The Future of Happiness: Generation-Z in Focus
The Future of Happiness: Generation-Z in Focus
30 second overview: Generation-Z is the generation of the future. This cohort is on the mind of governments, product developers and business leaders because of their unique status as the first true digital natives and the positive, disruptive effects their preferences and value choices are having across all spheres— from dealing with the climate crisis to how products are marketed, how health services are developed, and which apps and social media trends take root. Learn more about this fascinating cohort and how their future happiness is closely linked to solving the most pressing problems of our time.
Besides Millennials, Gen-Z is arguably the most talked-about generation today. In addition to being the world’s youngest adults and making up a decisive 10th of America’s electorate in 2020, Generation-Z is already making its mark by leading a bold and passionate call for global action to address the Climate Crisis. The recently concluded COP26 which took place in Glasgow, Scotland, was a powerful display of Gen-Z’s readiness to mobilize support for causes they care about, and the likes of Greta Thunberg and Malala Yousafzai are shining examples of why Gen-Z are already a force to reckon with both socially and politically.
Born between 1995 and 2010, Gen-Z, also called Homelanders, The Founders, iGen and Centennials, are the first generation born into a world where the gap between the real and the virtual is fast disappearing. In part 3 of the Digital Happiness Report by SogetiLabs, Gen-Z is aptly described as the generation most capable of creating new realities and values using digital technologies. Perhaps more importantly, they are described as possessing the competence required to thrive in and overcome the uncertainties that arise from the synthesis of the real and virtual.
While Millennials are the generation poised to be at the helm of affairs for the next half century (link to part 1), Gen-Z will be hot on their heels and in many ways, will share the mantle of steering and creating the future in partnership and in succession to Millennials. To call Gen-Z the smartphone generation would be to miss the huge transformative power this generation possesses and readily wields. Thanks to being the world’s first true digital natives, Gen-Z think, live and interact differently. And while the core things known to enhance happiness (intimacy, socializing, relaxation, exercise, eating, etc) remain largely unchanged across generations, in Gen-Z, we see the dominance of tech-mediated means of pursuing happiness occurring alongside a shift to values that will invariably support the emergence of a more open, more just and more sustainable world.
Generation Z were born into a world shaped by the internet, social media platforms, smartphones, apps, and emerging technologies. According to the Pew Research Center, by 2018, 95% of 13-17-year-olds had access to a smartphone and 97% were regular users of at least one online social media platform. Combined with their expectation that new and improved devices will emerge each season, Gen-Z is even more prepared to adapt to new technologies than Millennials. Indeed, where Millennials adapt to new technologies, Gen-Z are early adopters and proponents, pushing the boundaries of what can be done socially with technology.
The emergence of Mukbang, also known as Social Food, is an interesting example of how Gen-Z have found new ways to achieve presence and shared experience through technology. While predominantly a South Korean phenomenon, the core idea of doing things together online that were previously only done together offline has spread to other activities and other climes. ‘Study with me’ and ‘Work with me’ are variations of Mukbang which have caught on in the US and UK, becoming popular content types on YouTube today. And then there’s the rise of content which deliver the fine-grained details of real-world experiences in ways that stimulate the small, often neglected pleasures experts call Autonomous Sensory Meridian Responses (ASMR). For more on the interesting ways Gen-Z are using technology and social platforms to achieve happiness, explore Part 3 of the Digital Happiness Report.
Gen-Z are both entrepreneurial and savvy about monetizing their online activities. This is a core part of their influencer and micro influencer culture which is fast going mainstream, steadily transforming how companies market their products. Thanks to Gen-Z’s preference for authentic social proof and validation, the glory days of celebrity endorsements could be in the past. Today, companies looking to promote their products and services need only find young micro influencers to give their product a spin and post their experiences on Instagram, Tik Tok and YouTube. While it means involving many more micro influencers than the one celebrity they would otherwise have signed in the past, influencer marketing delivers results and has become a billion-dollar industry in just a few years. With all kinds of micro influencer gigs at their fingertips, earning a decent side income online is quite common among Gen-Zers.
Though the oldest Gen-Z turned 26 this year, this cohort has already earned a well-deserved reputation of being values-driven. Along with Millennials, they are leading the phenomenon now called the Great Resignation and have been known to put their money where their values are reflected. According to Deloitte’s 2021 Millennial and Gen-Z Survey Report, Gen-Z are most likely to part ways with organizations and employers “…whose actions conflict with their personal values,” and nearly half of Gen-Zers surveyed said they had made work and career-related decisions based on “personal ethics”. The values Gen-Z hold dear include authenticity, equality, and sustainability. In fact, some experts have argued that authenticity and trust are central to the Gen-Z psyche. Having witnessed the effects of two financial shocks — the Great Recession and the Covid-19 economic crisis — as well as the crippling consequences of student debts, financial prudence is another core value of the Gen-Z cohort. Gen-Z also value health and mental wellbeing.
According to the Pew Research Center, Gen-Z is the most diverse generation yet and is considered the “…leading edge of America’s changing racial and ethnic makeup.” Many have at least one parent who is an immigrant and roughly 50% are colored (25% Hispanic, 14% black, 6% Asian and 5% other). They are also more progressive in their views about gender roles, gender identity and same sex marriage, and more willing to acknowledge that racial, ethnic and gender-based discrimination are problems in America.
Gen-Z is driven by their passionate desire for a better world. While they pursue happiness through new, tech-mediated experiences and social networks, the things that reflect their present state of happiness have little to do with technology. Given their poor mental health, distrust for government and institutions, and focus on critical issues such as the climate crisis, it is no surprise Gen-Z are pessimistic though they remain as ready as ever to take meaningful action to create the better world they desire.
The World Happiness Report of 2019 was the first widely received report to provide major insight into the state of happiness among Gen-Z. In Chapter 5 of the report, American Psychologist Jean Twenge presents evidence based on various independent studies that Gen-Zers are in poor mental health marked by the prevalence of negative indicators such as depression, suicidal ideation and self-harm. Other studies have also found that Gen-Zers are particularly aware of their poor mental health, with as many as 70% saying they believe anxiety and depression are prevalent among their cohort in one study.
Twenge’s findings also show that Gen-Z have lower mental wellbeing than Millennials at the same age and most importantly, that there is a correlation between the observed decline in happiness among adolescents and increasing use of digital media. While Twenge is careful to distinguish between correlation and causation, her argument that digital media now usurps time ordinarily spent on more happiness-enhancing face-to-face interactions is compelling especially when considered alongside the well-documented influence of social media on self-esteem and self-confidence owing to unrealistic beauty and happiness standards. The case of Gabby Petito provides the most visceral example yet of how Gen-Zers feel pressured to appear to have the picture-perfect life even when they are in mental crisis and physical danger.
It would be wrong, however, to attribute the poor mental health of Gen-Z entirely to social media. Like Millennials, Gen-Zers are coming of age in uncertain and turbulent times. Furthermore, the COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing economic crisis worsened the problem of chronic stress among Gen-Z, increasing the likelihood that like Millennials before them, they may reap the negative health dividends of chronic stress in the form of lower than average physical health and early onset of chronic diseases (link to part 1).
The 2021 World Happiness Report draws attention to the role of trust in fostering confidence and wellbeing. Both trust of government and trust between citizens were found to be key to wellbeing in difficult times like during an economic crisis or a pandemic. Gen-Z are especially distrustful of governments and businesses and believe both can and should do more to address social problems. Gen-Z’s distrust for government and business is evident in their pessimism about social and political matters, their penchant for protest, and their preference for peer-based validation and social proof.
To be clear, this distrust is something Gen-Z share with other generations. It is a sentiment that has fueled the rise of Blockchain and Decentralized Finance (DeFi), both of which operate on distributed trust. Despite this, however, Gen-Zers are “…more likely than other generations to want an activist government”.
Gen-Z’s view of the world is colored by the issues they care about. According to Deloitte’s 2021 report, the top three issues Millennials and Gen-Zers care about are the environment/climate, employment and health care/disease prevention. Similarly, the Annie E. Casey Foundation found the top 4 concerns of Gen-Z to be healthcare, mental health, higher education, and economic security.
Gen-Z are understandably dissatisfied with how these issues are being treated and feel it is now up to them to bring about change by using social media to make their voices heard and to spur governments to action.
Generation-Z epitomize the zeal, energy, and latent optimism of youth. They remain determined to speak out, mobilize and take action for a better planet and equitable systems. However, this energy and latent optimism will be sapped if older generations fail to do their part to solve the problems Gen-Z rightly fear will have a destructive effect on their future. Three areas of focus for the future happiness of Gen-Z are economic and employment stability, climate crisis and mental health.
To an extent, Gen-Z share the financial predicament of Millennials in that their path to financial security and wealth accumulation has been slowed and somewhat derailed by the economic crisis caused by the Covid pandemic, which occurred just as the oldest Gen-Zers were entering the job market. They have also endured negative impacts of the Great Recession on their parents.
Although they have adapted by being financially prudent and entrepreneurial while also embracing the shared economy and post-materialistic values, these alone will not create financial security. And while they stand to benefit from an inheritance windfall and the present economic rebound which has some analysts projecting that their income could account for more than 25% of global GDP by 2030, the specter of economic instability remains a potent threat. Gen-Z need a stable economy and steady growth in employment opportunities to thrive and actualize their visions for the future.
The existential threat posed by the climate crisis is one Gen-Z can hardly ignore. They are witnessing the rapid deterioration of the environment and they understand that unless concrete and concerted action is taken, they will be left to bear the consequences of the unsustainable practices of older generations. The inherent unfairness of paying for the mistakes of others is not lost to them. Indeed, the pain of this unfair burden echoes in their passionate calls to action.
In their defense, they are hardly being alarmist and the sense of urgency they bring to this issue is prompting governments to do more. Needless to say, the future happiness of Gen-Z will be compromised if the climate crisis is not addressed decisively. After all, this crisis is a harbinger of many dangers including the mass extinction of plant and animal species, increased violent conflict over resources, the displacement of millions, the rapid spread of diseases and pandemics, increased costs of living, and increased occurrence of extreme weather events potentially causing massive loss of lives and property.
Gen-Z care about their physical and mental health and are happy to use technology to facilitate wellbeing whether through remote health checks or online exercise groups. However, the well documented record of poor mental health among Gen-Z should be cause for serious concern. And if the trajectory of Millennials is any indication (link to part 1), Gen-Z are at risk of poor health outcomes in the future due to chronic stress, which would jeopardize their ability to achieve personal and career goals or contribute optimally to the growth of America’s economy. The prevalence of chronic stress and depression among Gen-Z should be tackled proactively in order to prevent Gen-Z from replicating the worrisome health outcomes reported among Millennials.
In many ways, we are still getting to know Gen-Z, and as many experts have noted, it is still a bit early to draw far reaching conclusions about this cohort. Much about this group born between 1995 and 2010 is still in flux and its youngest members have yet to become teenagers. That said, Gen-Z’s special relationship with technology makes them unique. Coupled with their passionate idealism, this generation has what it takes to reshape the world as we know it. Indeed, it’s fair to say we need Gen-Z to succeed in their lofty ambitions for the world and for humanity. However, Gen-Z need us to do our part to make a better world and a better future a reality. You’ll agree that the harm done by unrealistic images on Instagram and excessive use of digital media pale in comparison to the damage of bequeathing a broken planet, a broken economic system, a fractious society, and poor future prospects to the generation of the future.
Yes, by all means, compel social media platforms to be responsible with their algorithms through rigorous oversight and targeted policies, and encourage Gen-Z to regulate their own screen time and be more alert to how social media influences their state of mind. While doing this however, we should also ensure that governments and businesses implement sustainable practices aimed at stopping the deterioration of the environment, and furthermore, that the path to sustainable economic growth is secured. In short, we must do our part to secure the future happiness of Gen-Z.