Is Generation Z More Scared Than Earlier Generations?

The messages they're getting in the media are terrifying—and the sustained sense of real threats could leave this generation with psychological scars.
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I still vividly remember my first Dungeons & Dragons session. It was in Finland in 1984, and I was quite happy with my ranger, wielding a two-handed sword and protected by sturdy, studded leather armor. With an above-average constitution and a decent number of hit-points, I felt that I was ready for my first adventure.

There was suspense, as we took a long and eerie walk through damp passages and halls empty save for broken furniture. Then, around a corner, where the passage sloped up into darkness, a horrible stench came down and enveloped us. With the stench came tall creatures, their long legs and long arms and long sharp nails clawing toward us. As they bared their jagged yellow teeth and lunged for our throats, Thargan, our brave and most experienced fighter, shouted: "Trolls! Prepare the torches!"

It all happened in an instant; the Dungeon Master was almost shouting, and I was really, really scared. I had no clue about the torches, but the two-handed sword felt like the right tool. My hands sweaty and shaking, I picked up the 20-sided die and swung.

In real life, there are no actual trolls, and, more generally, we are much safer than we think. This is the message that one of my great heroes, the late Hans Rösling, a point that he hammered into us relentlessly, through his public lectures and in his book Factfulness. As Rösling wrote, people systematically tend to think the world is a more dangerous place than it actually is. In many ways, it's in our nature to fear the worst of any situation. Even in an era with a decreasing proportion of people living in abject poverty, and amid globally collapsing levels of child mortality, wars, and disease, we still often lament that things are bad or that they are inevitably getting worse.

The sense we get from multiple channels on traditional or social media, whether explicit or implicit, is that there are omnipresent threats to one's security in everyday situations: in schools, airports, train stations, and public squares. Nevertheless, for a larger proportion of people than ever in the history of the world, this sense of danger is an abstract threat rather than one based in personal experience. As a result, Generation Z has grown up with an intangible sense of global anxiety, distributed in fast-paced communications. This cannot help but affect young people's subconscious minds. It's the same fear I experienced in the D&D game that remains so deeply etched into my memory. That was just a game—but the sustained sense of an actual threat leaves a psychological scar.

For each individual, subconscious motives can reflect the kinds of needs they experienced when growing up. A need for security—or a reliable absence of threat—is one of these, but there are many other kinds of needs, some congruent with each other and some oppositional. These various needs are reflected in a range of motivational values called "basic human values." The best tool we have to study and measure these values is the Schwartz Values Model, developed by psychologist Shalom Schwartz along with a team of international scholars. Rather than a polarization between conservative and liberal values, in Schwartz's account, there is a range of types of values that each point to a distinct subjectively desirable goal. Together, these form a continuum of related values. The Schwartz Values Model identified 10 distinct value types across this continuum (going up to 19 in a later revision), and I wish to discuss two of them below: Security (the need for and high value placed on the safety and stability of society, of relationships, and of self), and Stimulation (the need for and the high value placed on excitement, novelty, and challenge in life).

To inspect the sense of abstract fear among the generations, I've used two independent data sets. One is data from the European Social Survey, round 8 from year 2016 for the United Kingdom and Finland; the other is from the Young Adults and Religion in a Global Perspective (YARG) project, for which I work as a senior researcher. Both studies included a survey of value types representing the full spectrum of basic human values, from safeguarding personal security to the search for excitement, adventure, and new things.

When we look at the ESS data, we can see the abstract threat expressed as an increase in the value of security in the youngest cohort. This is a break in a trend of a general decline in people's tendency to prioritize security—a decline that has corresponded with an actual increase in societal security. These trends are evident in both Finland and the U.K. By contrast, the value of excitement, adventure, and new things has been in steady incline—again, apart from in the youngest cohort.

Taking a closer look at Generation Z in the YARG student data from Finland, New England, and Oregon, we see that these two value types do not show the signs of significant generational change that we have observed across the older cohorts in the ESS data. It seems that the steady generational decline in a subjective sense of a need for security has stalled or even reversed on both sides of the Atlantic.

The problem with this development is that a higher emphasis on security is congruent with higher emphasis on the need to conform, whereas a higher emphasis on excitement and new things is congruent with self-direction. The model of basic human values by Schwartz and others illustrates this.

If and when people feel less secure, then the values most closely related to security—tradition, conformity, and power—may provide the necessary sources for an increased sense of security. This means that people may gravitate toward power politics or ideologies that legitimize various forms of discrimination against people who deviate from the norm while also deepening social inequality. The monsters around the corner, in this case, tend to be the old trolls of national, cultural, or religious parochialisms, demagogues, and the clashes among these.

The lesson from Dungeons & Dragons is that if you hit a troll with a two-handed sword, it will just regenerate and keep coming back. In the game, the trick is that you have to burn the troll carcasses—their essence—before they regenerate. In real life, the question is how to burn away the essence of an abstract threat. Again, I agree with Rösling: We need better education to nurture better understanding and critical thinking among citizens so they're better able to understand what circulates in the media. I would recommend more courses on humanities, history, and psychology. Providing better insight into the nature of real-life trolls is the most effective protection against them.

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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.

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