Nihilism, existentialism and despair. These aren’t words confined to Comparative Studies in Literature & Culture courses: our generation uses them interchangeably to describe everything from the TV shows we watch to our future. Generation Z, roughly defined as those born after 1996, is straight up not having a good time right now. Recently, news outlets have been taking a break from blaming millennials for killing yet another industry, such as doorbells, and shifting their focus onto the new generation of Americans. Instead of blaming us for not buying napkins or something, articles depict a generation that is increasingly depressed, miserable and hopeless about their future.
The future is bleak. Rising income inequality, political polarization, issues relating to digital privacy and of course the impending climate apocalypse doesn’t spell out a positive future for global youth. With a future bound to be plagued by uncertainty and chaos, our generation has become increasingly hopeless. But with community engagement and some good old optimism, we can forge a better tomorrow for future generations.
It isn’t just our future that’s giving Gen Z anxiety, but also the sociopolitical landscape we grew up in. For many of us, the world before 9/11 and the War on Terror is as foreign to us as the Cold War may have been for millennials. We have always been scared about the threat terrorism poses to our safety. Most of us were still children when the 2008 financial crisis swept across the globe. I’m sure many of us saw our parents struggle through it for years. I was 12 years old when the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting happened, and I can’t say if I know anyone near my age who has felt completely safe in an academic setting since then. Generation Z is filled with despair because despair is all that we have known — from the images of war that flashed on our TVs growing up to the routine active shooter drills that got us out of class.
Despair and hopelessness have real-world consequences on our generation’s mental health. According to an article from Time Magazine, Gen Z reported higher levels of stress compared to older generations and was the least likely of any generational cohort to report “excellent” or “very good” mental health. According to 75 percent of Gen Z Americans surveyed, traumatic events such as school shootings are significant sources of stress. The CDC reports that in the last decade, the number of American teenagers engaging in self-harm has been increasing.
Gen Z has taken this generational dread and transformed it into our own brand of humor fit for the social media age. Every day, countless members of our generation share memes and TikToks. Vines are more recognizable to the average American teenager than the 38th president, Gerald Ford. These online jokes take the form of dark humor that acknowledges the uncertainty of the world we live in, representing generational anxiety about future turmoil. It’s not uncommon to hear people our age joke about wanting to end it all over the slightest inconveniences, or to have those feelings reciprocated by our friends responding with the words “same” or “mood.” Our sense of humor, coupled with shared generational dread, is now a staple of the Gen Z experience.
Our love of dark and nihilistic online humor is not the problem. Through humor, we bond with those around our age and laugh in the face of the chaos around us. Our nihilism does not mean we have given up on the world; it is simply how we cope with it. We are the generation that will shape the course of the 21st century. To do so, we must reject this despair and find ways to empower and mobilize our generation to tackle the issues of today to ensure a better tomorrow.
Gen Z is already an active and aware generation. After the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in 2018, surviving students organized a national movement against gun violence. While we hear every day about the worsening state of the environment, young people around the world stage peaceful strikes demanding governments take action.
We are at a defining moment in human history. For the first time, the survival of the planet is at stake. This is not an impasse. We can prevent all of this from ending in a catastrophe of apocalyptic proportions. There is no need to be able to mobilize millions like Greta Thunberg did — find a way to turn your passion into something that can benefit your local community.
Join your city’s tenant’s union to stop economic displacement. Teach local youth in your community to provide the next generation with even more tools to prosper in the 21st century. Use art and music to raise awareness about issues that you care about. Older generations are quick to point out that Gen Z is anxious and scared about the future. We are on the verge of a new decade, which holds much uncertainty. We cannot condemn the next ten years to be filled with despair and chaos. The future holds promise, and Gen Z must fight for it.
Aerex Narvasa is a sophomore Diplomacy & World Affairs major. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.