Introducing Generation Z by Jodi Nilsson

Introducing Generation Z by Jodi Nilsson

Gen Z are at the heart of the dawn of the new epoch, and the death of the old. They are our first true digital natives and as they age into adulthood they are giving us a glimpse of the future. 

The 2021 Australian Census recorded that for the first time since the 60’s Baby Boomers were no longer the largest generational group; the Millennials had moved in to overtake their parents.  In the ensuing media discussion, it is pertinent to note that Gen X were barely mentioned in a broader pattern in which our social discourse on the generation gap has been dominated by the Millennials perceived failings, socially and in the workplace. While the tension between Millennials and their parents has been played out, Gen X have been quietly working and reproducing. There have been new rumblings about the next generation, Gen Z as they rise from adolescence to take their place in the workforce. It appears they are a little challenging for some, the first true digital natives, children of Gen X, the cynics.

Generation Z is 1997-2012, in 2023 that is the 11-26 year olds, the first generation to be raised with iPhones and Wi-Fi, social media and the certainty of climate change.  As their adult ideals begin to solidify research is unveiling a generation that are the most diverse, the most accepting, least racist, liberal thinkers that have emerged. Trends are forming across nations simultaneously, we are looking at a much more homogenous global generation, largely in Western nations, but with influence and ties throughout much of the digitised world. Access to each other and every idea that has been recorded throughout the history of mankind is having an impact. We are seeing broad changes in the experience of being human, how identities are formed, how socialisation occurs, of how language is used and develops. It is at times anarchic, and the deconstruction of sexuality, gender, and identity are but a few of the notable changes. 

There is timepoint noted in research surrounding teenagers and mental health: 2012. At this point researchers began to witness what might be considered a statistical elbow, a point where a long straight, slightly rising trend veers sharply into a steeper gradient. It has been theorised that this represents the point at which more than half of Americans had smart phones. From this point trends that had been stable in the data become more erratic. The message is very clear, the kids are not okay. The mental health statistics indicate a steep rise in depression, anxiety, and self-harm, with huge rises in diagnoses. There has been a lot of commentary on the reasons influencing this, it may be helpful to look at the changes we see on a cultural level to try and understand more about why the protection afforded to previous generations is not keeping our teenagers well.

Behavioural changes began to occur in teenagers in the 2010’s that were genuinely baffling. It was noticed that teenagers over all Western nations started consuming remarkably less alcohol, drugs, and tobacco. Rates of sexually transmitted illness were dropping, and teen pregnancy hit its lowest points for decades. Researchers are currently working on theories as to why teenagers stopped drinking as much if they drink at all. Many exist including, less public space to do this in, more protective parenting practices, a genuine change in the way teenagers view Alcohol and other drug (AOD) use, difficulty in accessing alcohol with greater need for Identification, and possibly the most disturbing is the theory that teenagers are reluctant to get wasted in front of people. The fear that videos and photos will be shared, that they will be shamed for their behaviour prevents them from experimenting. In this scenario teenager’s surveillance of each other is doing a much better job than generations of parents have been able to do in modifying teen behaviour, and previous rites of passage, getting drunk with friends, sneaking out at night, and entering into risky adventures that create communal sense of the emerging adult individual have fallen away.

Coupled with less partying, less AOD use, is less sex, it is occurring later (a solid year later on average), and it is different. Continuing the work of several generations before them, Gen Z have perfected the deconstruction of heteronormativity in their expectations and understandings of sexuality. To the simpler mind of older generations, it is quite a complicated universe of acronyms and accompanying categories. It is worth considering. Sexual identity is a major factor in adolescent human development and there is now language to explore that development.

Anthropologically speaking our identities, sexual, gender and otherwise are determined and enculturated through society, and our culture. As culture changes rapidly through globalisation, and we are exposed to increasingly more diverse beliefs and values, the rigid enculturation of concepts is lost and it has produced a generation that can begin to be who they are, without it being dictated by prescribed cultural norms. This also brings with it a degree of chaos, as our shared understandings of our social world is what holds our social fabric together, a little like a shared delusion, and we can see the disquiet at this upset being felt throughout modern media channels, particularly on the subject of gender. 

Perhaps the greatest contribution to this cultural shift is Generation Z’s deconstruction of gender. Somewhere in around 2016/7 a change started occurring. Where I would have rare clients identifying as non-binary or trans, there was a definite uptick in a range of identification of gender. It was clear and it was loud. And parents were and still are confused, and I have also found that mental health professionals not working in the youth space also appear to have missed this enormous shift, and commentary about gender and mental health appear to miss the broader tide of what is occurring. Gender is culturally constructed, and for whatever purpose – it has been binary within our society. In a wonderful display of how malleable concepts that we hold to be true are, a generation has come and called us on it. And it is quite spectacular to watch how quickly this has occurred. At a generational distance it is easy to fathom that after 3 generations of feminist-led change the continued insistence on feminine and masculine stereotypes that are not fit for purpose have led to a complete re-alignment of what it is to be gendered.

Gender and sexual identity development can be seen as parts of a broader process of identity development. When considering some of the behavioural shift we are seeing it might be helpful to consider identity formation. Cooley, a sociologist from the early 1900’s, proposed that our identities develop through a looking glass self. In this we project an image to others of how we want to be, and this is then reflected back at us in a variety of ways, and then we curate and adjust ourselves dependent on this feedback. In small groups this is a simple process, I develop and maintain relationships with a small group, and what they reflect back at me is a sense of who I am that ‘fits’. I am known, I can easily adjust to fit in with the group. Introduce social media, scale down the depth of my relationships, increase the number of random points of feedback and my self-identity finds it increasingly more difficult to develop. I do not know myself. And then I see myself reflected in a TikTok video about ADHD, or BPD, or any number of psychopathologies, and I know myself through somebody else’s reflection. 

For many of us working in this population, there has been a radical shift in our role over the past 5 years as young clients come in armed with their own diagnostic certainties. This has forced a change of approach. One that is challenging. Particularly if our own beliefs include that during adolescence there is a need not to over-pathologise, or label with diagnoses we know have lifelong ramifications. Learning how to maintain therapeutic alliance and validate while similarly allowing for exploration if these diagnoses is difficult. The result is a tension between the need to uphold the professional knowledge and training we have, while recognising we are on the coal face of what is occurring at a greater level, the anarchic deconstruction of our carefully constructed categories and concepts.

And they do this at lightning speeds. Their legendary lack of attention and concentration makes them difficult to pin down. We have been warned for many years that the use of digital technology in children will produce a generation with limited capacity for sustained attention, and now we have the research to prove it. This negative appears to be balanced with some positives. They know a lot.

Many of them know a lot more than us, so much more, the self-directed ones know so much. The boundaries of knowledge are unconstrained, they can teach themselves 5 languages, including Ancient Assyrian to read the oldest book known to man. They do this. They create art and music, they share in groups, they write a lot, they ‘produce’. The establish their own communities, they care about each other, overwhelmingly so. 

Gen Z are the first generation truly coming to terms with being global digital citizens, they will win or lose against climate change and be the generation that deals with AI taking over many jobs. I think I would feel better if I knew they were thinking slower, but then, I know some of them are, and as long as they are blogging about it in short form we will be okay.

We need them to be flexible and adaptive, and pushy and to make big decisions. Supporting Gen Z is difficult. They are young and overwhelmed, but the start point I have seen echoed in workers in the field and in education is recognising that they are different, that they need more support from us than previous generations, and that this needs to be match with the encouragement to take on the new digital world and learn how to manage it.


Jodi Nilsson

Jodi Nilsson is Clinical Psychologist with a double-degree in Anthropology. She specialises in family, adolescent and young adult mental health. Jodi has a particular interest in cross-cultural and cross-generational psychology and training mental health workers in this field. 

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