Decoding Gen Z

September 25, 2020

By Isabelle Robinson

The members of older generations love to look down upon their younger counterparts—it’s a cycle that has repeated itself since the beginning of time, and there is no end in sight. In the ‘80s, the Silent Generation labeled Baby Boomers “narcissistic”; Baby Boomers went on to claim that Gen Xers were “disobedient”; Gen Xers declared that their millennial children were “unmotivated,” and so on. The stereotypes associated with Gen Z are still developing, but two traits that stand out are “cynical” and “distrustful.” It begs the question: who does Gen Z trust?

But why would we trust anyone?

My grade was born in the year 2000, 14 months after the Columbine massacre and a year before 9/11. We were eight at the start of the financial crisis; old enough to know something very bad was happening, but too young to understand exactly what that was. Two years later, the BP oil spill featured in every headline. There was the Aurora shooting, Sandy Hook, and the Boston bombings in seventh grade—all in rapid succession, one right after the other. Three years later, the tragedy at Pulse nightclub. The enduring agony of Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign; the shock and horror that ensued when he actually won. The Las Vegas shooting. Marjory Stoneman Douglas. El Paso. COVID-19. And yet, no one in Gen Z is a day older than 24.


If the serial killer was the bogeyman of the ‘70s, then the mass shooter is the monster of today; impending environmental catastrophe is its looming sidekick. This kind of violence—both gun and ecological—is unique in that just one event can affect hundreds or thousands of people, and result in dozens of casualties. The impact of this trauma, unlike that of past crimes, spreads both deep and wide. If you’re a member of Gen Z who hasn’t experienced a mass shooting or a severe natural disaster, you probably know someone who has. Before my high school was shot up in 2018, it felt almost as if I were just waiting for it to happen. Now, all I can do is pray that lightning doesn’t strike twice.

So, who can Gen Z turn to for aid? Not politicians—even the most progressive leftists are willing to compromise their values for the sake of a vote. Not educators—they are underpaid, overworked, and exhausted. And certainly not artists and musicians, whose endeavors have been systematically defunded for decades. The only thing Gen Zers have is each other, and most of us aren’t even old enough to vote yet, much less lead a full-blown revolution. But the time it will take for Gen Z to grow up and gain influence is time that we don’t have. Many of us will not survive to see that day, if it ever comes.


This is the root of Gen Z’s alleged cynicism and distrustfulness; however, given the circumstances, I would just call it realism. It’s a scary world out there, and we know it. We’ve lived in it, constantly—our psyches were formed in it. We never had a chance at the (comparatively) carefree happiness that characterized childhood in past generations. That was never in the cards.

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