Female Speaker 3: In a little over 6 minutes, 17 of our friends were taken from us.
Female Speaker 4: You all come to us young people for hope. How dare you?
Dorian: Wow, Melissa, I am genuinely inspired.
Melissa: Right? Me, too. Also, this moment is so complicated because this week, we also had to face headlines reminding us that young people are not monolithic changemakers for good. This week, we've been reeling from the deadly violence committed by a teenager.
Male Speaker 1: An 18-year-old motivated by hate.
Male Speaker 2: A white 18-year-old man.
Female Speaker 5: Teenager opened fire in a Buffalo supermarket.
Male Speaker 3: 18-year-old Payton Gendron.
Melissa: An 18-year-old white supremacist. How is that even possible?
Dorian: That's a real question, Melissa. I know we're not emphasizing this killer's age to make him seem childlike or to absolve him of guilt. We must ask how white supremacy is reproduced with such violent precision, particularly in a generation that's full of so many diverse and inspiring changemakers.
Jonas Stillman: Gen Z is by far the most diverse generation ever. We're also the most interconnected around the globe. Part of the reason is, now with our generation, when something happens, the entire world finds out immediately through social media, through hashtags, we're always connected to each other.
Melissa: That's Gen Z entrepreneur keynote speaker and Gen Z guru Jonas Stillman. He was talking with TIME magazine back in 2018 for their piece How Generation Z Will Change the World According to Experts. Jonah's analysis of Gen Z as diverse and interconnected, those are common themes in the way that media and marketing organizations typically think and talk about these young people.
Dorian: Of course, 2018 was before the pandemic sent Gen Z into months of isolation. Before Gen Z took to the streets in protest following the murder of George Floyd. Before America elected the oldest president in our history. Melissa, before elite draft opinion signaled that Generation Z could lose the right to abortion just as they enter childbearing years.
Melissa: Of course, it was before an 18-year-old white man drove to a grocery store on a Saturday morning clad in body armor and armed with a modified Bushmaster semiautomatic rifle, and killed 10 people in one of our history's deadliest acts of white supremacist violence, all of it while live streaming across a social media platform.
Dorian: Melissa, I think now is the right time to take a deep dive into Generation Z in all of our assumptions about them.
Cathy Cohen: When we're talking about Gen Z-ers, I think generally most people bracket that timeline as 1997 to 2012. We're talking about 10-year-olds all the way to 25-year-olds.
Dorian: This is Cathy Cohen. She's the David and Mary Winton Green Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago and founder of the GenForward Project, a national research effort that documents the attitudes and experiences of young people, particularly young people of color.
Melissa: It's probably worth noting in full disclosure that Professor Cathy Cohen has been an adviser and mentor to both Dorian and me throughout our academic careers. Now, the GenForward researchers they're skeptical about generational labels, even while noting that generation can be a really useful analytic tool.
Cathy Cohen: Everyone on our team worries that sometimes when we pay too much attention to generations, we flatten out the real diversity. I would argue the maybe more interesting questions and differences that exist within generations. We're both looking at how people progress over the life course. We're also comparing generations at a specific point in the life course.
When we look, for example, at millennials at this stage, especially older millennials, we know that they are much less likely to own a home than, for example, baby boomers at that same generational point. Now, we can explain part of that as a change in culture or even the proclivity towards homeownership. We also know that millennials as a generational effect came into the job market during the 2008 recession. They've been hit again with the COVID recession and the reshuffling and the resignation. We know that the lower rates of homeownership are not just about choice, but about the generational challenges that millennials have faced. We've got to look at both life course but we also have to look and compare generational points in the life course to see what the differences might be in terms of generational effect.
Dorian: To understand how Gen Z is different from previous generations and to map the differences among disease, the GenForward Project ensures that their surveys include a large number of young people from differing backgrounds and with diverse identities.
Cathy Cohen: We can also look at differences in education, we can look at differences in income, both the parent's income and their income. We can begin to pay attention again to the diversity that may align with a level of economic or racial privilege versus disadvantage or struggling, the ways in which young people may struggle. We really started GenForward to look at, in particular, racial and ethnic differences in the ways in which young people understand and experience the world, understand and experience politics, and understand and experience the state.
Melissa: The differences they found are startling.
Cathy Cohen: When we ask what is the most important question facing the country? We see great diversity among young people, but in particular among young Black people. We've been building this survey since probably 2016. I would say in at least 80% to 85% of those surveys, probably 90%, when we ask that question, young African Americans always list racism as the most important issue facing the country. For young whites, for example, we might see economic growth or income inequality, we might see climate change or health care, but consistently for young African Americans, including young Gen Z-ers, the issue has been and continues to be racism.
I just checked the latest GenFoward survey asking about the most important issues facing the country. Racism was one of the top three issues named by young Black, Latinx, and API respondents. Young white people, they didn't name racism as a top national concern.
Dorian: This generational puzzle is becoming a bit clearer because, on the one hand, it's a simple demographic fact that Gen Z is the most racially diverse age cohort. Pew Research Center data from 2020 show that only 52% of Generation Z is white, compared to 82% of boomers and 70% of Gen X. Demographic diversity does not imply that racism will simply disappear for this group.
Cathy Cohen: These young people are growing up in a culture where they hear various positions and ideas about race and racism, where they're now coming to understand themselves and have an identity and consciousness around whiteness, where they increasingly believe themselves to be vulnerable. The racial landscape is changing. It doesn't mean that it's changing in a way that is eliminating in significant ways or significant levels the existence of anti-blackness and white supremacy, that is still a problem and an issue that challenges us and that we will have to work on for a very long time.
Dorian: We wonder if there is any value in using generational labels to understand our social and political world.
Philip Cohen: My name is Philip Cohen. I'm professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, and my book is called The Family: Diversity, Inequality and Social Change.
Melissa: Professor Phil Cohen is not related to Cathy Cohen, but he is one of the scholars who in May 2021 penned an open letter to the Pew Research Center. That letter urged them to stop using generational labels.
Philip Cohen: It just feeds into stereotyping and making assumptions about people in ways which are not the good kind of generalization, which is necessary for understanding society, but the bad kind which feeds stereotyping and overgeneralization.
Melissa: Eliminating generational labels. That doesn't mean ignoring important cohort differences. It means accounting for the complicated nuance of experience and identity.
Philip Cohen: There is a key insight which is-- there are some things that are about age, as we age our bodies, our brains develop in certain ways and there's history September 11th happened, the pandemic happened, and the way those two things meet our age and our history is sort of a cohort. It's being not just 18-years-old, but being 18-years-old in 2020. I don't want to lose sight of that, and not think in those terms but we just have to dial down the stereotyping and predefining the experiences before we know what they really mean.
Melissa: Let's pause and emphasize that point. This idea that we can't assume we know what effect any given experience is going to have on a generation, or a cohort, if you will. I was thinking about this with the boomers. They're born in this mini-population explosion, between 1946 and 1964. The boomers, they're the first generation with television. The first to be fed on this steady diet of American consumerism and traditionalism. They're all like Leave it to Beaver, barbie, and Mamie Eisenhower's pink tile bathrooms."
Dorian: Right. Instead of just ingesting and replicating mid-20th century consumer culture, the boomers rebelled. Because it was the boomers who integrated America, who loved freely, who touched off feminism second wave, and Melissa who resisted the draft.
Philip Cohen: Those kids who were born in the 50s and 60s, more than any generation before them were the most likely to live in isolated nuclear families with stay-at-home mothers and employed fathers who married at a young age. That goes across races, and classes as more than it ever did before, and that group of young people did not practice what they experienced as children. They saw that style of family life, and they did not emulate it. There is a story about backlash and social change that is repeated to some extent generation after generation, and it's not surprising that one reaction to that is to try to clamp down and enforce intergenerational sameness. Of course, it's not going to work and it causes untold damage and trauma for young people who have to live through that.
Melissa: Then what does it mean to be a Gen Z? It means you were in diapers when the levees failed in New Orleans. In preschool when the first Black man was elected president. In elementary school, when Michael Brown's body was left in the hot Ferguson sun. In the middle school, when a man who boasted about grabbing women's bodies was elected president and for Darnella Frazier, it meant she was 17, when she took out her cell phone, hit record, and board digital witness to George Floyd's final minutes. It's an act of Gen Z courage so profound, it shook the foundations of the country and sparked the largest social movement in history.
Philip Cohen: Young people today are living through a period of rapidly increasing economic inequality, political polarization. Those are real phenomenon that are part of the environment that young people are growing up in today, that probably will have meaningful consequences for them. The idea, millennials are more progressive, well, young people are more progressive generally, but there's a whole so-called generation if you will, of Trump-young people also.
Melissa: Racism, hate, and violence are not simply going to disappear for Generation Z. For them as for every generation that preceded them, the struggle continues.
Dorian: Our conversation has been pretty heavy up to this point, but Melissa, if we're talking about Gen Z, then we have to talk about TikTok. Now take this post about what would happen if Gen Z found themselves on the Titanic.
Male Speaker 4: The boat is sinking right now? Okay, cool. Can I get the Wi-Fi password?
Male Speaker 5: Oh, my God guys. First time drowning, kind of nervous.
Male Speaker 4: I'm honestly not worried, because according to science, you need to drown in something that's wet and water is not wet, so we'll be fine. Honestly, just put the boat in the ice. Why has no one thought about that? I'm so smart.
Melissa: Okay. LOL, I love that.
Professor Aronson: My name is Pamela Aronson. I'm a professor of Sociology at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. One thing that I did was I took a-- I'm going to use the word, deep dive. Okay, I took a deep dive into looking at memes, and the memes that young adults are creating.
Dorian: Pamela's been studying what pandemic-era social media post reveal about Gen Z.
Professor Aronson: What I found was that there's a lot of generational identity humor, and there's also generational conflict humor. There's also pandemic humor by the way, which was really interesting looking at themes of a coming apocalypse for example. This is a period of the life when there's a lot of transitions, and it's sort of a critical life stage. The pandemic really caused significant disruption in the lives of young adults. For those students who were in college as well, who had to, at the beginning of the pandemic, make an abrupt transition typically back to the home of origin, this had a very negative effect in particular on their social lives, on what is developmentally appropriate for them, which is to be thinking about relationships, friendships, developing in all those areas of their lives.
We've seen in fact that some surveys are suggesting that there's a serious issue with loneliness, mental health issues, that those are something that a lot of folks are really concerned about among this particular age group. Folks who are in the transition to adulthood during the pandemic.
Melissa: To be clear, Professor Aronson is not making any claims about the Buffalo shooter, or the effects of the pandemic, or social media on his mental health. In fact, we talked with professor Aronson before this mass violence even occurred. Professor Aronson is drawing attention to the startling statistics, that indicate Gen-Z experiences more chronic stress and depression than any other age group. Theirs has been a story of repeated exposures, and responses to collective trauma.
Crowd: [unintelligible 00:17:56]. Make our school safe again. Make our school safe again. Make our school safe again.
Dorian: Remember it was Gen Z who organized the March For Our Lives to end gun violence, after a 19-year-old gunman murdered 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High school in Parkland, Florida back in 2018.
Crowd: [inaudible 00:18:21].
Melissa: It's Gen Z whose parents have been targeted and deported at record rates, leaving young people with additional family, financial and emotional burdens.
Dorian: It's Gen Z who have attended far too many funerals for friends, who have been lost to the opioid crisis and to rising rates of death by suicide.
Melissa: I got to say it puts that Titanic TikTok in perspective, maybe Gen Z is on the Titanic.
Dorian: Yes. If this is a generation facing imminent drowning, many feel that no one is throwing them a life preserver.
Professor Aronson: What we saw was that young adults are depicting the failure of institutions to protect them, and nurture them during this pandemic, which they see as an incredible crisis, and have distress about it. They really feel, I'm going to say abandoned by older adults and by those in power, who were not providing in their eyes, I think adequate leadership through the pandemic.
For example, there was one meme that had an image. It was like the concrete, and there was a large crack in the concrete surface. There was a Band-Aid that was lazily placed on top. The caption that the poster had written was, "Universities emailing their students that they're here to help during the pandemic." They really felt like, here's a bandage placed on top of this obviously completely fractured surface, like ineffective assistance. Being part of a university myself, I know that the universities are really trying, but young adults are feeling abandoned in a way.
Melissa: We've been talking a lot about Gen Z but we also wanted to talk with this generation. We call it the Radio Rookies. Now Radio Rookies is an award-winning program of New York Public Radio and it trains teens and young adults to create radio stories about themselves and their communities.
Rainier Harris: I think there's a really big disconnect within my generation with social media and in a weird way, things like Tik Tok bring people together with similar experiences and makes people feel more connected but also, you realize just how glaring the differences are between us if that makes sense.
Dorian: That 18-year-old radio rookie, Rainier Harris, from Ozone Park, New York. He's young, but he faces some very adult concerns.
Rainier Harris: I'd say rent, health care, not getting shot. [chuckles] I don't know. I just feel like those are important things just living life.
Melissa: These are worries echoed by 24-year-old Radio Rookie Folashade Olatunde from Mott Haven.
Folashade Olatunde: My dad's been in jail since I was two years old, and the drug law like the Rockefeller Drug Law, and the war on drugs, that's still affecting families. As we speak, it's affecting my family because my dad is still in jail. I worry for my future. I'm about to get my bachelor's degree but I know that I'm going to need more of a degree. I'm going to need the highest degree. I feel like at some point, it's not even going to matter if you have a degree. I feel like it's just going to matter if you have the skill set and you have that money saved.
It's sad. All these things are going up but yet our incomes are still the same. I don't understand that. If you're going to put things up, make my income go up, minimum wage go up. College students that are working after college, let it go up. It shouldn't be staying the same. That's a problem for me.
Dorian: Now, listen, there are meaningful economic, social, ideological, and identity differences among the members of this generation but if there's one thing that marked this cohort as distinct, it's that they've grown up entirely in the age of the internet. Yes, millennials are heavy social media users but for Gen Z, digital life hits different.
Deja Foxx: GenZ Girl Gang was founded out of my freshman year dorm.
Melissa: All right. This is Deja Foxx. She's a student at Columbia University and founder of GenZ Girl Gang.
Deja Foxx: It's a community of young women fans and non-binary folks who are redefining the way that we practice sisterhood in this digital age. We really are building strategies to use social media as a community-building tool and exploring how we can build power in our personal networks to help us live better, more full lives.
Melissa: When the shooter in the Buffalo New York massacre live-streamed his violent rampage, we got a glimpse of the very worst use of technology and social media platforms. Even short of violence research points to social media as a source of anxiety, depression, and stress for young people but the GenZ Girl Gang is harnessing the power of social media to build community.
Deja Foxx: That is the story of the superpower that is social media, that we have the actual opportunity to connect with anyone, anywhere, anytime, and that can be overwhelming but it also in so many ways democratizes our relationships and storytelling and platform building. I think that there's a real opportunity there and that young women and femmes and non-binary folks are leading on it.
Dorian: Deja has been at this for quite some time. She first rose to national prominence back in 2017 when she squared off against Republican Senator Jeff Flake during a public meeting.
Deja Foxx: "I come from a background of poverty and I didn't always have [unintelligible 00:24:19], but you come from privileged so I'm wondering as a Planned Parenthood Patient and someone who relies on Title 10 who you are clearly not, why is your right to take away my right?"
I was showing up to school board meetings pushing for better sex education in my hometown in Arizona and then went to a town hall with my then-Senator Jeff Flake and I stood up to him. I told my story about having been homeless and having received birth control through Title 10 at Planned Parenthood funding he just voted to strip away. I went toe to toe with him asking why he as a white rich man was making decisions about me and my body. It was a video captured by someone else, shared by someone else on social media that the next day had gained 17 million views and put me on even footing with a US senator.
I think about the power of social media to do that, to elevate those voices that matter and that have for so long been swept under the rug. For me, I think that was a pivotal moment in my relationship to social media and the way that I could use social media and storytelling to really create an impact.
Dorian: Time for a quick break back with more on the takeaway in just a moment.
Back with you on The Takeaway, I'm Dorian Warren, and I'm here with Melissa Harris-Perry. We're talking with Deja Foxx, Columbia University student and founder of GenZ Girl Gang. We asked Deja how she sees the challenges facing her generation.
Deja Foxx: I'd like to sugarcoat it and say, I see a generation that is empowered. That has always known the power of Google to search, how to start a nonprofit, how to bake a cake, how to get to New York City. We are the generation that is always had answers to our questions and I see so many young people taking up that mantle and filling in the gaps and creating the things that they have not seen that they wish they had. I also have to say that this pandemic has hit us hard. We know that through virtual learning, young women and girls have taken up a disproportionate amount of the domestic labor and that that's affecting their trajectory and their opportunity access.
I also reflect on how, for me even between 19 and 22, that's when you really start to form your networks, your professional and personal networks that you'll rely on for the rest of your life. When I think about my generation in this moment, I see a group of people who have tools that have never existed before, who are using them in really bold ways, and are self-starting and creating. I also see a generation that is going to be reeling from the impacts of this pandemic for a very long time and for whom the opportunity gap has only widened especially for young women, women of color, and low-income folks.
I recognize how deeply unfair this feels for young people. That when we look at this court, we recognize that the majority was appointed by presidents who didn't win the popular vote, and many of them were then confirmed by a Senate that didn't represent the majority of Americans by number. Then on top of that, young people like me didn't even get to vote in the elections in which these presidents and senators were elected, these decision-makers were put into power. Nonetheless, as young people, we're the ones who are bearing the brunt of their decisions. We're the ones who are going to have to live with their choices for the rest of our lives.
Dorian: Deja is a full-time student, a digital creator for Ford Models. She was a strategist for Vice President Harris's presidential campaign and she's the founder of a digital organization with national reach but she says she's still a young adult with familiar Gen Z stressors.
Deja Foxx: I like to remind people that in all of those accolades, I am a 22-year-old. I forget to eat breakfast. I call my mom crying once a week. I'm late to turn in my finals just like everyone else and that I'm really not exceptional.
Melissa: When you do, what does your mom say?
Deja Foxx: She's a good listener. I think this is one of the things that's especially difficult about being Gen Z. You know those cliche scenes in movies where it's like, "You just don't get it, mom." That's actually true. It rings true right now that our parents don't understand the kind of pressure that we're facing from hyper-visibility online. They don't know what it feels like to go viral. They don't know what it feels like to have the opportunity to constantly compare yourself to one another or to be constantly available to your employer and your friends and everyone in the world. That they've never known that pressure.
That's not only true of our parents, but that's true of mental health professionals. That's true of our teachers, our professors, our guidance counselors. That so many of the adults who are supposed to be supporting us who we would traditionally look to for that kind of reassurance and support and guidance simply don't get it. While my mom is a great listener, she doesn't get it either. I think she knows that and that the best thing she can do often is just listen.
Melissa: Now, Dorian, you might not know this, but back in 2016 I had a Gen Z boss.
Dorian: Wait, what? In 2016 you had a boss that was-- I'm trying to do the math here.
Dorian: 11. Okay.
Melissa: Let me explain. [laughs] I was working as Editor at Large, ELLE.com. That summer, 11-year-old Marley Dias joined us as editor and author of her very own zine, appropriately titled Marley Mag. For a week she was the editor in chief and my boss. [laughs] Marley had gained national prominence earlier that year when she launched the #1000BlackGirlBooks campaign. That was to increase the availability of books featuring Black girl protagonists in school libraries. Since then, Marley has spoken at the White House.
Marley Dias: Look at you.
Melissa: Had a little book club with First Lady Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey, even featured as an influential teen by TIME magazine, made the Forbes 30 under 30 List, addressed the United Nations produced and hosted a Netflix series.
Marley Dias: Hi, I'm Marley Dias. Welcome to bookmark.
Melissa: Amassed more than 100,000 Instagram followers, won dozens of awards, written a book with Ava DuVernay penning the foreword, and she'll be a first-year student at Harvard this fall.
Dorian: I'm exhausted because that might be the most Gen Z resume I think I've ever heard.
Melissa: In all the best ways and yet, for all the accolades, for the accomplishments, Marley is still a Black teenager living in America. During the week she was working as my boss, both Alton Sterling and Philando Castile was shot and killed by white police officers. How do you talk about this with an 11-year-old, even an exceptional one? Back then I posed that question to Marley's mom, Janice Johnson Dias.
Janice is a college professor, a community activist, and author of the book Parent Like It Matters: How to Raise Joyful, Change-Making Girls. As moms of Gen Z daughters, Janice and I sat for hours that summer and we talked about what it means to raise Black children in the country marked by racist violence and racial vulnerability. With Marley heading off to college in a few months, I wanted to listen in on how Janice and Marley are navigating our current political and social moment.
Marley Dias: I'm pretty ready to go. I'm ready to go, whether I'm prepared or not, or whether I know how to cook or not, I am a person that likes to learn and I would like to learn when I get there.
Janice Johnson Dias: I just think the time has really come. There are clearly some things like cooking and other matters that are important. I'm excited for the winds and the challenges. I'm also really looking forward to not having her here and waking up early. I'm really over that.
Marley Dias: I'm looking forward to waking up late and not having you-
Janice: Wake you up early.
Marley Dias: -not wake me up early. There you go.
Janice Johnson Dias: [laughs] There you go.
Melissa: Throughout her childhood, Marley talked openly and frankly with her mom about the history and the current realities of race and racial violence in the US.
Marley Dias: For me, I think now I don't even have to have the same sit-down conversations about issues of racial violence, both because they are so common now and because I've had so much experience having those conversations young that I have the tools to process it or try to without always talking to you about it as much.
Janice Johnson Dias: It's really important to me that you get that these acts, these things that are happening are a part of a whole system that is hell-bent on destroying us.
Melissa: Of course, young adulthood is going to bring new challenges and choices. Has anybody talked about sex yet?
Janice Johnson Dias: Oh, of course.
Marley Dias: Yes, we talk about it.
Janice Johnson Dias: We talk about sex. I'm easily bothered by the idea that as soon as you're considered bright, people try to make you nuder, and how irritating that is. Safe sex is emotional safety and physical safety all the time and to not worry too tough about pregnancy but really think hard about disease.
Marley Dias: Yes, the disease that gets me, man. The disease that is so-- It's very important to still like-- there's a lot of things that I still don't know that I don't know. Also with the recent issues with Roe v. Wade and the situation in the next coming years, as I become an 18-year-old in college, it does present more challenges for me considering what birth control methods I would want.
I think also a lot of my relationship with sex has come out of fear not from any of my experiences, but just seeing how my friends have been treated, especially when we were younger. A fear of sexual assault, a fear of rape is very real to me, especially seeing the way that people are willing to make comments about my looks online and knowing that they're sexualizing me to the point where they don't see me as a person makes me uncomfortable. I did want to apply to UT Austin. I was on my list. I'm sorry, UT Austin, I did not.
Janice Johnson Dias: I was like, what's not going to happen is-- and I really wanted to leave her list for her. You get to choose where you go to whoever gives you the most money is where you go in.
Marley Dias: Texas was the only place where I was told I was not allowed to apply.
Janice Johnson Dias: I was real clear. I was like, this is the line. I write about it. I mean it.
Melissa: There are quintessential Gen Z family, right down to challenging the Gen Z label.
Janice Johnson Dias: Because you always are like, it's not a generation, mom.
Marley Dias: No, no, no, it's just that I feel like it's more important to emphasize the idea that all children have the capability to change the world than to say that Gen Z has the capability to change the world. Even when I wrote my book, we don't mention or use the term Gen Z, often, if at all, because the idea that kids create change is a timeless idea to me. The ability to do it on a more public platform is unique to my generation but the desire, willingness, and passion to want to change the world has existed in every person, and every person was once a child.
I think that it's important to recognize Gen-Z, having this unique benefit of social media and technology to both connect and share those passions with one another and to mobilize towards change on a digital scale. To also recognize that when it comes to change-making and injustice, it's to really let every kid know that with their passions and frustrations create this unique mix and this gift to help other people and to change their community. That is not a Gen Z thing. It is an everyone thing all of us all the time.
Parents should be motivated to want to help their kids because they were once children who were not in Gen Z, who wanted to change the world, who wanted to fix something and were silenced because they didn't have these digital platforms. I'm so very proud of my generation and the label we have but I think oftentimes our "genius" or gifts are very commercialized in thinking that we have some cutting-edge understanding of how to help others. Really, it's just that we've had this voice and this avenue that a lot of other people in generations haven't had. It's essential to the gift of all children and it's a gift that should last past just this generation.
Dorian: Melissa, you're the mom of a Gen Z-er, yes?
Melissa: Yes, that's Parker, my eldest.
Parker: My name is Parker Lacewell, and I am a part of Gen Z. I think Gen Z is a really interesting group of people. I think some of the stereotypical things people say about Gen Z, though it's like not always true it's usually pretty funny. There are also people in Gen Z, I think are really hard workers and are trying to make change and stuff like that. I think some people more than others are changemakers, obviously. I think together collectively, we want to make the world a better place.
Melissa: You want to make the world a better place?
Parker: I do.
Melissa: I'm throwing up a little bit in my mouth.
Dorian: Don't be too hard on her, Melissa, because after all, we've been learning that even when they're laughing through it, this generation is definitely feeling pressure on many fronts.
Melissa: As the Z-ers would say, no cap, and Parker is also no exception.
Parker: I'm very concerned about my economic future because I like expensive things so I need to be successful. I don't really know how the whole job thing is going to work out, especially since I'm not quite sure what I want to do when I grow up.
Melissa: Now, the oldest members of this cohort are reaching age 25 this year and that means Gen Z is entering the workforce. They're not just asking what kind of work they want to do. They're asking tough questions about what the workplace should be for them and all workers.
Terry Nguyen: The youngest kind of members of the workforce are coming in and saying, "Hey, we're working at a time that's unprecedented. The bare minimum we want is to feel respected in our roles or to be somewhere where they feel like they're paid to be doing the work that they should be doing.
Dorian: This is Terry Nguyen.
Terry Nguyen: I'm a reporter for The Goods at Vox.
Dorian: Terry authored the recent piece, Gen Z does not dream of labor.
Terry Nguyen: Quick talk is like a portmanteau to describe on this corner of TikTok that people go on to share their stories about them quitting work or their plans to quit their jobs, and why they're unhappy in their current positions.
Female Speaker 6: This is me one hour before I quit my corporate job.
Male Speaker 6: Yes, I quit.
Female Speaker 7: I'm a loyal employee. When you treat me right, I'm very, very loyal, but when you give me no stuff what you expect for me to do?
Male Speaker 6: Hey Sammy.
Male Speaker 6: I quit. I already put my two weeks in.
Melissa: Of course, all of this is happening within a somewhat confusing labor context. The childhoods of these young adult workers were defined by the great recession and its aftermath. Then the pandemic touched off Depression-era unemployment rates in 2020, but now just two years later [unintelligible 00:40:42] unemployment is historically low and some sectors have deep labor shortages. It's the kind of economic volatility that has been high key stressful.
Terry Nguyen: I spoke to an associate professor who studies sociology and labor. She mentioned that there should be emphasis placed not necessarily on age or generations, but the economic circumstances of when people enter the workforce. What the state of the economy is looking like, whether there are various safety net programs in place. Those really shape the attitudes that people have towards work. I really think it's this mindset shift, and the great resignation was playing out in the background of this which really shaped the attitudes of Gen Z.
I don't think a lot of Gen Z-ers are moving around the workforce as much, but I do think this collective attitude is very much reflected in how they're thinking about work. When a lot of young people are talking about how work feels broken or the current work system feels broken, a lot of that is currently talk. Although it is coinciding with resurgent labor movement in the United States. That led by people of all ages and work experiences.
Dorian: A resurgent labor movement indeed, but before last weekend the big news out of Buffalo, New York was that it's the place where workers successfully unionized the first two Starbucks stores in the country. Since then workers have voted to unionize in 75 of 84 union elections at Starbucks since December 2021. Now look more closely, and I suspect you'd find many of these workers are in college or are college graduates struggling with student loan debt, and a sense that their lives might not be better than their parents. Here's Terry Nguyen again.
Terry Nguyen: They understand that they have to labor for their livelihoods, but it often feels like the existing system has really set them up for failure. If you look at the bleak economic circumstances today which have been exacerbated by student loan debt, growing wealth inequality, wage stagnation it's really soured people's perceptions of work. There's really no guarantee that your standard of living is going to be higher than your parents', and that is something that's just not seen before. I do think this generation has become more comfortable adapting what people would say as anti-capitalist or radical language to express these discontents even if it might not actively be resisting or not going to work.
Melissa: As we've been talking about the workplace, I have to say I keep thinking about the only Gen Z-er on The Takeaway production team.
Zachary Bynum: We're still optimistic, and we're still hungry to figure out ways that we can come up with the solutions to a lot of the problems the world has thrown to us.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Zachary Bynum who is perhaps predictably our digital editor.
Zachary Bynum: I want to make a difference. I want to do things that make an impact in people's lives, whether it be big or small. We have a limited time here on this earth, and we want to give back and do as much as we can to make it a better place for the people to come. Seems like the solution's going to come from us. I think at first it was cute to be like, "Yes, we want to change the world," but now we're like, "Oh, wait [beep] is real, we actually have to sit down and do something."
There's a common and shared value amongst the places that you work in, the workplaces that you become a part of, all of these things it feels worth it when there's a culture of growth, of success that doesn't feel like you have to sacrifice so much of yourself for. I think we have grown up in that era where people are constantly like, "You got to earn your stripes," and "You've got to go through the struggle," this and this and that. It doesn't mean that struggle has to be the central part of what we do.
Melissa: To me it feels very Gen Z that you were interviewing for this role which has become your first postgraduate school-full time role, on the same day that you were finding out about a fairly serious crisis occurring in your family. We talk about work-life balance like it's just theoretical, but you were faced with it from Day 1. What has been most frustrating about your experience as a relatively new young adult worker?
Zachary Bynum: To that point that you just made. When I first came on The Takeaway I actually right before my interview got a call that my mom had a stroke. At the time I was living in Washington DC, and I had to basically just get everything I had and go down to Georgia where she was. In that moment, I remember the first thing I did was text you Melissa and was like, "Oh my God, I don't know if I'm going to make this interview." I realized that for me what was driving that anxiety was not just not knowing how my mom was doing, but it's also my future almost felt like it was just up in the air. It just in a moment's notice.
I could not stop thinking about the fact that maybe I wouldn't get to take this interview, and that's an opportunity and that's a chance that has now just gone out the window. I don't think people understand the power of opportunity. It's something we all deserve, and things that happen in life that are out of our control I'm also know that what I want from my work is a place that understands that. I just remember in that moment, it made me feel as relieved as I could be, of course, just to have you say to me, "Please go and take care of your family right now." That for me, I feel like as much as it was a tragic moment it was probably one of the biggest reliefs.
What I am frustrated when I see that is people around me who fall into circumstances that are out of their control, and next thing you know they've lost the thing that gives them their livelihood. I think that no job, [chuckles] no workplace should be like that. Of course, there's tons of places that have all kinds of great policies and benefits that can, for the most part, sustain those things. I think it says a lot that, for a lot of people when your health falls or when a circumstance comes up that it completely changes whether or not you have stability. I think that that is something that frustrates me.
Melissa: Of course, most Gen Z-ers don't get to have what my generation would've said is a super rad totally awesome experience of working for The Takeaway. Out of choice or necessity, many have found labor in the gig economy. Here's Terry Nguyen again.
Terry Nguyen: There has been more romanticizing the creator economy and the gig economy as you mentioned. Where people feel like they can set their own hours, they can work for themselves, but in reality, it just sets them up for taking care of more things on their own. Like health insurance, and they're working by the hour instead of having a set wage. There is that broad-scale systemic pitfall that comes with the gigification of work which young people are very privy to, and they see that.
People recognize that they don't stay with employers for an extended period of time. Young people are more prone to job-hopping as a result of this anxiety that there's no longer this agreed-upon relationship between employers and employees. When times get tough employers are often very comfortable with cutting back their workforce. It's coincided with just a lot of anxiety around work and around insecurity. Oftentimes the first places where that insecurity manifests is when people go to social media and talk about it. Which was how I stumbled upon this story.
Melissa: Dorian we started this deep dive with a bit of an intergenerational apology to Gen Z. I want to return to that as we close because more than anything else I know that you and I are sorry for any of the times we've not listened to the young people in our lives.
Dorian: Co-sign that, MHP. So many families of schools, mainstream media, and our politics, they're all set up so that older adults do the talking but Gen Z has been asking us to say less.
Melissa: Dorian, I'm hoping that when the Gen Z is in our lives here, this deep dive, they're going to say, "We understood the assignments."
Let us know what issues, topics, or ideas that you want Dorian and me to take up in our future deep dives. Call us at 877-8-MY-TAKE. That's 877-869-8253 or send us a Tweet @thetakeaway. Now the team that makes this show is a collection of all-stars, so I'm going to name them for you.
Our broadcast engineer is Vince Fairchild, Jay Cowit is our director, and editor, Zach Bynum is our digital producer. Our producers are Katerina Barton, Deborah Goldstein, Ryan Wilde, and Mary Stephen Hagan. Our senior producers are Ethan Oberman and Shanta Covington. Our executive producer is Wonbo Woo. A big shout out to our incredible line producer Jackie Martin. Thanks so much for listening. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry and this right here is The Takeaway.
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