Though Gen Z is the least religious generation in living memory, young people are deeply engaged in questions of belonging and meaning—but often far outside of recognizably spiritual spaces.
Together with my colleagues at Harvard Divinity School, we've found Millennials and Gen Z'ers building deep connections in gyms, fan communities, arts groups, and maker spaces.
Many of these young people exhibit behaviors that you'd usually associate with a congregation. Weddings are celebrated in workout spaces, with the trainers as celebrants. These pastoral roles are a far cry from what fitness instructors have trained for, but these responsibilities speak to the limited venues where young people feel they can bring questions of ultimate importance.
In our conversations with the founders of CrossFit and SoulCycle, among many other community leaders, we've found a growing consciousness of the multiple functions these new communities provide. Six recurring themes have appeared: personal transformation, social transformation, purpose-finding, accountability, creativity, and, of course, community. Here, the connection depends less on shared identity, and more on shared practice.
After hundreds of conversations over the last four years, my colleagues and I see more clearly than ever that we're living through a crisis of isolation in the United States. The public-health threat of loneliness is undeniable. Twenty-seven percent of the U.S. population lives alone. Community involvement has decreased. Studies show that being socially connected is associated with a reduced risk of early death, and that social isolation is now more deadly than smoking 15 cigarettes a day or being obese.
As spiritual practices, identities, and languages become ''unbundled'' from their institutional homes and remixed within families and partnerships, young people are creating their own meaning and community structures more than ever before.
Last June, Vice released research about the spiritual lives of 30,000 Gen Z'ers and Millennials around the world. Much of the data affirms what my colleagues and I have found: Eighty percent of these young people have a sense of spirituality, believing in some cosmic power, while seven in 10 are looking for spirituality but think organized religion is not relevant. So how are Gen Z'ers caring for their souls?
The most common "spiritual technology" for connection is music—attending festivals and concerts to be with others, or else listening alone. "We're sick of organizations that have failed us," one participant explained, "so we go to music, friends, tarot cards. It's not organized, you can create it yourself. It's peace of mind. It's a sense of safety when you aren't sure about what to have safety in."
Second most popular was engaging in self-care, closely followed by talking to friends, hiking, or taking long walks, and then writing or creating art.
These findings confirm my experience of living with 28 college freshmen over the last two years. In their first few weeks on campus, students seek out live music of all kinds—concerts and club nights, but also impromptu jams and classical music performances. Most interesting was to see how students turned to music to help them navigate moments of deep suffering. Stress can inspire young adults to reach for their headphones so they can listen to a favorite track over and over, or a playlist they've curated for hard times.
After one student took his own life, his friends wanted to process their emotions together and to support his sibling, an undergraduate student living with me in our dormitory. They suggested bringing a guitar, and hosted a gathering of grieving—telling stories and singing together. This instinct is as old as time, but it struck me that, across significant racial, religious, and cultural lines, a shared experience of music was enabling these young adults to navigate a traumatic experience.
These kinds of small groups are where I see the most potential to combat the crisis of isolation and sense of meaninglessness that seems to beset younger generations. Modeled on Alcoholics Anonymous or True North Groups, in which members gather regularly to support each other through challenges, small groups of commitment, support, and accountability can build powerful experiences of belonging and becoming. Think of teams signing up to do Tough Mudder endurance events together as one example of integrating small-group structures into an exercise context. Similarly, universities are thinking about building micro-communities into their housing options and learning experiences.
As Gen Z'ers enter a culture and economy defined by increased mechanization, artificial intelligence, and virtual reality, remembering what makes them human through music, nature, and relationships will clarify the challenges that lie ahead.
Understanding Gen Z, a collaboration between Pacific Standard and Stanford's Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, investigates the historical context and social science research that helps explain the next generation. Join our newsletter to see new stories, and let us know your thoughts on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.
Understanding Gen Z was made possible by Stanford University's Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (CASBS) and its director, Margaret Levi, who hosted the iGen Project. Further support came from the Knight Foundation.
See more in this series:
Community Can Offer a Cure to Our Technology Addictions
The solution is not to turn off our phones; it's to develop social, economic, and political structures that address deeper issues of social disconnection and overwork. Read more
What We Can Learn From the Dramatic Dip in Divorce Among Millennials
Millennials may be proving that coming to marriage later, with less rigid roles, is enabling the sort of marriages that Boomers idealized—and too often failed to create. Read more
Generation Z Isn't Defined by Technology
Digital platforms don't define Gen Z—but young people's use of technology is helping them create new communities. Read more
Is Gen Z Nostalgic About Nostalgia?
With access to seemingly unlimited social archives, young people still understand nostalgia. It might just be a bit different from their parents' version. Read more
Gen Z'ers Are More Cautious Online Than Previous Generations
They grew up with phones in their hands—and learned early not to blindly trust the Internet. Read more
Why Generation Z Should Give Religion a Second Chance
If our generation looked more closely at religious communities—inclusive, loving ones—we might be surprised by the care that we'd find there, no strings attached. Read more
How Gen Z'ers Are Remaking Religion to Suit Their Values
Many are no longer passing on the old sacred teachings, but they are imparting a new one: that everyone has not just a right but a duty to choose their own worldview. Read more
Gen Z Is the Least Religious Generation. Here's Why That Could Be a Good Thing.
The trend toward non-religiousness in this generation is probably here to stay. The upsides include increasing levels of tolerance. Read more