During two mass events in March, the news media will be shining a spotlight on the next generation of Americans, or the 70 million teenagers who have been dubbed Generation Z. Be prepared to see what drives the “Gen Zers.”
On March 14, millions of teens are expected to follow the call of students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., and walk out of their classrooms at 10 a.m. for 17 minutes, one minute for each of the people killed on Feb. 14 at the school. Such an act of empathy is exactly the value taught to this generation, as today’s teens often express a desire to volunteer.
On March 24, the Parkland teens have called for young people to gather in Washington and other cities and demand tougher gun laws. This is a generation, after all, that grew up with easy access to information on a smartphone and that is accustomed to efficient and quick solutions in the Digital Age. It is also a generation that seeks “safe spaces,” according to pollsters, whether that safety is sought in a school or in not being afraid of harassment and harsh judgment.
These two events, led by the remarkable teen leaders at Parkland, will be the first large-scale glimpse of this age group, which is the most ethnically diverse in US history. Some of their habits already mark them. Pollsters, for example, find Gen Zers are the first who prefer to take a smartphone to bed. They mostly expect to work for themselves someday. They are also the first to know instinctively how to brand themselves on social media, as many Parkland students have done.
Yet there is one stereotype of Gen Zers that the two events could defy. According to a poll by the nonprofit Barna Group, only 34 percent of teens strongly believe that lying is morally wrong – far fewer than in recent generations. And a strong minority do not believe there can be a consensus on truth. What’s true for someone else, they say, may not be “true for me.”
Leading a public cause and getting results, however, requires a commitment to truth and truth-telling. Perhaps in these protests, Gen Zers can show such a commitment – and that each generation should not be neatly categorized or believe any false claim made about them.
Only two or three times in American history have children been on the frontlines of social change. The Parkland shooting has galvanized Gen Z, perhaps becoming the singular incident that defines them, as 9/11 did for Gen Y and the Kennedy assassination did for boomers. The members of Gen Z are now enraged at the reasons for this killing. But they are also engaged in creating solutions. That’s a truth they can hold onto together, one that could be the mark they leave on history.